Florida Politics

Wilton Simpson, a Republican egg farmer, is set to take control of the Florida Senate

State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, examines papers as he enters the Florida Capitol during the 2019 legislative session.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, examines papers as he enters the Florida Capitol during the 2019 legislative session. Tampa Bay Times

If you don’t know who Wilton Simpson is, you might be forgiven.

The Trilby Republican has been in the Florida Senate for nearly seven years, but he’s been on a general election ballot only once. And in Tallahassee, he seldom sponsors bills or steps into the limelight.

“You don’t see my name on a lot of things,” Simpson said. “But if you have a magnifying glass, you may see a lot of fingerprints.”

You won’t need a magnifying glass much longer.

The man once called “the Donald Trump of regional egg farmers” is in line to become leader of Florida’s Senate in 2020, assuming Republicans continue their two-decade control of the 40-member chamber.

As president, Simpson will lead the Senate on everything from school policy to environmental funding, and he’ll oversee the Senate’s redistricting efforts following the 2020 election.

Along with Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who is in line to become House speaker the same year, the balance of power in the Legislature will reside in Tampa Bay. Sprowls’ colleagues chose him last month. Simpson’s ceremony is Tuesday.

Unlike President Donald Trump, however, Simpson is not bombastic. He operates mostly behind the scenes and rarely makes headlines. He’s been a reliable big-business conservative, but one who’s been willing to work across the aisle.

He was instrumental in enacting the Legislature’s gun restrictions and school safety measures after the 2018 Parkland massacre, for example, even though his name wasn’t on them. The current Senate president, Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, was the face of the legislation.

“It’s amazing what gets done in Tallahassee if you don’t have to take the credit,” Simpson said in his slight Southern drawl.

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Florida Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R- Hialeah, at left, talks with Sen. Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, on the floor of the Florida Senate, Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

For the 53-year-old senator, the path to power has been a long time coming.

He has wanted to run for office “since he was 10,” his wife, Kathryn Simpson, told the Tampa Tribune in 2011.

He wouldn’t run until he was 45, choosing instead to spend his first four decades building a name for himself in east Pasco County.

Simpson was adopted at age 6 and grew up with the family businesses, an egg farm in Trilby and an environmental cleanup company with operations throughout the Southeast.

The family sold the egg farm in 1996. But after the new owners went under and left the farm’s 200,000 chickens to starve to death in 2003, Simpson bought it back.

He turned it into a multimillion-dollar operation, producing tens of millions of eggs with factory-like precision. The eggs, through food distributor Cal-Maine Foods, end up in grocery stores throughout the state, including Publix.

By the time Simpson ran for Senate in 2012, he was already a well-known presence in east Pasco County. In addition to the businesses that bore his name, he was the longtime head of the Pasco County Farm Bureau and he served on a number of community boards and associations.

And he had strong ties to the area’s politicians.

Then-House Speaker Will Weatherford, also from Pasco County, was on the payroll of Simpson Environmental Services as a consultant with vague responsibilities.

Simpson also developed strong ties with then-Attorney General Pam Bondi, and he had enough clout with then-state Sen. Jim Norman that Norman sponsored a controversial bill on Simpson’s behalf in 2011 making it a felony to take photos on agricultural property. The bill, an attempt to stop animal activists from surreptitiously filming potential abuses on farm properties, did not pass.

When he did run, Simpson had one of the easiest paths to power in the Legislature in recent memory.

Although he’s run in four different elections, voters have only voted for him once, in 2018, when he soundly defeated a Democrat. In 2012, 2014 and 2016, he ran unopposed in the primaries and general elections.

Once in office, Simpson has thrived as a behind-the-scenes operator.

“He’s not one who has a press conference bragging about what he’s done,” said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a Republican and former state legislator who considers Simpson a friend, although the two have sometimes backed rival politicians.

He’s been a consistent advocate for rolling back regulations, although he won praise from environmentalists who worked with him to water down a 2015 bill rolling back regulations on growth.

He sponsored last year’s texting-while-driving bill, and he’s criticized the Legislature’s lack of funding for Amendment 1, a change to Florida’s Constitution that voters approved requiring lawmakers to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive lands.

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State Sen. Wilton Simpson, May 1, 2019. Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

Simpson was also near the center of one of the biggest scandals in Tallahassee in the last decade, when his top aide accused fellow Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of sexual harassment.

Latvala resigned in 2018, yet the Senate has still not passed a bill increasing penalties for sexual harassment in state government.

Simpson, who defended his aide during the scandal, stopped short of promising to pass such a bill if he becomes president, however.

“It’s something I’m definitely interested in,” he said.

Since taking office, Simpson’s political fortunes have risen like his net worth, which has grown 66 percent, to $25.9 million, since becoming a senator.

Some of that is from shrewd business moves. Last year, for example, he sold 252 acres in Pasco County to Tampa Electric Co. for nearly $4.45 million, nearly tripling his investment when he bought the land just two years earlier. The utility has given his political committee $90,000 over the years.

Much of his net worth, $6.6 million, is from his stake in Simpson Environmental Services, however, which has won contracts worth $4.8 million from six different state agencies, nearly all in the last two years.

The company has also inked millions of dollars in deals with local governments and has long provided work for Publix, which endorses the company on its website.

Simpson said he’s “essentially had no contact with that part of the business” since taking office, but the company’s website lists him as its president, and Simpson appears in multiple photos on the company’s website.

“I’m not involved. It’s really that simple,” he said.

For the next year, Simpson will have one goal: helping Republican senators maintain their narrow majority in the Senate in the 2020 elections.

That means raising money, something Simpson is good at, having raised more than $12 million since 2013.

A list of his donors reads like that of any typical top Florida Republican: U.S. Sugar, Florida Power & Light and Disney are among his top five givers. Publix has given Simpson $85,000, making him the second-highest recipient of the grocery chain’s money, after Adam Putnam, a former candidate for governor.

If he’s successful at keeping a GOP majority, Simpson and Sprowls will become a formidable force for Tampa Bay.

But Simpson is coy about what he’ll bring to the area.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

Contact Lawrence Mower at lmower@tampabay.com. Follow @lmower3

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