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Focused Cannon ready to wield power as new Florida House Speaker

A gator head from a guided hunt rests on a shelf, dozens of jagged teeth displayed in a ferocious smile.

On a wall hangs a framed copy of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, a document formalizing the country's submission to the United States at the end of World War II.

These potent symbols of supremacy are found in the fourth-floor Capitol corner office of House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Central Florida Republican who has accumulated more power than any of his eight GOP predecessors.

Cannon, 42, heads into his first regular session as speaker having secured the prestigious job five years ago, quicker than any Republican before him. He essentially took control two years early, after an impending indictment forced Ray Sansom to resign the speaker's post.

Now he presides over half of the first Republican-led, veto-proof Legislature.

"It's up to him to decide to be magnanimous or rule with an iron fist," said veteran Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. "It's his decision to make."

Cannon said his only desire is a well-run House, but he has his eyes on a host of policy changes: overhauling growth management laws, cutting Medicaid costs and stopping the Supreme Court from overriding legislative decisions.

And Cannon sees a potential advantage over his two negotiating partners.

He does not have Gov. Rick Scott's lengthy list of campaign promises to start crossing off before re-election. Unlike Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who is running for U.S. Senate, Cannon does not have to juggle the duties of his office with the complications of campaigning and raising money for his next job.

Cannon has been mentioned as a possible future congressman, governor or college president.

Putting off that decision for two years frees him to concentrate on a legislative session that will be consumed by the mayhem of a nearly $4 billion budget shortfall, said former House Speaker Ralph Haben, a Democrat who has counseled Cannon.

"We're going to see the OK Corral here starting Tuesday," Haben said about the start of session. "I would suggest to you that Dean Cannon is going to be focused and consistent through it all."

Said Cannon: "It's nice to be the only one among the presiding officers and the governor not running for re-election or anything else.

"It's a very good feeling."

• • •

With dark suits tailored to his slight build and light hair closely cropped and parted to the right, Cannon's buttoned-down dress matches his cautious politics.

Among the smartest members of the Legislature, he relaxes when the cameras are off, peppering sentences with folksy suburban slang like "cool" and "man." He puts himself through intense predawn workouts and enjoys a glass of red wine in the evening.

Cannon smiles wryly recalling the nerve-wracking roles he played unseating a pair of powerful Republicans within 11 months.

As then-Speaker Sansom was facing questions about whether he falsified the state budget in return for a six-figure college job, Cannon and three other lawmakers traveled to Sansom's Destin home and urged him to quit the college.

As the story escalated, Cannon helped persuade Sansom to resign from the House and inserted little-known Rep. Larry Cretul to fill the gap. Cretul was Sansom's roommate at the time, an awkward situation remedied when Cretul moved into a mother-in-law apartment at Cannon's Tallahassee home.

A year later, Cannon negotiated the resignation of Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, accused of stealing campaign donations. Greer, like Sansom, denies any wrongdoing.

"He's a problem-solver," said former Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who visited Sansom with Cannon. "He doesn't create panic or use problems to accomplish unrelated goals. He has a good skill set for being practical."

But Cannon has had his share of problems.

When a spending scandal forced the Republican Party to release three years of American Express bills, Cannon's account included about $200,000 in charges.

He repaid about $3,000, including a $2,530 birthday celebration at Hot Olives restaurant in Winter Park plus another $500 in charges after the bills were made public.

Cannon had the party cover $279,567 in private plane expenses since he won the speaker's race in 2005.

Greer was blasted in an audit for plane expenses reimbursed by the party. Cannon's expenses, for a Cirrus SR-22 he flies and co-owns through a company called GK Aviation, were not examined by auditors until after the Orlando Sentinel reported them.

"I was satisfied there were not the same issues as we concluded with Greer's plane," said Scott P. Hilsen, an Alston and Bird attorney who audited the party's books.

Democrats saw an opportunity to unseat Cannon after he pushed a bill in the final days of the 2009 session to open Florida waters to oil drilling. It passed the House, but did not receive a Senate vote.

Cannon then spent $200,000 in taxpayer money on a hurried consultant study concluding that any spills in the Gulf of Mexico would be rare, small and easily contained.

Days after the report was presented in the House, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and Cannon vowed to abandon the idea as speaker.

Amy Mercado, now the Orange County Democratic chairwoman, attempted to unseat Cannon by portraying him as a pawn of the oil industry.

Cannon, however, won nearly 60 percent of the vote in his 2010 re-election, while Republicans captured five Democratic House seats to expand their majority to 81-39.

• • •

Cannon, the son of an Air Force pilot who grew up near his grandparents' Lakeland farm, was interested in government at an early age. He visited the state House chamber for the first time in 10th grade as a member of the YMCA youth legislature.

At the University of Florida, he joined Florida Blue Key, a campus political machine whose alumni reads like a who's-who of Florida politics.

While in law school, he ran for student body president on a ticket with Brad Culpepper, a Gators defensive tackle who went on to an NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The pair were elected just months before Danny Rolling was arrested in 1991 for murdering five students.

But the student government experience soured Cannon. "It's the worst of politics aggravated by immaturity," Cannon said.

He joined Fisher Rushmer, an Orlando-based personal injury firm, after college, but he couldn't shake his interest in politics.

At First Baptist Church, he met the soft-spoken and deeply respected Dan Webster, who in 1996 became the state's first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction. Cannon credits Webster, now a U.S. congressman, for renewing his passion for politics and considers him a mentor.

The two would end up on opposite sides of the negotiating table in 2007 when Webster was in the state Senate and each represented their respective chambers in a heated property tax debate. After sharing countless Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets and waffle fries, they survived the ordeal with their friendship intact.

Cannon eventually joined the powerful Gray Robinson law firm, where he focused on land use issues, bid protests and adding contacts to his political Rolodex.

In 2000, Cannon represented Gov. Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle, after she was arrested and charged with attempting to buy Xanax with a fake prescription and twice sent to jail for violating rules in drug rehab.

Cannon also helped with House campaigns of Orlando-area Republicans.

"I remember thinking in the late '90s, 'Man, I wish I could run,' " Cannon said.

• • •

In 2004, Cannon scared off competition for his House seat by gaining support from leaders like Speaker Allan Bense.

A year later, he secured his career in the chamber.

Collecting votes for speaker before the end of 2005 sent a message to lobbyists and other lawmakers that crossing Cannon could put at risk their own bills. That power was on display as Cannon joined his two predecessors — Sansom and now-U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — for news conferences, fundraisers and hearings around the state.

"Power should be treated very carefully," Cannon said. "Just because you have the power to do something doesn't mean you necessarily should."

Cannon devoted himself to issues as a lawmaker, supporting efforts to teach evolution as a "theory" in science classes; passing a bill to double fines from red-light cameras; and helping bring the SunRail commuter line to Central Florida.

Several sentences Cannon wrote during the eminent domain debate in 2006 are now etched in the state Constitution. He considers it among his proudest achievements.

"He's an honest and forthright negotiator," said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "He doesn't take a position lightly or leave it lightly."

One area where Cannon has dug in is his push for changes to the state Supreme Court, which he included among the "threats to our liberties" during his swearing-in speech.

He said the court endangered its impartiality after striking from the statewide ballot three constitutional amendments crafted by the Legislature.

One proposal in the House this year is a constitutional amendment for the 2012 ballot that asks voters to take away the court's power to write its own rules and give it to the Legislature. Supporters say the court uses its rules to legislate from the bench, while opponents say the change amounts to a "legislative takeover" of the courts.

Haben acknowledged that pushing back on the courts could spark criticism from a state where one in eight Floridians is out of work.

"The Supreme Court probably doesn't matter to the average guy sitting on his porch," Haben said. "But you can be sure he'll hear about any cut to education."

• • •

Though Cannon will be pitted against Haridopolos during session, the two have worked to establish a relationship. Haridopolos said it is both "personal and professional."

More complicated is the relationship between Cannon, a traditional political power broker, and Scott, a newcomer to the legislative process, though publicly Cannon expresses respect for Scott.

"Our philosophies are very much the same or similar," Cannon said. "Our approaches to individual problems may be different, but not necessarily in conflict."

The next 60 days will tell.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Roy Dean

Cannon Jr.

Born: Aug. 2, 1968, on a U.S. Air Force base in Bitburg, Germany; raised in Lakeland.

Residence: Winter Park.

Family: Wife, Ellen, 39,

is a homemaker; children Dean III, 8; Katherine, 6; and Sarah 4.

Career: Lawyer with a private practice. Previously worked for Orlando-based firms Fisher Rushmer, 1993-95; and Gray Robinson, 1996-2007. President, 4 Corner Resources, an IT staffing company, 2007-08.

Political: Elected to the state House in 2004, speaker 2010-2012; Orlando Redistricting Advisory Committee, 2000-02; Orange County Charter Review Commission, 2000.

Focused Cannon ready to wield power as new Florida House Speaker 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 7:26pm]

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