Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’ pick to lead state business-recruitment efforts got the unanimous backing Thursday of the Enterprise Florida executive committee, whose members acknowledged the candidate will have a “learning curve” on economic development.
In a brief conference call, members of the executive committee said that while Jamal Sowell has some economic-development experience through his role as chief of staff at Port Tampa Bay, they have heard praise from numerous people, including members of DeSantis’ transition team, about his leadership skills.
“I don’t know Jamal personally, although we’ve spoken,” said committee member Alan Becker, an attorney from Fort Lauderdale. “But I, too, have some very good common friends who speak very highly of him.”
Joe York, vice chairman of the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors, said he expects the full board to take up the recommendation for Sowell to be the agency’s next president and CEO around Jan. 7. A window of about 30 minutes is being sought for a similar conference-call meeting, said York, who is president of AT&T Florida.
York, who advised Sowell during Thursday’s call to continue reaching out to staff and board members about the public-private agency’s operations, said DeSantis’ recommendation should be seen as a “proactive” stance by the governor-elect.
“Making the recommendation for us to consider Jamal, I take it as a positive, as opposed to being disengaged maybe from Enterprise Florida and the signal that that might send,” said York, who also noted a possible “learning curve” for Sowell.
Sowell, who served in the U.S. Marines, pointed to his experience as an assistant to former University of Florida President Bernie Machen, where he learned the importance of relationships and maintaining communications with a wide-ranging board.
“In my entire career I’ve been in leadership service, but also economic development in regards to what I did at UF and what I do at the port now,” Sowell told the executive committee. “Because of that, I was able to build relationships, build credibility, but also be able to work in any environment. I’ve lived in Afghanistan. I’ve lived in Israel, California, Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts, several spots around the country, but the one thing that stuck with me was my experience as a native Floridian.”
Sowell earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, where was student body president in 2004-2005. He returned to the school, working for Machen, after serving in the Marines, where he rose from a private to captain and was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
He earned a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a law degree from Indiana University. While in Indiana, he was appointed by Vice President Mike Pence, then the governor, to a state board regulating health facility administrators.
In his recommendation, DeSantis pointed to Sowell’s military service and that Sowell “has successfully helped to lead and grow the Port of Tampa Bay --- one of the largest economic engines in the region.” DeSantis will take office Jan. 8.
At Enterprise Florida, Sowell would replace Pete Antonacci, who was appointed by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott as Broward County supervisor of elections upon the suspension of embattled elections supervisor Brenda Snipes.
Antonacci, a one-time general counsel for Scott, was brought into Enterprise Florida at $165,000 a year in July 2017 after state House leaders eliminated the agency’s use of a number of taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract businesses.
No salary figures for Sowell were mentioned during Thursday’s phone call.