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Redshirt Freshman Advantage Could Help Mike Hill in Florida House

June 26, 2013 - 6:00pm

Theres an advantage to having a head start in the Florida House.

Legislators are limited to four full terms in the House but they also can serve a part of a fifth term. This extra time for redshirt freshmen can help them rise to prominence in Tallahassee. Redshirt freshmen, from Tom Feeney to Marco Rubio to Jose Olivia, have often proven some of the most prominent members of the Florida House.

Just look at a recent battle for an open legislative seat. In April and May, campaign dollars flew into the Panhandle where seven candidates battled it out in a special election for the Florida House seat vacated by the death of Rep. Clay Ford. When the dust settled and Republican Mike Hill prevailed, more than $375,000 in cash had been raised by the candidates in what is one of the less expensive media markets in Florida. That figure doesnt include in-kind donations and expenditures from outside groups.

Quite a bit of money to be sure -- but theres a reason for that. The movers and shakers in Tallahassee and across the state know that whoever emerged to win the seat would have a head start in the House. Hill wont face term limits until 2022 -- giving him a good deal of seniority over new freshmen who wont win their seats until November 2014.

Being a redshirt freshman not only gives a legislator more time in the House, it also gives them a bit more seniority. More than a few of the leading figures in the House won special elections and used that extra time to move up the legislative pecking order.

Take the longest serving current member of the Florida House -- Speaker Pro Tempore Marti Coley, R-Marianna. Elected in the summer of 2005 after the seat became open with the death of her husband David, Coley used her extra time in the House to move up the ranks. She served as deputy majority whip and led the Postsecondary Education Committee after less than two years in the House. She also used the extra time in the House to secure a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Theres a temptation to write off the speaker pro tempore as holding a merely symbolic position, but there is power and prominence to be had there and the opportunity could arise to move up to speaker. Just ask Larry Cretul who moved up to speaker of the House after Ray Sampson resigned.

There are three House members who won special elections in 2007 and 2008 and face term limits in 2016: Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Darryl Rouson, R-St. Petersburg.

After winning a special election in 2007, McBurney rose through the ranks and he now chairs the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. He also holds seats on the Appropriations and Judiciary committees and sits on the Joint Legislative Budget Commission and the Select Committee on Gaming. While he lost out to Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, to become speaker of the House after the 2014 elections, McBurney remains fairly prominent.

Elected to the House in a special election in November 2007, two months after McBurney won his seat, Hudson has also been a prominent Republican in Tallahassee. Hes one of the Republicans leading legislators on health care and Medicaid. Hudson chairs the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee and is the No. 2 man on the Select Committee on PPACA (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). With additional seats on the Appropriations Committee, the Economic Development and Tourism Subcommittee and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, Hudson can influence a wide array of issues. Being a redshirt freshman helped Hudson make his mark on Tallahassee even if he never came close to being House speaker.

Winning his seat in April 2008, Rouson had less of a head start than McBurney or Hudson but he has used his time wisely. Despite a close contest against Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, Rouson is in line to become House Democratic leader after the 2014 elections. He also is the ranking Democrat on the State Affairs Committee and the Business and Professional Regulation and Justice Appropriations subcommittees and sits on the Appropriations Committee. With his head start, Rouson has done as well as any member of the minority party can in the Florida House.

Two redshirt freshmen won their seats in 2010 -- Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar.

Cruz quickly rose up the Democratic ranks, serving as deputy whip from 2010 until 2012 and gaining a seat on the Appropriations Committee. Shes also the ranking Democrat on the Ethicsand Elections Subcommittee and the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. With the Legislature continuing to focus on gambling, Cruz, as a member of the Select Committee on Gaming, can flex her muscles on that issue. Being a redshirt freshman gave Cruz a boost over her fellow Democrats who face term limits in 2018.

Gaetz has gone a different route. As the son of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Matt Gaetz was going to get attention from the moment he entered the Florida House. But Gaetz has also gotten notice for his colorful personality and his use of social media. While Gaetz has won some prestigious assignments, including chairing the Criminal Justice Subcommittee and serving with Cruz on the Select Committee on Gaming, his eye has clearly been on the Senate seat his father holds for some time. Instead of facing term limits in 2018, Gaetz has already set up his campaign for the Senate in 2016 where he will face Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, in what is expected to be a high-profile Republican primary.

There are two redshirt freshmen who face term limits in 2020 -- and one of them stands ready to win the ultimate prize in the Florida House.

Rep. Jose Olivia, R-Hialeah, won a special election to enter the Florida House in June 2011. During his two years in the Legislature, he has clearly made the most of his chances. Olivia is scheduled to become House speaker after the 2018 elections. While Olivia was helped as some of his rivals in the Republican caucus lost their seats in 2012, namely Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Frank Farkas, he used his extra time in the House to give himself a head start and, less than a year and a half after winning his seat, Olivia was already a speaker in waiting.

Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, was also elected in a special election in 2011. While not as prominent as the other redshirt freshmen currently in the House, Watson is the ranking Democrat on the Rulemaking Oversight and Repeal Subcommittee.

Looking at past members reveals a host of prominent redshirt freshmen. Marco Rubio, now a U.S. senator and prominent national figure, is the best example. Rubio won his House seat in a special election in 2000 and used his extra time to propel himself up the ranks. After becoming House speaker after the 2006 elections, Rubio won a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

While he lost his seat in 2012, former Rep. Chris Dorworth won his House seat in a special election in 2007. Dorworth used the extra time in the House to secure the votes needed to be House speaker after the 2014 elections -- had he only kept his House seat.

Tom Feeney won a special election in 1996 to win a Florida House seat and served as speaker of the Florida House from 2000 until 2002. While he had served in the Florida House for two terms in the early 1990s, Feeney did not seek another term in 1994. Instead he was Jeb Bushs running mate, but they failed to defeat Lawton Chiles. After his tenure as Florida House speaker, Feeney served three terms in Congress before losing his seat to Suzanne Kosmas in 2008. He currently leads the Associated Industries of Florida (AIF).

There are certainly some redshirt freshmen in the House who dont make much of a splash in Tallahassee -- Ron Schultz comes to mind. But those are the exceptions to the rule. Many redshirt freshmen rise to prominence in the House and move over to the Senate or local office -- JD Alexander, Thad Altman, Greg Evers, Ellyn Bodanoff, Oscar Braynon, Darren Soto, Ken Littlefield, Susan Bucher, Denise Lee and Ken Gottlieb, while Mack Bernard came close to winning a Senate seat. Another redshirt freshman moved up to the executive branch. Republican Jennifer Carroll won a special election to the House in 2003 and became lieutenant governor after the 2010 elections.

Being a redshirt freshman doesnt mean Hill is guaranteed success. But his extended time in the House gives Hill the opportunity to move up the ladder and become more prominent. Being a redshirt freshman clearly gives members of the Florida House a good position to propel their political careers to the next level.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at 904-521-3722.

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