DeSantis’ campaign woes have led to a shakeup of his administration that has given immense power to one long-time Republican power player.
Alex Kelly, the secretary of the state’s new Department of Commerce, is also now the governor’s acting chief of staff. Juggling the two roles has arguably positioned him as the second most powerful person in DeSantis’ administration.
But this is a long time in the works for Kelly, 46. He spent years working closely with some of the most influential people in Tallahassee, garnering experience across several policy areas. In light of his new role, here’s what you need to know about DeSantis’ new main man:
He got his start in Florida politics over 20 years ago
After earning his master’s degree in political science from the University of Florida and working as former state Sen. Anna Cowin’s campaign manager, Kelly got his first job in state government as a legislative aide to then state Rep. Aaron Bean, now a member of Congress.
He spent the next 13 years occupying different roles in the process, including being a senior analyst for the House Majority Office and director of legislative affairs for several executive branch departments.
Bean told City & State that he knew Kelly was destined for success the moment he first interviewed him.
"I jokingly say I was the one who discovered Alex Kelly as I interviewed and hired him out of the University of Florida," Bean said. "The truth is, he is an amazing leader who I knew was destined for big things. I am proud of him and know that he is just getting started."
Connected with Republican power players
After his first stint working in the public sector, Kelly spent five years (beginning in 2013) with the Foundation for Excellence in Education (also known as ExcelinEd), a Florida-based school choice think tank founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He finished his time there as their vice president of advocacy.
Joe Follick, ExcelinEd’s state director of communications, worked with Kelly during his stint there. Follick told City & State that he believes he is one of the brightest people in the process.
“He has an incredible ability to grasp a situation, assess all the variables including personalities and politics, and guide everyone toward a solution,” Follick said. “What really sets him apart is a calm, respectful and thoughtful demeanor that shines in a process frequently driven by panic. If I were starting any endeavor in any field, I would want Alex with me.”
After his time with ExcelinEd, he rejoined the state government in January 2019 as chief of staff for the Florida Department of Education under then-Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
After two years with the DOE, Kelly joined DeSantis’ office as a deputy chief of staff in 2021. He oversaw the departments of Education, State and Economic Opportunity, as well as Enterprise Florida, CareerSource Florida, the Florida Housing Finance Corp., Visit Florida and the Florida Lottery, according to an organizational chart.
He was one of the people in the running for the chief of staff job at the time.
Deeply involved in the past two state redistricting processes
One of the most controversial elements of Kelly’s work is the hand he has played in the past two Florida redistricting processes.
During the redrawing process in 2012, Kelly was the staff director for the Florida House redistricting committee. The redistricting maps were thrown out by the state Supreme Court due to gerrymandering.
During that process, questions were raised about meetings between Republican Party officials and members of the redistricting committee, including Kelly, though he denied wrongdoing.
More recently, Kelly drew the DeSantis-submitted Congressional redistricting maps during the 2022 legislative session. By turning in his own maps, the governor muscled out maps produced by his party in the Legislature and have again been criticized as gerrymandering by opponents. Litigation is pending.
Politics is a family affair
Kelly is not the only one in his household who is a mover and shaker in Tallahassee.
His wife, Leda Williams Kelly, has worked for over a decade in Florida’s political scene. Her time in politics included four years with former Gov. Rick Scott – two years with him in the U.S. Senate, and staff director for the most recent House Redistricting Committee.
Currently, she works as chief of staff for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Like many in state government, particularly in the DeSantis administration, Kelly is largely not on social media. "I very seldom check this site and have no other social media, so please use my contact information herein if you need to reach me," he says on his LinkedIn page.
"I might not see messages on this site for several months. The views expressed on this website are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer."
Last month, however, he did post: "I’m happy to share that I’m starting a new position as Secretary at FloridaCommerce!"