With Governor Ron DeSantis‘s chief of staff Shane Strum eyeing greener pastures as a leading candidate for CEO of Broward Health, the governor may soon be tasked with filling a major void in what could prove to be a critical year.
Navigating a lingering pandemic and facing crucial questions this session — like a growing budget, controversial restrictions on “Big Tech” and whether Florida will adopt legislation to crackdown on violent mobs — DeSantis will have his hands full in the setup year for his reelection campaign in 2022. While it’s not immediately clear that Strum will, in fact, be leaving, whispers among political insiders in the Sunshine State have Strum already packing his bags to head for Fort Lauderdale.
Insiders say that given the insular nature of DeSantis’s administration, they expect DeSantis to find his replacement near the water cooler.
No stranger to state government, Stephanie Kopelousos is thought by insiders to be the top name on DeSantis’s short list. Currently serving as DeSantis’s legislative affairs director, Kopelousos has been a part of Florida’s political arena since 2005. And she’s been a close Strum ally for more than a decade, giving her a leg up on the competition.
“Stephanie has a wealth of knowledge and experience ranging from dealing with DC, running a state agency, and managing the legislature for the governor,” says Jon Costello, who once worked in the same legislative affairs role for then-Governor Rick Scott that Kopelousos holds now under DeSantis. “I’m not sure there is anyone else that has a better resume to take the reigns for the governor.”
Kopelousos first rose to prominence in Tallahassee after Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Denver Stutler, part of the then-Governor Jeb Bush administration, hired the University of Alabama grad as chief of staff. When Charlie Crist became governor, Kopelousos beat several qualified candidates to become the first woman to serve as FDOT Secretary. During her tenure, Strum was Charlie Crist’s chief of staff. She would exit that post four years later when Rick Scott assumed office in 2011 and chose Ananth Prasad as his Secretary of Transportation.
Following that brief departure from statewide politics, Kopelousos was unanimously selected to serve as Clay County’s manager. There she presided over issues involving the allocation of federal dollars and Florida’s SunRail before being tapped to serve on DeSantis’s senior staff.
While Kopelousos’s career has not been without controversy, her commitment and reputation for advancing her boss’s political agenda separates her from the rest of the field. While several of DeSantis’ early hires have since exited for other roles inside and outside of DeSantis’s immediate orbit — Fred Piccolo (now at the Department of Education), James Blair (founded Rapid Loop Consulting), and Helen Aguirre Ferré (DeSantis’s eyes and ears at the Republican Party of Florida), to name a few — Kopelousos has remained an internal constant, serving as a guiding hand in some of the governor’s top legislative priorities.
Moreover, Kopelousos has earned the respect from her political peers and has maintained an otherwise low profile — just the sort of guiding hand DeSantis needs as he gears up for reelection next year. Kopelousos excels at operating as a behind-the-scenes cast member whose work takes precedent over her image or social media following.
DeSantis may choose to go in a totally different direction. But in an era where “less is more,” and consistency and loyalty can get one’s foot in the door, Kopelousos has an inside track to the job, which explains why she’s among the most frequently mentioned names to replace Strum as DeSantis’s next chief of staff.