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Speaker Ray Sansom lies low in House

TALLAHASSEE — For two months, Ray Sansom has been the silent speaker.

He attends few events, holds no news conferences, gives few interviews and advances no vision of Florida's future.

Part of the House speaker's job is using the bully pulpit to set a course for public policy, but at a time when the new leader's influence should be at its peak, Sansom has hunkered down and ceded the spotlight to his Senate counterpart. His public appearances are limited largely to the mechanics of moving bills on the House calendar.

"I don't ever recall a speaker being out of the limelight to this extent. It's a little strange," said Curt Kiser, a longtime lobbyist and former Republican legislator from Pinellas County. "I've heard people comment that it's hard to get in to see the speaker. But I don't know how it has affected his effectiveness."

In the past, Kiser has lobbied on open government issues for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. He was the top Republican in the House from 1978 to 1982. Sansom is the subject of inquiries by a state prosecutor and the Commission on Ethics over his dealings with his hometown college, where he steered millions of dollars in construction money, including $6-million for a controversial building at an airport. On the day in November he was sworn in as speaker, Sansom accepted a part-time administrator job at the school that paid $110,000 a year. He recently resigned the position.

Facing multiple legal issues, he has hired a lawyer.

"When you hire an attorney, your whole perspective changes," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, a lawyer who has served in the House in parts of three decades. "If I had a client, I'd tell him, you might want to say as little as possible."

Sansom's participation is even uncertain at an event traditionally attended by his predecessors, the annual Associated Press presession seminar for reporters and editors on Thursday.

"He thinks it's best if he lets the independent inquiring bodies do their work unimpeded," said the speaker's spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin.

Asked if Sansom stayed out of the public eye during recent budget negotiations for fear of facing reporters, Rep. Bill Galvano said: "No," but paused and acknowledged, "it may have played into it."

The Bradenton Republican, a member of Sansom's leadership team, added that "more importantly," Sansom didn't get involved because budget chiefs were getting along. But Galvano said he could not recall another time when a presiding officer did not weigh in publicly on budget talks at some point.

Sansom's office releases his daily office schedule, and he gave a 15-minute telephone interview on tax policy to the Times/Herald Bureau on Friday. The conversation ended when the topic turned to his legal difficulties.

The Senate and House skipped the joint adjournment ceremony when the special session ended Wednesday, but that can be attributed to the dreary subject matter of plugging a $2.4-billion deficit by slashing basic programs.

Sansom's low profile has cost him points with some members of his Republican caucus, who use words like "baffled" and "disappointed" to describe their feelings about Sansom's actions.

They won't speak for attribution because a whispered word from the speaker can mean life or death over a member's legislation, pet project or coveted parking space.

Sansom's prolonged silence comes at a difficult time for Republicans. After more than a decade in power in the Capitol, they face the most challenging economic time in the state's modern history.

Some of his colleagues are eager for the inquiries to end in his favor before the regular session begins March 3, when the pressure on Sansom to emerge from hiding will intensify.

"We're just waiting to see how it all plays out," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. "This can't linger for two years. It simply cannot."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Speaker Ray Sansom lies low in House 01/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 7:13am]
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