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Florida House District 61 challenger predicts he'll lose, but leave his mark

Nobody should get a pass, "no matter how big and important you are." That's Kevin Wright's message as the T-shirt printer campaigns to unseat state Rep. Will Weatherford, a Florida House speaker-in-waiting and who never has faced a primary opponent.

Stick with a tried and true conservative. That's the message Weatherford, who has raised more than half a million dollars in campaign contributions and picked up a host of endorsements, is working to convey with door-to-door stops and folksy ads that feature his brother, Drew, a former Florida State quarterback, and Weatherford driving a red pickup down a dirt road.

The campaign so far has been fairly quiet, with neither side getting too much in the other's face. No scandals on either side.

"I'm going to focus on the positives of my campaign," said Weatherford, who hardly ever mentions that he has a challenger.

For the record, key Pasco County Republican leaders have endorsed Weatherford. State committeeman Bill Bunting recently called Wright "a gadfly" and his campaign "a disaster."

Even Wright predicts a Weatherford victory and says he understands why his opponent is backed by the establishment.

"He's in line to be the House speaker. A lot of people have invested in him and it's hard to give up something you have an investment in."

Still, Wright says, "stranger things have happened."

• • •

Politically speaking, Weatherford, is big and important. His bio sounds like a fairy tale. In it he's the gallant prince who works for the king, wins the heart of the princess, is put in line to assume the throne and lives happily ever after.

Weatherford is probably the most popular name in Land O'Lakes, Will, 30, is second of nine children, all shining stars on athletic fields.

Younger brother Drew threw passes as a Land O'Lakes Gator and Florida State Seminole quarterback. Another little brother, Steve, is now quarterback at Land O'Lakes and plans to play next year for the University of South Florida. Will was a captain on the Land O'Lakes football team before going on to Jacksonville University on an academic scholarship. He played defensive end in college.

After graduating, he worked as an aide to then House speaker Allan Bense. He married Bense's daughter, Courtney, in 2006.

The same year, he got tapped to fill the Wesley Chapel/New Tampa seat being given up by Ken Littlefield. He cruised to victory over the Democrat, a newcomer with a history of mental health problems who suffered a nervous breakdown during the campaign. Two years ago, Weatherford ran unopposed.

GOP leaders have anointed Weatherford as House speaker in 2012, the same year Tampa would play host to the Republican National Convention.

He would be Pasco County's first speaker since 1893 and the youngest since 1957.

"For a young man, he's very mature," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Will Weatherford is the best thing to happen to Pasco County and the Tampa Bay area."

Bills he recently championed or sponsored included one that would let voters scale back the class-size amendment. If approved in November, it would give school districts more flexibility by being able to use school averages instead of individual classroom size to comply with size limits. He also has supported a bill to increase tax exemptions for companies moving to Florida. He served as House floor leader for Senate Bill 6, strongly opposed by teachers unions, to change how teachers are evaluated and compensated.

Weatherford admits the bill, vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist, wasn't perfect. But he said something needs to be done to separate teachers who go the extra mile from those who do the minimum.

During his four years in the Legislature, Weatherford has made many friends with his affable temperament.

"Will holds no grudges," said state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, who was unopposed this year and who worked with Weatherford on education committees. "He can sit down with you and talk to you."

When Democrats offer amendments, Legg said, Weatherford doesn't automatically dismiss them.

"He'll say, 'That's a great amendment; let's take that on,'" he said.

Legg said Weatherford skillfully worked both sides of the aisle when shepherding a bill that increased the amounts of money businesses are allowed to donate toward private school vouchers for economically disadvantaged kids.

"Will really reached out to the African-American community," he said. "He answered their questions and showed how they'd receive some of the biggest benefits from the program."

The bill passed with bipartisan support. Among those voting in favor: state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

"He tends to the conservative, but he really tends to respect the other side of the aisle," said Rouson, who knew Weatherford as an aide when he and Bense served on the Tax and Budget Reform Committee. "We're not in lock sync on every issue. We can't be. But he's a statesman."

• • •

Wright graduated in 1975 with an English linguistics degree from the University of South Florida. He identifies with the tea party movement. Wright talks about the need to find sources of renewable energy and to upgrade highways. He opposes government funding for high-speed rail, saying it's a waste of money, and more should be done to improve roads and other forms of mass transit.

"I'm running because the economy of Florida is in bad shape," he said.

The owner of a Tampa business called Thundershirts, Wright, 55, says he recalls when President John F. Kennedy vowed to send men to the moon. He said he wants America to return to those types of big dreams.

Otherwise, "America will continue to be a nation of also-rans," he said.

On his Facebook page, he proposes using bales of straw to clean up oil that reaches the shores and burning it in a refuse-to-energy facility.

As for education, he says Senate Bill 6 was a bad idea. He also says the class size amendment, approved in 2002, also was ill-advised, and the fix being pushed by Weatherford is too late.

"The voters should now specifically reject procrastination and misplaced priorities at the ballot box," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Wright aims his criticism at "career politicians" and less at Weatherford individually, although he jabs "my opponent" raising more than half a million dollars from "special interests." Records show Wright so far has raised $8,765, with most of that his own money.

So why choose a state office for your first political campaign? Why not start at the local level such as school board or county commission?

"I want to have a statewide conversation about policies for Florida and policies really impacting the nation," he said. He said local officeholders focus on "minor details" such as where a road or school is going. "I'm setting my sights on a larger conversation."

Despite the David vs. Goliath comparison of the race, Wright has at least one well-known supporter.

Bob Williams, who founded the Support the Troops movement that sends supplies to those deployed overseas, said Wright would be an asset to Tallahassee.

"He's one of the few people I consider to be extremely honest," said Williams of Wesley Chapel. "I know he'd work hard. He works hard at everything he does."

With such long odds, are Wright's prospects hopeless?

Not necessarily, says one expert.

"This election year has already seen some very surprising outcomes, and who knows what will happen from here on out?" said Stephen Craig, professor and chairman of the University of Florida Department of Political Science.

"And even if a tea party candidate has no chance of winning, the effort can still pay some symbolic dividends."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Fast facts

Candidate forum

Will Weatherford and Kevin Wright will speak at a candidate forum at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Tampa Bay Golf & Country Club at Interstate 75 and State Road 52 in San Antonio. The winner of the Aug. 24 primary will face Democrat Elena McCullough on Nov. 2.

Florida House District 61 challenger predicts he'll lose, but leave his mark 08/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 9:45pm]
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