TALLAHASSEE — The half-step departure Ray Sansom engineered from his role as House speaker spread unease instead of calm Saturday, leading some top Republicans to consider permanently replacing him.
The development came toward the end of a day of questions about who is running the House, if Sansom's "recusal" from his duties is allowed by the rules, and how long his temporary successor, Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala, can properly hold the position.
"Who's in charge over there? Who's steering the ship? This is strange," said Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos, echoing a broad array of legislators.
On Friday, Sansom, 46, formally recused himself from his authority as speaker, giving Cretul temporary control of the chamber while Sansom focuses on a battery of investigations into his relationship with his hometown college. Sansom, R-Destin, stopped short of resigning the coveted post, in the hopes that he can return to power if his legal matters, including an investigation by a grand jury, can be resolved quickly.
Cretul, 61, may be an accidental speaker, but the two Republicans in line to become speaker in 2010 and 2012 were moving Saturday to ensure his status is not questioned and to smother talk about an internal election for a replacement.
"I'm proud of the decision Speaker Sansom's made to turn it over to speaker pro tem Cretul," said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who is the likely speaker in 2010. "Every member is saying that will enable us to get back to the business at hand."
Saturday, ranking Republicans were mulling whether to allow a meeting of the House GOP caucus with the goal of settling the dispute over who is in charge. They could seek a vote to install Cretul as the permanent speaker, in which case Sansom would simply become a state representative.
The importance of presenting a calm face is more than cosmetic. The House must unify quickly or enter the regular session, which begins March 3, as the weaker brother to the Senate.
The session will be dominated by the need to grapple with an estimated $3 billion budget deficit. What's more, lawmakers must conduct high-level negotiating on issues such as gambling, a possible state purchase of the CSX rail line and possibly the first tax increases the Legislature has considered in years.
And although Sansom's move was intended to bring calm, there are distinct signs of friction in the House.
A small but vocal faction of Republicans openly wants to sever ties with Sansom, even as they support him in his quest to clear his name after taking a $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College in the Panhandle. A series of reports by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau raised questions about tens of millions of dollars Sansom secured for the small school over the past two years, when he was House budget chairman.
"There's 18 million Floridians who don't care about all this legal stuff about recusals and stepping aside. All they want is a speaker who can serve," said Rep. Carl Domino, who briefly ran for speaker with Sansom and others a few years ago.
On Monday, Domino, R-Jupiter, plans to send a letter to House Majority Leader Adam Hasner asking him to call a meeting of all Republicans to decide whether a permanent speaker should be chosen.
"If we don't do that," said Domino, who would seek the position, "it's going to be like a cancer that hangs in the wind."
Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, who was first to raise questions about the rule, said, "I echo that. I do not believe what has been done is according to the rules. This is inappropriate."
On Saturday, Rep. Jim Waldman, a Democrat from Coconut Creek, called on the House Rules Committee to decide how long Cretul can be temporary speaker, and whether a permanent successor should be chosen by the 120-member House.
"I will do the research and issue a recommendation," said Rep. Bill Galvano, the House Rules Council chairman and a Bradenton lawyer.
Galvano was Sansom's leading rival for speaker, and he emphasized Saturday he was not angling for the job now.
In stepping aside rather than down, Sansom cited an obscure House rule allowing him to remain as the speaker but delegate the responsibilities of the position to someone else until he feels he is "fit" to resume.
Questions immediately swirled, and Friday evening the House released a legal memo saying the move was proper.
"Because the rule has never been used before, certainly there are questions about how it is used," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is in line to become speaker in 2012. "I think as time goes on (critics) will see it's legitimate."
Cretul stayed out of the spotlight Saturday, saying he needed time to absorb the changes. He spent time studying the budget cuts enacted during a recent special session and Crist's decision to overturn some of them.
On Monday an issue dear to Cretul's heart will be in the spotlight when the Select Committee on the Seminole Indian Compact Review meets to hear testimony from the tribe's lawyers and tribal leaders.
Sansom had named Cretul to head that committee and the panel was widely expected to work toward limiting the expansion of gambling allowed at the tribe's Hard Rock casinos. On Monday, the meeting is expected to be run instead by the vice chair, Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Unlike Sansom, who has no gambling entities in his district, Cretul comes from the heart of Florida's thoroughbred breeding country which depends on horse racing, and he has pursued legislation in the past to protect his local jai alai fronton.
State senators of both parties say they're staying out of the Sansom affair, but they're concerned with the instability of the situation as well as the fact that no one is really sure who's in charge.
A two-speaker system, they say, wouldn't work in almost any year. But it's particularly harmful in such a challenging budget environment.
"This is not a true democracy. The Legislature is top down. So you need a real leader to call the shots," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. "Figuring out who the real leader is will be crucial during budget time. It's all about horse trading. And you need to know who the owner of the horse is."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the House needs to clearly communicate who's in charge by the time the session begins. "It may be Cretul. It may be someone else. It's the beginning of the transition," he said. "That will come, hopefully, sooner rather than later. But it must come. You always have members who have issues you need to tend to as leader. They're looking for direction. And sadly, they're not getting it."
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.