TALLAHASSEE — The battle to lead the state House in 2012 ended five years ago, not long after a pivotal meal at a Buddy Freddy's restaurant.
That's when Rep. Seth McKeel had a long talk with someone he realized might be a better choice than himself.
"It was that day, in that restaurant, that I realized: This dude wants it more than I do," McKeel, a Lakeland Republican, recalled Monday. "And that's okay."
That "dude" was Rep. Will Weatherford, a fresh-faced, athletic Wesley Chapel Republican who had a former House speaker for a father-in-law and a Florida State University quarterback for a younger brother.
House Republicans quickly lined up behind Weatherford, and in a ceremony Monday, they cast their formal votes to make him speaker-designate. He will succeed current Speaker Dean Cannon in November 2012.
Weatherford, 31, will be the first House speaker from Pasco County since John B. Johnston, D-Dade City — back in 1893. He will also be the third-youngest speaker.
Fellow legislators and Gov. Rick Scott heaped praise on Weatherford at Monday's event, calling him a humble and ethical leader, the "real deal" and the "total package."
"If there is such a thing as a natural-born leader, Will Weatherford is it," said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral.
Weatherford grew up in a family of nine siblings in Pasco, his brother Drew a star quarterback for FSU. He worked as an aide to former House Speaker Allan Bense and then 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.
Weatherford's wife and two daughters — Ella, 3, and Molly, about 3 months — were in the House chamber for his special day.
Bense said he expected big things of Weatherford, and he compared him to former Gov. Jeb Bush for his mastery of both broad principles and policy details.
"Will can see the larger picture, but he can also debate with you on any public policy issue," Bense said.
In his remarks, Weatherford said the coming years promised a debate over "the soul of our state," and he outlined the principles that will guide his speakership: recognizing the rights of the unborn; school choice; an end to "excessive" regulations on business; and the notion that prosperity must be earned and not redistributed.
"We must decide what is the promise of Florida," he said.
Weatherford also acknowledged being overwhelmed by the long line of people — from Scott to Cannon to McKeel — who praised him.
"I hope I can live up to half of what was said about me in the past hour," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.