December 8, 2023

Profile: Stephanie Kopelousos

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Florida's new transportation chief wants to take the state in a new direction. Mapping it out will be tough in an era of diminishing resources.

Cynthia Barnett | 6/1/2008
Stephanie Kopelousos’ father, and her grandfather before him, ran a well-known eatery in Starke called The Garden Restaurant, memorable for the pecan tree that grew right through the middle of it. Kopelousos likewise grew up rooted amid northeast Florida’s large, tight-knit Greek community.

In the driver’s seat:
Skeptics are uneasy about Stephanie Kopelousos’ lack of engineering credentials, but defenders say her political skills and knowledge of the transportation landscape make her the right choice to manage the DOT in an era of tight resources.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Her family wasn’t politically connected to speak of, but those roots served her well. After graduating with a degree in political science from the University of Alabama at age 23, she moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a public policy career.

With no real job lined up, she worked as a hostess at a restaurant to make ends meet. But she didn’t have to work there long. A family friend, a fellow member of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, owned the shoe-repair shop frequented by the late U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler, one of the most powerful women in Congress. Fowler offered Kopelousos an internship in 1993 based on her cobbler’s recommendation.

Kopelousos — her parents named her Stavroula but always called her Stephanie — proved herself quickly. In a month, she was promoted to staff assistant. By 1998, she was named a senior legislative aide, focusing on transportation and emergency-management policy. When Fowler retired in 2001, Kopelousos was chosen Washington liaison for the Florida Departments of Community Affairs and Transportation. In 2005, DOT Secretary Denver Stutler made her his chief of staff.

Along the way, she established herself as a tireless worker whose outsized smile belied her tenacity. “She was always the first one in the office before 7 a.m., the last to leave, and the most-prepared,” says Fowler’s former chief of staff, David Gilliand, now senior officer for legislative affairs at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Some of the smartest people on Capitol Hill are the biggest jerks, and that limits them. Stephanie succeeds because she’s the whole package: She’s smart, she’s prepared, she works hard, and everyone likes her.”

That combination helped her make the list of finalists for DOT secretary that the Florida Transportation Commission forwarded to Gov. Charlie Crist last year. Still, her appointment came as “a shocker,” says Don Crane, founder of Floridians for Better Transportation. Indeed, Kopelousos, 37 years old at the time, became the youngest secretary in the history of the department. She is the first non-engineer to run it in decades. She is the first woman at the agency’s helm, and she was chosen over several candidates more traditionally qualified, including another woman with a master’s degree in transportation engineering and 12 years of experience at DOT. Kopelousos faces no shortage of critics who say she lacks the experience to run one of Florida’s largest departments, with an $8-billion budget and 7,000 employees.

Tags: Politics & Law, Big Bend, Government/Politics & Law

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