TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Larry Cretul has heard the jokes about his accidental status as speaker of the Florida House, but with a single act this week, he left no doubt who is in charge.
On Wednesday, Cretul stripped Miami Republican Julio Robaina as a committee chairman for undermining a bill that was a priority of the attorney general.
Cretul's power play struck some as heavy-handed, while others said it was the right medicine.
"When you get tested, you must take action," said Rep. Rich Glorioso, a Plant City Republican and retired Air Force colonel. "That's the basic rule of leadership. Otherwise you lose control."
But it was a surprising move from Cretul, R-Ocala, who quickly established himself as a calming force in a House where his predecessor had resigned amid scandal.
Robaina blasted Cretul Thursday on Univision Radio, calling him un dictador and asserted cultural discrimination.
"What they are trying to do is shut up a Latino from Miami-Dade," said Robaina, a respected lawmaker who has a history of bucking his party.
Democratic Rep. Luis Garcia of Miami, who calls Robaina his best friend in the Legislature, said: "In Cuba, you have political commissars. Here, you have whips."
The bill at issue would limit contingency fees awarded to outside lawyers hired by the Attorney General's Office. Robaina, who voted for identical legislation last year, offered an amendment that provided more leeway.
On Tuesday, he successfully amended it during a meeting of the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council and the bill passed on a bipartisan 9-to-1 vote. Robaina said it is bad public policy to tie the hands of future attorneys general.
But Robaina was warned against doing so and critics say he is doing the bidding of trial lawyers, with an eye toward fundraising in an upcoming state Senate run. Robaina denies that and blames Cretul's actions on the man who delivered the message to back off: Miami Republican Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the House Whip.
Robaina said Lopez-Cantera is miffed that he raised questions about Lopez-Cantera's mother getting named to the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. Lopez-Cantera calls the accusation "unfortunate."
The web is deeply layered, touching on political and family alliances and rivalries — stark emotions raised by a bill that otherwise would have gotten little attention during a 60-day session gripped by budget cuts.
Even so, the situation served as a first test for Cretul, who has displayed a low-key management style. Cretul took over as speaker on March 3 after Ray Sansom was ousted amid controversy over taking a job at his hometown college. Cretul's speech on the opening day of the session was notable not for what he said, but for how brief it was.
Some, like Glorioso, who cautioned he was not fully aware of the Robaina case, say Cretul was entirely justified and needed to assert himself. With a leadership post, they say, comes the expectation that you are part of a team.
"We have one leader in the House and that's Larry," Glorioso said.
But others saw the move as heavy-handed and wonder if forces other than Cretul drove the decision. Cretul, who considers it an internal House issue, declined comment Friday.
The chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation, Republican Rep. Juan Zapata, worries that the area will lose clout as a result. "It's not like he killed the bill," Zapata said. "Things could have been handled differently."
Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, thinks the action was less about Robaina's actions than about sending a signal to the GOP caucus.
"They need their members to vote in lockstep on the budget and other issues," he said, "and they wanted to show those consequences of failing to do so."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet and Miami Herald reporter Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.