Ray Sansom strode past the Choctaw High cheerleaders and his noisy admirers, a humble hometown hero glowing amid all the accolades.
It was Nov. 13 — five days before Sansom would become speaker of the Florida House, and the Okaloosa County Fairgrounds was packed with 500 people. They wore "Congratulations Ray!" stickers and waved flags. They ate barbecue and banana pudding.
"I hope that after these two years — these tough two years — that you will still welcome me back," Sansom said to laughter, before giving thanks to the "rock" and "foundation" of the close-knit Panhandle.
The scene, captured in a Northwest Florida Daily News video, conveys deep warmth and great expectations. Rep. Ray Sansom was, in every sense, a man in full.
But the celebration contained elements of his undoing.
There's a glimpse of Sansom embracing a joyous Bob Richburg, the president of Northwest Florida State College, who hired Sansom to a controversial six-figure job on the same day he became speaker.
Picking up part of the tab was Jay Odom, the developer whose private jet operation is the focus of a storm over a $6 million taxpayer-funded building Sansom secured for the college.
Two months later, the cheers have turned to silence and Sansom's political career is in jeopardy. He stepped aside from the position Friday to deal with a grand jury investigation and ethics inquiries. He insists he did nothing wrong.
The controversy has left a permanent mark, and nowhere does it hurt Sansom more than in Okaloosa County.
"Our community is confused and hurt today," said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a longtime ally who spoke with Sansom on Friday and described him as apologetic.
"Ray Sansom was the Boy Scout of Northwest Florida, the decent, humble guy from next door who rose to the top of Florida politics in all the right ways, for all the right reasons," Gaetz continued. "It hurts to see someone who you've known and cared for and voted for, as this community has time and time again, now be the first presiding officer in anyone's modern history to have to step aside. This is our friend."
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The Sansom narrative is almost literary — a hardworking, self-effacing small town boy who made it big.
He grew up as the youngest of six children, the son of a Baptist minister who also sold furniture. He is a native of rural Alabama who attended one of the area's few integrated schools in the late 1960s. He spent the rest of his childhood in Fort Walton Beach. His family did not have much money and lived in a rented home, according to a recent profile in Emerald Coast magazine.
Sansom met his future wife, Tricia, in the fourth grade. "I sent her a note that said 'I like you. Do you like me? Check yes or no,' " he recounted in a March 2007 speech. He said she checked yes and sent the note back, adding: " 'P.S. — Ray, you're ugly.' That is absolutely the truth. But I like a challenge. We eventually got together in the 10th grade, and we've been together ever since."
The couple now has three daughters, one in college, and lives in a nice but not ritzy neighborhood in Destin.
"It's like a Norman Rockwell family," said Ted Corcoran, president of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, which arranged the fete for Sansom at the fairgrounds. They displayed a map of Florida depicting the Panhandle as much larger than the rest of the state, a jab at those who view the region as a stepchild.
A Baptist, Sansom, 46, does not drink and has discouraged the use of alcohol at Republican functions. He has a long history of political activism. He served as a legislative aide in the late 1980s and was a member of the Okaloosa County Commission from 1992 to 2000.
Sansom first ran for the Legislature in 2000 against longtime Republican incumbent Jerry Melvin, and lost by 53 votes. Two of his first political contributors were Gaetz and Odom. Two years later, Sansom won.
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Sansom had emerged improbably from a small group of legislators seeking the speaker's job. He had proven his mettle working on a complicated school funding formula and simply locked in more support than the others.
The promise of that unlikely quest for an unassuming Panhandle politician was realized on a Monday afternoon in March 2007. The House chamber was filled with enthusiasm and hope as Sansom's Republican colleagues formally designated him as speaker for the 2008-10 term.
Sansom's wife and daughters, Jessica, Carlee and Julia, looked on along with Gov. Charlie Crist and senators as speaker after speaker showered Sansom with praise.
The speaker-to-be sat at a front-row aisle seat as his colleagues spoke glowingly about him, even if they did occasionally mispronounce his name as "Sampson."
For his part, Sansom joked about how quickly legislative leaders pass into obscurity. "It won't be long before I'll be 'Ray who?' and I'll be sitting in the corner over there," he said.
Staff writer Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.