Don Gaetz, Will Weatherford and Leadership Trials and Tribulations of the Florida Legislature
Around the State
The Florida Legislature opens its regular session this week with two new leaders presiding over the chambers, but challenges are already developing for both Senate President Don Gatez, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
While 15 of the Senate’s 40 members are new to the upper chamber, Gaetz inherits problems from previous sessions. Despite having a supermajority of Republicans, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who had his eyes on running for the U.S. Senate in 2012, often proved an ineffective leader. On the last day of the 2011 session, Haridopolos faced a rebellion as the Senate and House tried to iron out differences on the budget. Things were slightly better in 2012 but, despite the Republican supermajority, conservative measures like parent empowerment failed in the Senate.
Gaetz has a slimmer Republican majority than Haridopolos and there are continued questions about future leadership. In 2012, Gaetz and Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, attempted to scuddle Sen. Andy Gardiner’s, R-Orlando, bid for the Senate presidency after the 2014 elections, With the help of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, Gardiner’s leadership bid remained intact and he is now in line to replace Gaetz in 2014. Gardiner has been a good soldier so far but his victory raised questions about Gaetz’s effectiveness.
Nor are the leadership fights done. While there had been buzz that Thrasher would be a candidate for the Senate presidency after the 2016 elections, that talk ended after the failed strike against Gardiner. Latvala is clearly in the hunt to be Senate president after Gardiner but conservatives in the chamber are leaning toward Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City. Negron should have the edge, especially after candidates he backed did better than those backed by Latvala in the 2012 Republican primaries. Still, while Negron is the favorite, the race to be Senate president is not over and, after last year, Gaetz can’t be thrilled to see another leadership contest which could undermine Republican solidarity.
Gaetz is not expected to aim his political sights higher than his current post but the same can’t be said of Weatherford. Only 33, Weatherford is clearly a rising star for Florida Republicans. The son-in-law of former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense and the brother of former Florida State quarterback Drew Weatherford, the new speaker is already gaining recognition from national conservatives, being invited to speak to the American Conservative Union’s (ACU) Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) later this month.
Weatherford presides over a much more unified Republican caucus than Gaetz does. After Chris Dorworth, who was penciled in to be speaker after the 2014 elections, lost his seat in November, House Republicans quickly rallied around Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and tabbed him to be incoming speaker.
But while he presides over a much more united chamber, Weatherford also leads a more conservative body than Gaetz does. This could lead to some interesting politics as Weatherford has been less than enthusiastic about Gov. Rick Scott’s agreement with the federal health-care law’s provision to expand Medicaid. With Scott proposing the largest budget in state history which includes pay raises for state employees and teachers, Weatherford could prove a major thorn in the governor’s side.
Weatherford’s future political calculations can’t be underestimated. While last week he dismissed but did not totally shut the door on challenging Scott in 2014, Weatherford’s eyes are on the future and he will have to maintain his appeal to conservative Republican primary voters down the road. With that in mind, even if Weatherford bends on Medicaid expansion, he will push a conservative agenda on school choice, legal reform and moving public employee pensions over to a 401(k) model. Still, some of those measures could die in the Senate which is generally more centrist than the House.
While they are very different in terms of background and age, Gaetz and Weatherford will have to work together even as they preside over chambers that remain divided on ideology and party discipline. There could be a fair amount of cat herding going on.
Unlike their predecessors Haridopolos and former House Speaker Dean Cannon, Gaetz and Weatherford do not have the luxuries of Republican supermajorities. This could come into play with Democrats liking their chances of knocking off Scott in 2014 and hoping the unpopular governor pulls some Republican legislators down with him. Gaetz and Weatherford are on top for the moment but challenges loom even as they preside over solid Republican majorities.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News.