TALLAHASSEE -- Few state institutions bear a more distinct imprint of recent Republican hegemony than the Florida House of Representatives.
It launched the political career of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who served as its speaker four years ago. Its members have passed some of the most conservative bills in the nation. And since 2006, it has nurtured the career of Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel.
On Tuesday, Weatherford will be sworn in as, at 33, the youngest speaker of the House in recent Florida history and the first speaker from the Tampa Bay area since 2004. He’ll preside over a chamber where Republicans have an overwhelming 76-44 majority. The son-in-law of former House Speaker Allan Bense, Weatherford looks like the latest model in a long, unbroken line of GOP speakers.
But these are also somewhat humbling times for House Republicans. On Nov. 6, they lost five seats and their veto-proof majority, punctuated by the shocking defeat of the person who had been picked to succeed Weatherford as speaker in 2014, Chris Dorworth.
"There’s no question that the state moved more toward the center," said incoming Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. "This will change things, make it more bipartisan than it has been for quite a while."
The moment may be tailor-made for Weatherford, a block of a man and former defensive end at Jacksonville University who has developed a reputation for playing nice with both parties.
"If there’s one thing I’d like to achieve it is to be an inclusive reformer for the Florida House," Weatherford told reporters last week. "To make sure we’re working with our friends across the aisle, that we’re allowing for everyone’s voice to be heard and to participate, but at the same time, don’t let that stifle us from moving forward with real reforms and dealing with the challenges that Florida has before us."
Make no mistake: Weatherford, a businessman himself, will continue to push a conservative, pro-business agenda that could have been written by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
He wants new state employees to enroll in 401(k)-style retirement plans rather than the current pension system, which provides guaranteed payments from the state. While it’s sure to alienate unions and spark a legal battle, Weatherford can’t say how much it would save the state. He says pensions are a "ticking time bomb" in state finances — despite no evidence of the sort.
He’ll push hard for a bigger commitment to online education and easing corporate taxes on small businesses. He toes the Republican Party line on the Affordable Care Act, is closely aligned with incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and publicly supports Gov. Rick Scott, albeit with measured language.
"His focus is on the right thing, which is getting unemployment down, making sure we have a fully funded education system," Weatherford said. "He’s talking about the right things."
But he disagrees with Scott on tuition. While Scott opposes tuition increases, Weatherford sides with universities, saying they are necessary to cover costs. "We have universities that if given more flexibility with tuition, they can go to great heights," he said.
His biggest break is one of style. His predecessor, Dean Cannon, ran the House with strict efficiency that bruised the feelings of marginalized Democrats while allowing Republicans to run roughshod with legislation that, during the tea party ascendency, opposed the Affordable Care Act, the federal economic stimulus and early voting. Since the spring, Weatherford has signaled he will run the House differently.