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Will Weatherford's rise to next House speaker is swift

The swift political rise of Will Weatherford began with a college assignment: keep the freshmen in line.

This was 2002, and Weatherford was a senior defensive end for Jacksonville University's football team. One young player he helped was the son of Allan Bense, soon-to-be speaker of the state House.

Bense and his wife attended games, and immediately liked the affable and mature young man from Pasco County.

"He just had a lot of things going for him," Bense said, "so I kept him on my radar."

By chance, by charm, Weatherford had begun cultivating one of his most important political — and, it turned out, personal — relationships. Bense would become his boss, his mentor and his father-in-law. Weatherford married Bense's daughter, Courtney, in 2006.

Next year, just a decade after the men first met, Weatherford, 31, follows in Bense's footsteps as speaker of the Florida House.

That close relationship provides a powerful explanation for how a young man without a lengthy private-sector resume, who's held office for only four years, can rise so high, so fast.

But it's not the only explanation. Those close to him point to the quality that attracted Bense: Weatherford has a natural gift for making people like him.

"Whatever it is, Will has it," said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, a friend in the Pasco delegation. "He's charming, he's smart, he's a quick study of people, and he's a quick study of policy."

Bense is more blunt.

"Will has an ability to tell people to go to hell," Bense said, "and make them look forward to the trip."

• • •

Weatherford honed those skills at an early age: He was child No. 2 in a Land O'Lakes family of nine.

His father, Bill, was a real estate agent who moved the family from Texas to Florida after losing his job. His mother, Cathy, was the daughter of Carolyn Warner, a prominent Arizona Democrat who once ran for governor.

Deeply religious, Weatherford's mother homeschooled her children before high school. Will's younger brother, Drew, remembers him being a goofoff one minute, a leader the next. In a family that big, a sense of humor was a must — their dad, after all, bought a 1985 airport limousine to ferry them around — as was a sense of responsibility.

"Will was sort of like a father figure to me," said Drew Weatherford, who played quarterback at Florida State University. "Your parents only have so much time."

That was especially true when one child, Peter, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With their parents at Peter's hospital bed nearly every night, it was up to Will, then 14, and his older sister, Jackie, 16, to look after the rest of the children. Peter died when he was 2 1/2.

Said Weatherford, who now has two young daughters: "It's one of those things where you have to grow up."

• • •

After Bense gave him a $24,000-a-year job in 2004 to work on House Republican campaigns, Weatherford, then 24, got a closeup look at how races are won.

"He'd go campaign to campaign, wherever we had a crisis," Bense said. "Candidates liked him. I don't brag much, but at the end of the day, I ended up with 85 (Republican) House members."

When Bense assumed the speaker job, Weatherford took on more policy duties, staying late nights to talk about legislation.

Legg, then a rookie legislator, said he got good political advice from the even younger Weatherford.

"One of the principles he helped me understand is that if you want to be successful, your name might not be on the bill," Legg said. "You've got to be willing to get the concept passed."

• • •

Another bit of luck came in 2006 when Ken Littlefield vacated his House seat to join the Public Service Commission rather than run for re-election. That meant Republicans needed a replacement.

Legg said he had heard Weatherford was looking to move back to Pasco. "I said, 'Will, would you ever think of running?' "

Weatherford convinced the party he was their guy. He faced a Democratic newcomer who had a nervous breakdown during the campaign. He coasted through two more elections after that.

Since then, he has made education his signature issue. He championed a class-size amendment, which failed, and supported last year's controversial SB6 bill, which would have abolished teacher tenure.

Teachers have protested outside his office. But he's avoided any sustained anger. A couple of weeks ago, he met with more than a dozen of them in Dade City for a 3 1/2-hour discussion about education legislation, said Pasco School Board member Allen Altman.

"I have learned he's a person of tremendous integrity," Altman said.

Weatherford's voting record has rarely deviated from that of other House Republicans. Even so, some Democrats say Weatherford seems open. Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he had seen Weatherford offer to make legislation more palatable to opponents.

"I don't find him to be the rigid ideologue that we might find on the other side of the aisle," Rouson said. "I would love to see a Democrat as speaker. But Will is an even-tempered, fair-minded kind of guy."

• • •

Over the last decade, Weatherford's private fortunes have risen, too. He and his wife live in a $428,000 home in Wesley Chapel. In addition to his state salary, he works for Breckenridge Enterprises, an employee leasing company for the construction industry, and Simpson Environmental Services, a Dade City firm owned by Wilton Simpson, who met Weatherford when he ran for office in 2006.

Back in Tallahassee, Weatherford said, his hardest political moment was helping persuade now-indicted Speaker Ray Sansom to resign amid questions about whether he falsified the state budget in return for a six-figure college job.

"I don't feel comfortable talking about it," Weatherford said. "I like him. I know his family. But we knew he couldn't lead the Florida House with that distraction."

Legg said he believes Weatherford took away lessons from that experience.

"One of the things he shared with me is you have to surround yourself with people who will say no," Legg said. "There were folks around Ray that were suggesting, 'Hey the power's getting too concentrated, you need to spread it out,' and that advice may not have been heeded. What Will has shared with me is to surround yourself with good people, to never think you know everything."

Little surprise that Weatherford has a model speaker in mind: the well-regarded Bense, who returned home to Panama City after his term ended.

"He was fair-minded, conservative and had principles," Weatherford said. "He was just a regular guy."

Bense, for his part, wants no credit for Weatherford's early success. "Will would've gotten where he was with or without me," he said. "Did I speed up the process? A little bit. But with his principles and values, he's a born leader."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Will Weatherford's rise to next House speaker is swift 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 9:03pm]

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