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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 8 years ago

Next-Generation Leader

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At 31, Florida House Speaker-Designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has already tackled controversial issues. Now, he prepares to bring his own brand of free market conservatism to lead the House with a pro-business agenda.
by: Jay Brady Government Editor

REVIEW SUMMARY
Who. Speaker-Designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
What. Can the third-youngest speaker in Florida history lead the state's economic recovery?
Impact. Education reform and infrastructure investment without raising taxes.

If all goes according to state Republicans' plans, Speaker-Designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, will take the reins of the Florida House on Nov. 20, 2012, six days after his 33rd birthday.

Despite his relative youth, fellow lawmakers and business colleagues are excited for the respected Pasco County businessman to lead the way.

“If there is such a thing as a natural born leader, Will Weatherford is it,” says State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, chairman of the Rules and Calendar Council. “He's got this athletic build, but this sort of graceful, relaxed demeanor,” adds Aubuchon. “He's very approachable.”

On the safe assumption that House Republicans retain their majority following the 2012 elections — they hold an 81-39 advantage — Weatherford will become the youngest Speaker in 55 years and the third youngest in Florida history.

Business interests can expect a smooth transition from one conservative to another, according to Barney Bishop, CEO of pro-business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida. Bishop says current Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and the tested Weatherford, “ ... are absolutely in sync with the business community and employers of the state. They recognize that we provide the jobs that people have.”

“He has the confidence of a lot of folks,” adds State Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, who competed with Weatherford for Speaker-Designate in 2006 when both were freshmen. “That's a compliment in and of itself,” stresses McKeel, who became one of Weatherford's closest friends and political allies.

Cannon's confidence in Weatherford showed when the speaker appointed him chairman of the Redistricting Committee, the group tasked with redrawing congressional and legislative district boundaries by January. The committee's statewide hearings come to the Gulf Coast the last week of August.

That confidence stems from the Texas native's leadership on other controversial issues, even ones that didn't succeed, or at least not on the first try.

During the 2010 session, Weatherford chaired the Education Policy Council, which took on Senate Bill 6, the controversial education reform bill that aimed to do away with teacher tenure. Although the bill passed, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it to gain teachers' union support for his ultimately disastrous U.S. Senate bid.

But Weatherford earned respect on both sides of the aisle for ensuring that both sides were heard, according to Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, a school administrator, who served on the council. A new version of the measure passed and was signed by Gov. Rick Scott this year.

Weatherford also led efforts to gradually raise university tuition rates, some of the lowest in the country, to take some of the burden off taxpayers and help balance the budget. He also succeeded in leading the effort to put a state constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot to lower the costs of the class-size amendment. Though nearly 55% of voters supported the change, the measure failed to get the necessary 60% super-majority to approve it.

Conservative capitalist
Weatherford, who has two preschool-aged daughters, sees investment in education as a key to business and economic growth. But he also recognizes the fiscal realities of the past few years, and that more spending isn't always the answer. “We're going to continue to push education reform,” says Weatherford, but also stressing that he plans to draft a balanced budget without raising taxes.

“He's a committed conservative both fiscally and socially, and he clearly understands the fiscal constraints,” McKeel says. “Will understands that now is not a time when businesses can pay more taxes.”

Weatherford says he wants to find ways to cut the property tax and income tax burden on business. “The focus should be on producing a predictable business environment,” he says, pointing to Texas as the role model for producing 40% of U.S. job growth. “They went out of their way to create that environment that would be extremely pro-business and pro-capitalist.”

And a capitalist he is. Weatherford lists his occupation on the House website as “businessman.” He says he wants to focus on long-term issues to improve the overall business climate by investing in ports, highways and airports, but also education, and “a regulatory environment that makes sense.”

“It's really what we have to do separate ourselves from other states and other countries,” Weatherford explains. “We've got to create an environment in Florida to make that investment here.”

A graduate of Jacksonville University, he earned a degree in international business while playing defensive end and linebacker for the football team, and serving as a senator and vice president of the student government association. Weatherford handles marketing and business development for underground utilities company Diamond K Construction and Simpson Environmental Services, a mold remediation and asbestos-removal company, and sits on the board of directors of Florida Traditions Bank.

The 4-year-old Dade City community bank ranks as the 43rd fastest-growing company in the Business Review's “Gulf Coast 500.” In 2010, revenues grew 46.5%, pushing it to No. 315 in the rankings.

Wilton Simpson, president of Simpson Environmental, says he's known Weatherford for about six years. “When I met Will, I was extremely impressed with his work ethic and his character,” says Simpson, “and I asked him to be involved.”

Some of Weatherford's instincts for politics may have rubbed off on Simpson, who's now running for the District 11 state Senate seat. That seat, now held by Sen. Mike Fasasno, R-New Port Richey, opens up next year because of term limits.

Mentoring giants
Weatherford's political instincts can be partly traced to his father-in-law, former House Speaker Allen Bense, R-Panama City, who emphasized tort reform during his term as Speaker from 2004 to 2006. Weatherford met Bense while at JU and later worked for the speaker before running for his District 61 seat in 2006. That same year, he married Bense's daughter, Courtney.

Weatherford recently received a “Champions for Business” award from Associated Industries for supporting two tort reform measures: the so-called “crashworthiness” bill — allowing courts to consider a driver's condition at the time of an auto crash when the driver sues the manufacturer for its “crashworthiness” — and a medical malpractice reform bill. It's the second time the legislator's earned the distinction. He also scored 99% for his voting record on AIF's business issues this year.

In addition to Bense's influence, Weatherford has also drawn wisdom from serving under former House Speaker, now U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and Cannon, says McKeel. “He learned a lot from Speaker Bense, Speaker Rubio got him involved, and Speaker Cannon has had a lot of influence,” McKeel notes, referring to the three as, “some real giants of leadership.”

So what kind of speaker can the business community expect of Weatherford? “He clearly understands the business community, and more importantly, Florida's issues,” says McKeel. “You can expect solid, conservative, principled leadership.”

State political observers, however, might expect a bit of a different dynamic between the future House leader and the next Senate president, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, compared to the Cannon-Haridopolos regime.

Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos are both in their early 40s, ideologically similar, and up until the last day of the session when political gamesmanship took over, worked well together. Gaetz will be twice the age of Weatherford when Gaetz turns 64 in January.

Also interesting will be how Weatherford interacts with Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who turned 29 in May. Rep. Gaetz serves on two education subcommittees, and a rulemaking and regulation subcommittee, areas that Weatherford can be expected to watch closely.

Weatherford and Sen. Gaetz have been spending a lot of time together this summer attending Redistricting Committee hearings. Sen. Gaetz, known for his collegial, even-tempered nature, is chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. Weatherford says the two have “ ... built a great relationship this summer.”

That doesn't mean necessarily that the two leaders of the Legislature will always see issues the same way. But a Weatherford-Gaetz-led Legislature has the makings for solid communication if not full cooperation.

“Will has a special gift to say no to people, to deny people without people being greatly offended or upset about it,” explains Legg. “Part of his role is that if people don't get what they want, they don't take it personally.”

For his part, Weatherford says he's focused on shifting the state's economy, so its not susceptible to a boom and bust economy for the rest of the century. “Hopefully, I'll be part of the solution and not part of the problem going forward.”

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