TALLAHASSEE -- It was 10 a.m. on the Florida Legislature’s first day when Will Weatherford rose to the speaker’s rostrum and delivered his opening remarks. That evening, he would be scrambling to repair the damage.
The week before, Weatherford called his father to talk about hospital bills for his brother Peter, who died of a brain tumor in 1995. Details were crucial. Weatherford, the 33-year-old speaker of the Florida House of Representatives — the youngest House speaker in America — wanted to use Peter’s story in his speech to explain his opposition to expanding access to Medicaid, a stance at odds with the governor.
“It was the safety net that picked my family up,” Weatherford told lawmakers, who stood and applauded. “I will continue to believe in, and fight for, a strong safety net for Florida.”
But inexplicably lost in the episode was a most-basic fact: A Medicaid-funded program covered more than $100,000 of Peter’s costs.
The stumble — sloppy in the best light, hypocritical in the worst — was remarkable, not for the mistake itself but because who made it.
Rising Republican star
Will Weatherford is not like you.
He’s better looking, he has more friends and he has gone farther, faster than anyone in recent Florida politics, Marco Rubio included.
Weatherford and his wife, Courtney, recently discussed his unprecedented success story at the kitchen table of their two-story, 3,000-square-foot Pasco County home.
“Ella, when you pray for daddy, what do you pray for?” Weatherford asks his 5-year-old daughter.
“Courage and wisdom,” Ella shouts from another room, as she plays on with her two younger sisters.
“She prays for courage and wisdom,” the proud father repeats softly, chuckling.
Weatherford invokes his family often in political speeches. One refrain of late has been about Ella learning to ride a bike. He missed it, he said, because he was four hours north in Tallahassee.
If he’s going to miss out on precious moments like that, Weatherford tells audiences, he’s going to make it count. That means important reforms on ethics, pensions, campaign finance and education.
Many Democrats call him a friend and marvel at his geniality despite years of him pushing controversial conservative causes. He’s been divisive, too, suggesting President Barack Obama isn’t like the rest of us.
“The president does not believe in the American idea,” Weatherford said last summer at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Weatherford is the second oldest of nine children but the oldest of seven boys. Their father, Bill, was Southern Methodist University’s quarterback from 1969-71. His father played in the 1940s. Brother Drew played quarterback for Florida State University.
Football for the Weatherfords comes easy. The family story is more complex.
For most of Weatherford’s childhood, the family lived a payday away from economic ruin. They moved from Texas to Florida when he was 7. It was difficult finding landlords willing to lease to such a large family, and for the next seven years, the Weatherfords moved several more times before settling in Odessa in Pasco County.
Old enough to know the family was poor, Weatherford grew conscious of how his family was perceived. The biggest difference was that the parents homeschooled their kids.
“Everybody viewed us in the neighborhood as these weird people,” Weatherford said.
Deeply religious, his parents gave the children a fundamentalist education steeped in scripture. While Weatherford’s dad went to work, his mother, Cathy, taught, starting each day the same way: prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, Bible reading.
It wasn’t until Weatherford’s sophomore year that he convinced his parents to let him attend a public high school. The football team there would set the course for Weatherford’s success and shield him from separate tragedies.
The first one came in May 1995, when Peter died. The second came less than a year later, when Weatherford was 16.
Weatherford sat in the backseat of a friend’s Toyota Camry as it cruised the narrow residential streets of Land O’Lakes. Weatherford told the Florida Highway Patrol that the driver was speeding before losing control.
The Camry’s right side smashed into a palm tree. Weatherford hit his head and blacked out. When he woke, blood covered the body of the boy sitting in the passenger seat. He was dead.
“It was a traumatic thing to go through at 16,” Weatherford said.
While he struggled to cope with the trauma, his coaches got him to focus on football.
Weatherford — like a Weatherford should — excelled at football, and Jacksonville University recruited him to play defensive end.
Jacksonville coach Steven Gilbert said Weatherford had a maturity level that set him apart from the other players, except in one respect. He partied.
After his freshman season, Weatherford, 19, got a second degree misdemeanor in Manatee County for using a fake ID. He pleaded guilty, paid a $200 fine and was ordered to 25 hours of public service.
After his sophomore year, now 20 and a hefty 240 pounds, Weatherford was arrested in Ybor City after the Sant’ Yago Knight Parade. When Tampa police arrived to find a brawl on 7th Avenue, others fled. Weatherford and a friend were handcuffed and charged with a first degree misdemeanor. He spent the night in jail.
He says the fight began after a belligerent drunk bumped into his 16-year-old brother, Sam.
“So I took care of it,” said Weatherford.
Asked to explain further, he said: “I think I punched him in the face. Got him on the ground, and then, when I had him on the ground, I was beating on him.
“I wouldn’t do that now,” he adds. “I was a little wild, yeah. I was a big football player, and I had a big ego.”
By his senior year, Weatherford managed his wild streak and was team captain and vice president of student government.
A freshman football player named Jason Bense joined the team that year, and coaches wanted Bense to room with Weatherford.
As the two bonded, Weatherford started hanging out with Bense’s parents, Tonie and Allan.
Weatherford was intrigued that Allan was a state representative. They’d talk for hours about politics over dinner.
“Within two minutes of meeting him,” Bense said, “I could tell he was a great person.”
Bense soon hired him. A successful businessman from Panama City, Bense was first elected as a state representative in 1998. In early 2004, he was preparing to take over as House speaker. Bense moved Weatherford to his Panama City office, paid him $22,000, and had him handle local issues for his district.
The Benses treated Weatherford like family. He lived in a garage apartment behind their home.
There, he met Bense’s daughter, Courtney.
Courtney at first regarded Weatherford as a family friend. Then her mom organized a movie night for the entire family. At the last minute, everyone canceled — except for Will and Courtney.
“I think that was planned,” she says now.
After a dinner at Outback, the two watched The Day after Tomorrow, a disaster movie about climate change. They then spent two hours talking on the Bense front porch.
“I said we were going to take it nice and slow,” Courtney said. “Then we saw each other every day after that.”
The two married in June 2006. Then making $45,000 as Bense’s legislative aide, Weatherford had more than $106,000 in his bank account, according to a financial disclosure he filed with the state. Weatherford said that was money Courtney brought into the marriage from a condo sale.
Soon after his wedding, his parents’ marriage fell apart.
On Aug. 2, 2006, Cathy Weatherford called deputies and told them that her husband had tried to slam a door on her. She was pinned, and her neck and left ankle were injured. Bill Weatherford was charged with domestic battery. A week later, she filed a restraining order, saying she was afraid he would attack her when he was released from jail.
She said her husband wanted $10,000 from her to put in an account she wouldn’t be able to access. Making only $289 a week working at a local furniture store, she couldn’t afford it.
With his parents’ marriage in doubt, Weatherford suddenly was headed back to Pasco, where he’d get a little help from his powerful father-in-law.
The September 2006 announcement that incumbent state Rep. Ken Littlefield was leaving his seat to join the state’s Public Service Commission sent the Pasco County GOP into a mild panic.
Republicans had less than a week to find a replacement, and they would have to win with Littlefield’s name remaining on the November ballot.
There was no shortage of local contenders. And then there was Weatherford, a 26-year-old who hadn’t lived in Pasco since he graduated high school.
“One of the first calls I got was from Allan Bense,” said Rep. Mike Fasano, who was then a state senator who knew the committee board members who would decide.
Fasano said he knew of Weatherford, but only in passing.
The chairman of Pasco’s GOP, Bill Bunting, favored another candidate. Bense called Bunting, too. “I didn’t know Will,” Bunting said. “But I knew the father-in-law.”
In late September, the committee made its selection at an Orlando hotel. Bunting says he first made a motion for his candidate, a Dade City businessman, but it wasn’t given a second.
The committee then selected Weatherford unanimously.
Bense downplayed his role. “Will was my son-in-law,” Bense said. “I love him. I’m sure I called those people to see if I could get their vote. Any dad or father-in-law would do that.”
In the general election, Weatherford faced someone his own age: 26-year-old Donovan Brown, a Zephyrhills insurance agent who, during the home stretch of the campaign, was hospitalized for a bipolar disorder.
While Democrats didn’t give Brown any money, Republicans contributed $70,000 to Weatherford. He outraised Brown 575-to-1. His campaign mailers highlighted Brown’s opposition to jail time for people caught possessing small amounts of marijuana.
“Don’t let our values go to pot,” the mailer stated, with Brown’s face printed on a marijuana leaf.
“You’re wondering why we popped him?” Weatherford says. “That’s a really good question. I took a lot of heat back home for it.”
Without his name on the ballot, Weatherford explained, he had to go negative or his district ran the risk of electing someone being treated for a mental disorder.
Brown finished the race at his mother’s home, far from the campaign trail. Littlefield’s name collected more than 60 percent of the vote. Weatherford won.
More than a week after the election, his mother filed for divorce. She would later drop it, but Weatherford’s parents remain separated.
In three months, Weatherford went from legislative aide to lawmaker to speaker-in-waiting.
Florida House members typically elect speakers serving their fourth and final two-year term. Weatherford was counting votes in 2006 for an office he’d take over in late 2012.
“Will was the fastest to date,” said Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Pasco County Republican who is in line to become speaker in 2016.
Meanwhile, Weatherford and Courtney built their home in 2007 in Wesley Chapel with the help of $239,200 in cash. As a lawmaker, Weatherford was only making $31,536 a year, and Courtney had quit her job as a lobbyist when her father was House speaker.
Where did the young couple get that much cash? More help from Bense.
“He knows I’m constrained,” Weatherford said. “We’re very blessed that (Courtney) has parents who have been very helpful.”
Weatherford still needed to borrow $358,000 for the home, and he got two jobs to help make the $2,005 monthly mortgage payments.
The first job came through his aunt’s husband, who hired him as a business development consultant for Breckenridge Enterprises. Weatherford said he “helps build relationships” so the Dallas company can find construction jobs in Florida. He makes about $50,000 a year.
Weatherford’s second job is for state Sen. Wilton Simpson, also of Pasco County. Simpson hired him as a business consultant at about $30,000 a year.
Weatherford, who has a bachelor’s degree in international business, has been drumming up prospects for Simpson’s asbestos removal company since 2007.
“I help him develop private clients,” Weatherford said. Asked how many clients he got Simpson last year, Weatherford said “I don’t know. I don’t have any of that data. You’d have to ask him. But I’ve added value to them.”
Simpson, however, said he didn’t keep track and couldn’t provide a precise number. “We’re a private business doing private business,” he said.
Simpson also appointed Weatherford to the board of Florida Traditions Bank, where he owns $30,000 in bank shares. Weatherford said he paid for the shares himself.
Democrats didn’t oppose Weatherford’s re-election in 2008, and he still raised $214,000. When he did face opposition in 2010, he raised nearly $1 million. Weatherford won 66 percent of the vote.
Last year, he was re-elected without opposition while sitting on a warchest of $427,000.
“I’ve never been ashamed to ask people for big checks,” he said.
Raising money can be tricky, though. Weatherford was involved in a fundraising campaign committee with Rep. Ray Sansom, who was forced to resign as House speaker in 2009 after prosecutors alleged Sansom secured millions of tax dollars for a local college that later offered him a job. A developer at the heart of the scandal contributed $100,000 to the committee, which Weatherford closed after Sansom’s resignation.
“I wasn’t happy about it,” Weatherford said, adding he only learned about the committee after the fact. The money was raised by what’s known as a “committee of continuous existence,” or CCE. Last year, Weatherford was embarrassed when another CCE he helped raise money for compared a Democratic state House candidate, Karen Castor Dentel, to disgraced Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.
Eliminating that kind of committee is now one of Weatherford’s top priorities.
Castor Dentel said she’s not sure it will make a difference.
“That’s not the problem,”she said. “It’s the culture of campaigns that you win at all costs. Any cost. Whatever it takes.”
Weatherford stands atop a political system that rewards those who win doing whatever it takes. He’s gotten there by going negative when he thought it was necessary, aggressively raising big campaign cash, and espousing some of his party’s most hard-edged positions.
What sets him apart is that he still comes across as extraordinarily likable.
In a video made for the Capitol Press Corps Skits, Weatherford lampooned his image as a jock by donning a Jacksonville University football jersey. He got big laughs when he made an exaggerated reach for a water bottle, a la Rubio.
At 6-feet, 1-inch and 205 pounds, Weatherford moves about the Capitol with ease, bro-hugging and high-fiving Republicans and Democrats alike.
“If I had to stack up the House speakers that I’ve known, and we had to choose the most popular, it would be Will Weatherford,” says Corcoran. “He has an ability to make you feel great.”
With a net worth that he lists at nearly $300,000, Weatherford has unlimited options ahead. He’s been dubbed the Paul Ryan of Florida and is talked about in political circles as a future governor or senator.
Asked if he’ll challenge Scott in 2014, Weatherford laughs.
“Well, I’ll let other people look at that,” he said, refusing to indulge in speculation. “Being speaker of the House is hard enough.”
Raising a family with three daughters under the age of 5, Weatherford says he’s trying to figure it all out like the rest of us. He has got everyday worries, like the dream house he bought and built with Courtney.
“The guy building it said this house will be worth $1 million in five years,” Weatherford said as he bounced his baby daughter, Madelyn, on his lap. “And five years later it’s worth $400,000. That’s just life, you know?”
Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.