Sunday, November 19, 2017
Politics

Freshman Capitol class should learn from past mistakes

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Every other November, dozens of eager and idealistic men and women join the state Legislature.

The Class of 2012 arrived at the Capitol in Tallahassee Monday ahead of a one-day organizational session. On Tuesday, they will take the oath of office, greet each other for the first time and maybe even figure out where the nearest bathroom is.

There are 44 freshmen in the 120-member House and 15 newcomers (a modern record) in the 40-member Senate, though most new senators have experience as House members.

That's an awful lot of change, but it's what the people chose when they approved eight-year term limits for both houses 20 years ago. New blood is always good; rampant turnover isn't.

As the newbies look ahead with idealism, they would be wise to look back, too. The history of the Legislature is full of good lessons.

Four years ago, the Class of 2008 got some words of wisdom from the man who would lead them: House Speaker Ray Sansom of Destin.

He soon self-destructed and stepped aside while a prosecutor probed his budget dealings that were highly questionable but, in the end, not criminal in nature.

It was a terrible time for the Legislature. The moral of the story is obvious: Politicians who covet power are flirting with failure, or in Sansom's case, disaster.

But he knew right from wrong, and before his downfall, Sansom gave some sage advice to the freshmen.

Be prepared, he said: The Capitol's a "fishbowl" and TV cameras and "our friends in the media" will watch your every move.

He offered other advice that he did not follow. Don't become creatures of Tallahassee with its lobbyists, gamesmanship and lust for power and fame that ultimately means little.

"Tallahassee is not your home," Sansom said. "Don't become disconnected from your district (and) the people who sent you here. You're here to serve your district."

Listening in the House chamber that day was Rep. Will Weatherford, the 33-year-old Republican from Wesley Chapel who today becomes speaker of the House.

The Sansom controversy imparted lifelong lessons to young Weatherford.

"They were elected to come up here and do a job — not to have a good time," Weatherford said. "If they can have a good time and still do their job, that's great. But they're here to serve the people who sent them here.

"We expect them to be ethical," Weatherford added. "We expect them to deal with their community with character."

Weatherford said he will demand that legislators treat each other, staff members and the general public with respect at all times, and not to treat people from the other party as enemies to be demonized.

He said he would like to see a return to the bipartisan, respectful tone that marked the tenure of his father-in-law and political mentor, Allan Bense of Panama City, who was speaker from 2004 to 2006.

Weatherford was a young staffer in the speaker's office during Bense's term.

"The speaker can't do everything," Weatherford said. "But one thing I can do is set the tone and the culture of the Florida House for the next two years."

Steve Bousquet can be reached online at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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