Former Model, Next Florida House Speaker: Meet Steve Crisafulli
Around the State
Florida House Republicans' unanimous selection last week of the man they wish to assume the reins of speaker in 2014 has left many asking themselves one question: Just who is Steve Crisafulli?
The Merritt Island Republican has maintained a relatively low profile since his election to the House in 2008. His family's not new to politics, but they're not exactly Republican insiders. Crisafulli's cousin Doyle Carlton served as governor of the state from 1929-1933, and his grandfather Vassar Carlton served as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court from 1969 to 1974; both were Democrats. From 1998 to 2002, the speaker-designate himself served on the Brevard County Soil and Water Conservation District, where his father Bud presently serves.
These are not exactly the makings of a political dynasty, and Crisafulli might have remained nothing but a local community leader, active in real estate and the family agribusiness, but for a fateful phone call from Republican Party strategist Chip Case in March 2008.
“Chip called me and asked me to give him a list of names for people to run for a seat that we had lost in 2006,” Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, tells Sunshine State News. “I said, 'Don't talk to anyone until you've talked to Steve Crisafulli. Once you talk to him, I don't think you need to waste your time or energy interviewing anyone else.'
“Sure enough, that's what he did,” Altman continues. “[Chip] called him, he talked to him, and he called me and said 'You're 100 percent right; [Crisafulli's] our man and I think he'll be speaker some day.' Chip called that one. They were that impressed with him.”
Although 2008 was a tough year for Republicans, Crisafulli managed to unseat incumbent Democrat Tony Sasso – “a capable, well-respected House member and a good person,” according to Altman – after earning 52 percent of the vote. Now-Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was Crisafulli's campaign consultant.
Altman and Crisafulli both represent different areas of Brevard County, and they knew each other through their mutual agricultural ties: Crisafulli's family works in the citrus industry, as do Altman's in-laws. Their wives are good friends.
And just what was the speaker-designate up to before he graduated from college and took up the family business? Apparently he was modeling.
"He's going to kill me for telling you this, but he's done a little modeling," Altman reveals. "It was a sort of a GQ type of thing. Look, he's a good looking guy, he's got the chiseled look, he's very athletic, a former star football player. He's a Ronald Reaganesque type of guy, though I'm not sure that he did any acting."
“I wanted to be a voice not only for my community but for an industry that I saw losing ground to government red tape, barriers and regulations,” Crisafulli tells SSN of his decision to run for office four years ago. (He makes no mention of his modeling days.) “I had never even been to Tallahassee, but we as Republicans talk about keeping government out of our lives and leaving us the opportunity to do things as we see fit. I felt like it was important to bring a business mind to the process, and I saw it would be a good opportunity.
“I'm honored and humbled by the [speakership] opportunity, but it certainly wasn't something I was seeking when I came into office.”
That opportunity knocked on Crisafulli's door shortly after the November 2012 elections. He was already receiving phone calls Election Night from fellow legislators, urging him to seek the speakership when it began to look like the then-Speaker designate Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, would lose his seat to freshman Democratic-upsetter Mike Clelland. Crisafulli, who had been a strong supporter of Dorworth, waited until the Friday after Election Day to announce he would run for speaker, a candidacy quickly embraced by the House Republican caucus.
Altman insists that, far from being a false show of humility, Crisafulli's apparent non-interest in the position was precisely what attracted so many of his colleagues to him.
“A lot of people were surprised that Steve didn't really pursue the speakership, but he's a very humble leader; he's not an ambitious politician thinking about himself,” Altman says. “We've seen, in the past, leaders who get caught up in their own political future running for a higher office. You really can't be a good presiding officer and do that. Steve just does his job, does the best he can do, does it well, and when you do that things have a way of taking care of themselves.”
Another trait endearing Crisafulli to fellow House Republicans is his open-mindedness, willingness to listen attentively to the opinions of those he might not be expected to agree with, and ability to reach across the political aisle to find and build consensus: an increasingly desired skill-set in a House struggling to inculcate a spirit of bipartisanship.
And it's not just Altman who vouches for it.
“Steve is clearly one who seems to, in my opinion, govern from the middle rather than from the far right or the far left,” Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher tells SSN. “There's no one else I can think of who would be a better House speaker for Brevard County.”
A telling endorsement, considering that Fisher is the only Democrat to hold a partisan state or local office representing Republican-heavy Brevard.
“It gets lonely at the top,” Fisher says of his having to shoulder the burden of Democratic representation for his county. “But I do know Steve is always conducting himself as a first-class guy; he's always taken my call when I've made it. We're on the same page on most of the things that are important to me from a legislative standpoint; there really hasn't been a case where we've butt heads. I, for one, am glad that Steve is going to be our speaker.”
The speaker-designate has received similar public praise from Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, and, more significantly, House Democratic speaker-designate Darryl Rouson, who greeted news of Crisafulli's nomination by the House GOP by crediting him with being "a proven, passionate leader who cares about business and Florida families."
Crisafulli is understandably hesitant to sketch the outlines of a legislative agenda for a session that's nearly two years away; he tells SSN his proudest accomplishment so far is the passage of a cost-benefit analysis bill that would help the Legislature measure the returns on appropriated investments. He expects that a major theme of his speakership will be continuing to make sure state government continues to be a wise -- or wiser -- steward of taxpayer dollars.
"That kind of cost-benefit analysis is very much like what we do in our daily lives as well as our businesses," he says. "Tallahassee shouldn't be any different."
Asked what he does to relax from the pressures of lawmaking, Crisafulli refers to what he says are the most important things in his life: God and family.
"I try not to talk politics at the dinner table," he says. "But we have a ritual when we sit down at the table, of talking about what was the best part of our day and what was the worst part of our day. Sometimes it's my kids [two girls, ages 12 and 9] who actually get very political; they grab it out of me."
Reach Eric Giunta at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (954) 235-9116.