Weatherford’s veer to the right confuses Democrats, wins support from Republicans

Few Florida politicians were known for being more likable and reasonable than House Speaker Will Weatherford.

But that was before the 2013 legislative session thrust the 33-year-old Wesley Chapel Republican to the forefront of the state’s most contentious issues.

By last week, Weatherford was better known for being the roadblock to accepting $51 billion in federal aid to expand Medicaid. Or to government workers, the man who pushed hardest to dissolve the state’s pension system. Or to public school teachers, the champion of a proposal that would allow parents to demand that some public schools be transformed into charter schools.

His role in all three instances was so central that some who saw Weatherford as a more moderate version of the arch-conservative House Republican speakers of the past had to reconsider.

“We did come into the session thinking he was going to be more open and flexible,” said Robert Suarez, vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters Union. “But he came out so early and strong, it put him in a corner so he couldn’t compromise.”

“For a lot of us who had experience in the House, he was like a breath of fresh air,” said Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville. “The problem is, when you pull the rug back, the result is the same. It doesn’t matter how nice he is, wrong is wrong.”

Yet as much as the last two months have alienated Weatherford from groups he never needed to impress — Democrats, union representatives, teachers — he scored big with one group he needs if he’s to reach higher office: the donor class.

“In Washington, everyone’s taking notice of his strong stand on the Medicaid expansion issue,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, a former chairman of Florida’s Republican Party. “He took on all of the Democrats, he took on all of the Republicans in the Senate and the governor’s office, and he prevailed. That’s a win for us and other conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. He’s building a reputation as a solid conservative who you can rely on.”

Weatherford bristles at the notion he was beefing up his conservative bona fides and said his positions on issues should come as no surprise and by no means conflicts with his promise to include Democrats in the decision-making process.

“I’ve always been up front about the type of leader I wanted to be: an inclusive reformer,” Weatherford said Monday. “We wanted to give the minority a voice, but not slow down on important reforms. That’s what we did.”

Weatherford pointed to major legislation that was passed this session, including a ban on Internet cafes that offer slot-machine-like games, a campaign finance bill that eliminates fundraising committees that financed personal expenses, an increase in campaign contribution limits, a new ban on texting while driving, a sweeping elections bill that expanded the number of early voting sites, $70 million in new spending on the Everglades and more than $1 billion in new education spending.

Many of those bills passed with strong Democratic support, Weatherford points out.

“These were some pretty historic efforts,” he said. “We haven’t had a bipartisan vote on the budget in years. I’m proud of what we did.”

Still, Weatherford’s persona as a kinder, gentler House Republican suffered throughout the session, usually because of his own doing. On the first day of session, he incorrectly described the role Medicaid played in helping his family. A week later, while at the American Conservative Union’s Political Action Conference in Washington, he called the Affordable Health Care Act “cartel federalism” that “coerced” states into expanding Medicaid. On March 19, he gave a speech to tea party Republicans where he claimed that America is less free than it was four years ago while referring to President Barack Obama as the “occupier of the White House.”

Speeches like that, and his stance on Medicaid, only won him raves from the right.

“I give him high marks,” said Slade O’Brien, Florida director for Americans for Prosperity. “He was willing to be bold on Medicaid expansion and pension reform, and he held his position. That only improves his stature with us.”

The pension changes died in the Senate, as did the “parent-trigger” proposal for Florida schools.

On thing conservatives may not like: the state’s $74.5 billion budget. It’s dotted with pet projects, including $7 million for a Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Weatherford’s Wesley Chapel district.

“Hopefully, some of those will be struck out,” O’Brien said.

Weatherford did not allow a vote on the final day of the session that would have possibly funded $350 million in taxpayer upgrades to Sun Life Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins. O’Brien cheered Weatherford’s decision to kill it, calling it corporate welfare. The Dolphins owner, however, slammed Weatherford, saying he had betrayed an earlier promise.

Not so, said Weatherford.

“I’m fine with him blaming me,” he said Monday. “But that’s not true. Neither I nor the House made any commitment to him.”

Weatherford also defended a future tax break for Bloom Energy, a Sunnyvale, Calif. clean technology company that manufactures fuel cells. One of the company’s lobbyists, Towson Fraser, used to work with Weatherford when the two were aides for former House Speaker Allan Bense. Bense is now Weatherford’s father-in-law. Weatherford said he wasn’t lobbied by Fraser, and said if knowing him was grounds for being unable to lobby the Legislature, Tallahassee would be a ghost town.

“I have a lot of long-standing relationships,” he said.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, who along with Fullwood were among only 10 of 43 Democrats to vote against the budget, said he still gets along with Weatherford. That’s perhaps why he can’t understand the speaker’s unyielding position on issues like Medicaid and pensions.

“That’s the question of the day,” Thurston said. “Are his positions designed to attract the tea party or was this a tactical mistake? If he wants to cater to the right wing of the party, then he did a good job this session.”

Herald/Times staff writer Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263.