State Politics

Florida House, Senate get new leaders in Steve Crisafulli, Andy Gardiner

One climbed the legislative ranks rung by rung for more than a decade, his steady progress made possible by a quiet determination.

The other is a scion of a politically powerful family who made it to the top only after scandal and an election upset cleared the way for his rise.

Their paths converge at the apex of Florida politics Tuesday when Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, becomes president of the Florida Senate and Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, becomes speaker of the Florida House.

Neither promises to be much different than outgoing Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford. Both are staunch conservatives, embraced by the GOP establishment. Both are widely regarded as safe bets to manage the spoils for a party on a winning streak.

“The last two years were good,” said lobbyist Brian Ballard. “This will be a continuation. These are two solid guys who are grownups. They get along real well and that will mean less drama.”

No one expects the drama that swirled about the Capitol when Republicans had a House supermajority four years ago. Gardiner, 45, and Crisafulli, 43, are longtime friends who haven’t revealed many of their priorities yet.

“Our styles are very similar,” Gardiner said. “Neither one of us is coming in with a huge ask.”

The two Central Florida lawmakers — Crisafulli lives in Gardiner’s district — have agreed to make drafting a comprehensive water policy a main goal over the next two years. Protecting the Indian River Lagoon will rise to the level of a pressing state issue.

“I don’t see a lot of red meat political issues going back and forth,” Ballard said. “It’ll be more mechanical.”

Gardiner is a soft-spoken vice president of external affairs for the not-for-profit hospital Orlando Health. Married with three children, his oldest son, Andrew, has Down syndrome. One of his top goals will be expanding programs for those with disabilities.

An avid cyclist and triathlete, he has paced his political career like a marathoner, deliberate and unrelenting.

He entered the Florida House in 2000 with no remarkable blood lines or titles, then a 31-year-old executive director of the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.

But in his rookie year, Gardiner was tapped by then-House Speaker Tom Feeney to be floor whip and vice chair of the transportation committee. Majority leader came four years later. Although Marco Rubio beat him out for the speakership in 2006, Gardiner won a state Senate seat in 2008 and was majority leader in the upper chamber by 2010.

Throughout his rise, Gardiner’s conservatism has been strident. He has consistently supported charter schools and vouchers. He sponsored legislation that required ultrasounds for first-term abortions, which was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

At times, he has veered from the party line. In 2011, Gardiner was one of few Republicans to protest when Scott rejected federal money for high-speed rail.

But like Crisafulli, Gardiner is regarded as soft-spoken and unassuming.

“He’s a very calm, very hard to excite guy,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “He thinks carefully before he talks, he measures his words very carefully.”

He’ll preside in a chamber where Republicans hold a 26-14 edge over Democrats, but he’s not expected to lord that advantage over Democrats.

“He’s made some wonderful inroads with the Democratic caucus,” said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando.

Gardiner said he doesn’t plan on seeking higher office when he’s done.

“When I’m done in 2016, it’ll be over 20 years in the Legislature, if you count my years as an aide,” he said. “My goal is to do the best I can and after two years go home.”

Crisafulli is regarded in much the same way as Gardiner: quiet, methodical, more interested in debating policy.

But his political career was never preordained; it was aided mostly by fate.

He comes from a prominent agricultural family that helped settle Brevard County. Doyle Carlton, who served as governor in the 1930s, is a cousin. Vassar Carlton, who served as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court in the 1970s, is his grandfather.

It took the resignation of Rep. Bob Allen of Merritt Island, who had been convicted by a jury for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in 2007, to thrust Crisafulli into politics.

Vice president of his family’s cattle, citrus, real estate and construction business, Crisafulli said he accepted the GOP’s request that he run because he was so frustrated with fighting environmental and land use regulations.

For the next two years, he kept a low profile, close to leadership, but never on center stage.

When Rep. Chris Dorworth unexpectedly lost his Central Florida seat in 2012, Republicans had to scramble. Dorworth was in line to become the speaker this year.

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, considered running but soon dropped out.

“He never sought to become speaker, but after I kept asking people for their support, they all asked if Steve was running for it,” Workman said. “That was a sign.”

Even after getting tapped as speaker, however, Crisafulli remained in the background.

“The more you speak in this process, the less people listen to you,” he said. “There’s a time to speak and that time is when you have something relevant to put forth. I’ve always carried myself like that. I’m not loud or boisterous.”

Presiding over a chamber where Republicans hold an 81-39 edge over Democrats, Crisafulli won’t need to be loud. Democrats pose little threat to stopping his priorities.

Like Weatherford, Crisafulli will try to reform the state’s retirement system so that new employees will be covered by 401(k)-style retirement plans, not pensions. That, along with a new gambling compact, could pit the House against the Senate.

He’ll promote funding for seaports, a priority of Gov. Scott. And he wants to cut red tape and taxes, though he hasn’t identified which ones.

On Monday, with his wife and two daughters looking on, Crisafulli made clear that he supports bold and conservative legislation.

“There is no doubt we will cast difficult votes,” Crisafulli told the Republican caucus, which includes 17 new Republican members. “There is no doubt that some bills will be controversial. But we were sent here to make crucial decisions.”

Just don’t expect Crisafulli to take any cheap shots at Democrats, said Workman.

“Some will say he’s a right-winger,” he said. “But he’s not interested in making a political statement. If it’s a good policy that supports small government, he’ll support it.”

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