Florida House Republicans moved with appropriate speed to anoint a new House speaker to replace the embattled Ray Sansom. The unanimous caucus vote for Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala on Monday night offers some reassurance that lawmakers will devote their full attention to the serious issues facing the state when the regular session starts next month. Now Cretul's challenge will be to demonstrate he is up to a difficult job he never sought and that he can lead the House in a positive direction.
In his first news conference, Cretul set the right tone. He emphasized that his primary focus will be the state budget crisis, and he said Floridians should not expect "hair-raising speeches" or "knee-jerk reactions'' from him. There are plenty of those in Tallahassee already. The low-key, little-known legislator said he has no higher political ambitions and has not promised anyone anything in return for support. Those could turn out to be strengths as he inherits a leadership team assembled by Sansom. Such an unencumbered House speaker should see the state's problems more clearly and be able to deal with them more honestly.
Cretul already has exerted a bit of independence by replacing Sansom's chief of staff with former Rep. Dudley Goodlette. That should help calm nervous lawmakers; Goodlette is a well-respected Naples lawyer known for his evenhandedness. Cretul should not hesitate to make other changes to his top staff or to adjust some lawmakers' committee assignments as he sees fit. He needs to make clear he will be more than a caretaker for the next two years.
This transition would have been easier if Sansom had acknowledged his inability to lead the House while facing multiple investigations about funneling millions in accelerated or extra money to Northwest Florida State College. After steering about $35 million there in two years as the House budget chief, he was rewarded with an unadvertised $110,000-a-year administrative job at the college on the same day he became speaker in November. But he never stopped believing his problems would eventually blow over, even after he resigned from the college job and a state grand jury decided to investigate. Only considerable pressure from his Republican colleagues forced Sansom out. At least he had the grace not to contest his ouster.
Sansom's speakership won't officially end until the House formally selects Cretul in March, but there are some lessons to be learned even before the investigations conclude. First, the Destin Republican's quick rise and fall demonstrates the dangers of the eight-year term limit, which forces lawmakers into contests for speaker before they know enough about the Legislature and the potential pitfalls. Second, the all-too-common practice of community colleges and universities creating jobs for influential legislators needs to be curtailed. Third, there is a limit to how much powerful lawmakers can quietly manipulate the budget to benefit their local colleges, community projects or political contributors — and there has to be more transparency so abuses can be more easily spotted.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigations, Sansom abused his public position to benefit his friends and future employer. It has cost him one of the most powerful political positions in Florida, and that may be only the beginning.