Mar 12, 2012

Will Weatherford, first Tampa Bay House speaker in a decade, ready to take reins

Will Weatherford, first Tampa Bay House speaker in a decade, ready to take reins

TALLAHASSEE — Although he's not yet speaker, many consider him the most powerful lawmaker in Tallahassee.

Consider the 2012 session that ended Friday.

In the face of a fierce budget battle, many Tampa Bay interests were protected. There was the cigarette tax revenue lawmakers approved for the expansion of Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. A new heart research center at the University of South Florida got $6.9 million. A bill eliminating local control of a Tampa toll road authority was gutted. And USF got back $6 million for its pharmacy school after it had been stripped away by Senate budget Chairman JD Alexander.

Those involved say the lawmaker instrumental in closing those deals was incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel. At 32, he will become the youngest speaker in modern Florida history this fall, edging Marco Rubio by three years.

"Even though he's young, he has a level of experience that most incoming speakers don't have," lobbyist Ron Book said. "It's like he's skipping from the first grade to 12th grade he's so advanced."

With a defensive end physique from his college football days at Jacksonville University somewhat intact, Weatherford cuts an imposing figure. He's a skilled tactician and loyalist in a Republican Party known for its scorched-earth politics and a rigid conservative ideology.

And yet, even political foes describe Weatherford as even-handed and decent, capable of ushering in a new era of civility for Tallahassee, an unthinkable possibility for the leader of a chamber that just two years ago was reeling from scandal and discord.

"He has the support of his entire caucus. He has the support of the minority caucus," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, the House Democratic minority whip.

One example of Weatherford's fairness is his work as House redistricting chairman. While the Florida Supreme Court on Friday found the Senate's district map to be "rife with objective indicators of improper intent," the court ruled the House map constitutional.

Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, lauded his successor on the House floor.

"The character, consistency and courage you showed in that process has paid off," Cannon said Friday. "That was not easy, that was very hard. But all seven supreme justices said job well done. And so do I."

Weatherford said he reluctantly agreed to become redistricting chairman, knowing the political perils that awaited. He said while he's sure he has "ticked off" some members with the newly drawn lines, he has tried to avoid conflict by obeying the law.

"You treat everyone in this process like the way you'd want to be treated if you were in their position," he said.

Empathy is a main ingredient of Weatherford's leadership, said Jenne, who was part of the same 2006 freshman class. Even though Weatherford was tapped for speaker almost immediately after getting elected, he was never as remote as other members of the Republican leadership, Jenne said.

"If there's a lowly Democrat who is having a bad session, not understanding the process, getting rolled over on everything, Will is the one to put an arm around them and say, 'Here's what you might want to do next time,'" Jenne said. "As speaker, Will can be the great conciliator. It wasn't going to be a Democrat. Will is the next best person to bring the House together. He's wrong on a ton of stuff, but I can't tell you anyone who doesn't like him."

While Cannon is known for running the House with strict discipline, Weatherford is seen as more approachable.

"Dean has run this House with military precision," said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa. "Will is more of a slap-you-on-the-back kind of guy. It's still going to be a tight ship under Will, but it will be more free-wheeling."

Weatherford might be a likable guy, but he promises he won't be a pushover. He said if members get out of line, they can expect a firm response.

"There are two currencies in this process that are the most important," Weatherford said. "One is your word. If you give your word, you have to honor your word. The second is loyalty. You know who the people are who are loyal and will stick with you, and you know the people who are not."

Weatherford comes better prepared for speaker than most. For pointers on bicameral politics, he has sought counsel from those who previously held the speaker job.

Before Christmas, he met for several hours with H. Lee Moffitt, who served as speaker in the early 1980s and is the namesake of the cancer center.

"He picked my brain, and I told him he needs to prepare now; he can't wait until November," said Moffitt, a Democrat. "He's a very thoughtful young man. He's not partisan. He's universally liked. I think he'll be a great speaker."

Weatherford's view also comes from his family. He was an aide to Allan Bense, who was speaker from 2004 to 2006, the same year Weatherford married Bense's daughter, Courtney.

And he's surrounding himself with heavyweights — such as former Jeb Bush chief of staff Sally Bradshaw — to help him with the transition.

For some, Weatherford showed his mettle this session by negotiating with the Senate leadership in the showdown between USF and Alexander. In Alexander's push to turn USF's Lakeland campus into the state's 12th university, USF officials resisted. When Alexander proposed cuts among the state's universities, USF officials felt they were given a disproportionate share of the cuts.

Some say the deal resolving the standoff was stagecraft, meant to make Alexander look like he gave something up while burnishing the image of GOP rising stars like Weatherford.

USF lobbyist Mark Walsh disagrees.

"I still believe the Senate would have preferred to keep those cuts that way," he said. "Will was the lead local person on that issue. He was the quarterback. The deal would not have gotten done without Weatherford. If he wasn't there, or the speaker-designate was from Miami, then USF would not have gotten that funding."

Still, expectations are high, Harrison said.

"For someone who is 32 years old — 14 years younger than myself — it's amazing that he has such a high level of poise and command," he said. "Having a local speaker like this one should be very good for our local economy and Florida as a whole."

Whether his approach will have any substantial meaning is another question. Late Friday, as Weatherford spoke for the proposed $70 billion budget, he challenged Democrats to forget party lines.

Minutes later the budget passed the House, 80-37, along mostly party lines.

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or