TALLAHASSEE — Few state institutions bear a more distinct imprint of recent Republican hegemony than the Florida House of Representatives.
It launched the political career of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who served as its speaker four years ago. Its members have passed some of the most conservative bills in the nation. And since 2006, it has nurtured the career of Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel.
On Tuesday, Weatherford will be sworn in as, at 33, the youngest speaker of the House in recent Florida history and the first speaker from Tampa Bay since 2004. He'll preside over a chamber where Republicans have an overwhelming 76-44 majority. The son-in-law to former House Speaker Allan Bense, Weatherford looks like the latest model in a long, unbroken line of GOP speakers.
But these are also somewhat humbling times for House Republicans. On Nov. 6, they lost five seats and their veto-proof majority, punctuated by the shocking defeat of the person who had been picked to succeed Weatherford as speaker in 2014, Chris Dorworth.
"There's no question that the state moved more toward the center," said incoming Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. "This will change things, make it more bipartisan than it has been for quite a while."
The moment may be tailor-made for Weatherford, a block of a man and former defensive end at Jacksonville University who has developed a reputation for playing nice with both parties.
"If there's one thing I'd like to achieve is to be an inclusive reformer for the Florida House," Weatherford told reporters last week. "To make sure we're working with our friends across the aisle, that we're allowing for everyone's voice to be heard and to participate, but at the same time, don't let that stifle us from moving forward with real reforms and dealing with the challenges that Florida has before us."
Make no mistake: Weatherford, a businessman himself, will continue to push a conservative, pro-business agenda that could have been written by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
He wants new state employees to enroll in 401(k)-style retirement plans rather than the current pension system, which provides guaranteed payments from the state. While it's sure to alienate unions and spark a legal battle, Weatherford can't say how much it will save the state. He says pensions are a "ticking time bomb" in state finances — despite no evidence of the sort.
He'll push hard for a bigger commitment to online education and easing corporate taxes on small businesses. He toes the Republican Party line on the Affordable Care Act, is closely aligned with incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and publicly supports Gov. Rick Scott, albeit with measured language.
"His focus is on the right thing, which is getting unemployment down, making sure we have a fully funded education system," Weatherford said. "He's talking about the right things."
But he disagrees with Scott on tuition. While Scott opposes tuition increases, Weatherford sides with universities, saying they are necessary to cover costs. "We have universities that if given more flexibility with tuition, they can go to great heights," he said.
His biggest break is one of style. His predecessor, Dean Cannon, ran the House with strict efficiency that bruised the feelings of marginalized Democrats while allowing Republicans to run roughshod with legislation that, during the tea party ascendency, opposed the Affordable Care Act, the federal economic stimulus and early voting. Since the spring, Weatherford has signaled he will run the House differently.
"I thought Dean Cannon was a great speaker," Weatherford said in an interview. "He was very good to me, and I learned a lot from him. But everybody's different. My style will be very similar to the way that I did the redistricting process."
Weatherford drew raves as House redistricting chairman, where he was responsible for redrawing the 120 House districts. He held several public meetings, sought counsel from Democrats, and came up with a new map that was generally supported. While the state Senate map is still being challenged in court, the House map was deemed legal last year. Weatherford uses the map as a shield against criticism that under his leadership, Republicans lost ground in the election.
"We lost the super-majority with the map," Weatherford said. "I knew it would cost us seats, but it was the right thing to do."
Along with Gaetz, Weatherford wants to eliminate fundraising committees used by lawmakers. Weatherford said they aren't transparent.
It's unclear how exactly Weatherford could enhance transparency, but his shift has nevertheless impressed League of Women Voters of Florida president Deirdre Macnab.
"We're very intrigued and certainly noticing a new tone and a greater emphasis on ethics," she said. "It's refreshing."
Amid calls for elections reform by Democrats and voting rights groups, Weatherford sounded like he would revisit the issue, even though he voted for the bill in 2011 that scaled back early voting and made other changes.
"If (HB 1355) contributed to any challenges in the election process, we should admit that," Weatherford said. "Obviously, the laws that are currently on the books may not have served the state well."
Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a harsh critic of Scott who is considering forming a task force to address elections reform, called Weatherford last week to seek his advice. "He was very positive, telling me he would make sure there was room in the legislation for our recommendations," said Iorio, a Democrat. "I've always found Will Weatherford to be reasonable, and I think he's sincere about elections reform."
Thurston, the incoming House minority leader, also gives Weatherford high marks for being more inclusive. During the summer, Weatherford and Thurston met several times to discuss issues where they said Democrats and Republicans could find common ground — such as gambling, energy, ethics, campaign finance and the budget.
Still, Weatherford's House may deliver the same hard right legislation of his predecessors.
"In the end, it will still be a conservative agenda," Thurston said. "But he'll make every effort to push bipartisanship."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]