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.