Career Corner: Republican Gator applies lessons to politics
Nelson Diaz (JD 04) is comfortable with uncertainty. In law school, he actually loved the Socratic Method.
“Even after giving the response, my professors rarely acknowledged whether it was right or wrong so you were always left to wonder,” Diaz said. “The Socratic method really forces your mind to go into overdrive and stay there.”
Diaz did well in law school, and now he’s making his way in politics, another realm where uncertainty reigns. Diaz was elected in 2012 as chairman of the Miami Dade County GOP, and he is a lobbyist and partner at Southern Strategy Group, a Republican lobbying firm based in Tallahassee. Diaz has worked in politics since his freshman year of high school and was chairman of the College Republicans at Florida International University, his undergraduate alma mater.
Diaz serves as chairman of the Board of Government Relations for the University of Florida where “we work with a staff to put together grassroots and grass-tops efforts to lobby the legislators to support our issues.”
In 1995, he worked on the Bob Dole presidential campaign and met another young Florida Republican named Marco Rubio. It proved to be a fruitful relationship.
“I’ve known Nelson Diaz for nearly 20 years. I met him when he was still a teenager and I was nearly finished with law school,” Rubio, now Florida’s junior United States senator and mentioned as a presidential aspirant in 2016, wrote in an email. “Nelson served as a volunteer in the Dole campaign and was a natural leader. Years later he would serve as my first legislative aide when I was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2000.”
As youth coordinator for Rubio, Diaz was responsible for recruiting young volunteers to get involved in the campaign.
“He would do anything that was asked of him. As the county campaign coordinator, I knew I could always rely on Nelson to get any job done, from running a phone bank, to driving in a motorcade, to putting signs up in the middle of the night. He was always willing to step up to do what was needed,” Rubio said.
Both Diaz and Rubio cut their political teeth as in one of the nation’s best known Republican county organizations.
“There’s a long tradition of great leaders who started out in the local executive committees and went on to do even bigger things, including Jeb Bush, Al Cardenas and others. Like many of us, Nelson grew up in the local party, and it’s an incredible honor to lead an organization that provided so much to you over the years as far as opportunities to participate in our democratic process,” Rubio said.
This friendship between Diaz and Rubio was not limited to work. Diaz looked to Rubio, a Gator alumnus with a law degree from the University of Miami, as a mentor and sought his advice when he decided to attend law school.
“The main reason I went to UF Law was because of Sen. Rubio. He was a Gator and I always attributed his greatness to being a Gator,” Diaz said.
Originally denied by UF Law, Diaz kept working at it and was admitted for spring enrollment.
It was at UF Law that Diaz found an intellectual environment where he was stimulated to excel. He reminisced about his favorite law school course, Florida Constitutional Law with professor Jon Mills (JD 72).
“He’s a great human being and a great friend to this day, even though we disagree on just about everything politically,” Diaz said.
On that subject Mills, a former Democratic speaker of the Florida House, replied: “He is a registered Republican and I’m a registered Democrat, but I don’t view him as a partisan type of person.”
Mills said Diaz won a book award as the best student in his class. This was one of two book awards Diaz received in law school.
“Nelson really understood subtleties, and I consider him one of my best students ever,” Mills said.
Professor Joe Little also made a profound impression on Diaz during his law school career.
There are some things like torts at 8 a.m. every Monday morning that Diaz will never forget. It was, as Diaz recalls, a bracing experience.
“He was a person with a tough character, extremely strict, but one heck of a teacher,” Diaz said. “Facing Professor (Joe) Little at that hour was like being woken up with a bucket of freezing cold water being dumped on you in bed.”
Diaz has no complaints about his law school career.
“I loved law school,” he said. “I loved my time in Gainesville. There is no question in my mind that no other law school in the state of Florida could have afforded me the same education.”
The training he received at UF Law prepared Diaz for both a career in law and in politics.
“No degree could have prepared me better than my law degree,” Diaz said. “I use what I learned in school every day and not just as a lobbyist.”
Diaz is also the president of the board of directors for Kristi House Child Advocacy Center, which helps sexually trafficked and sexually abused children.