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Infamous dates: The moments that influenced Florida politics in 2016

Everyone expected Florida to play an important role in politics this year.

And why wouldn’t they? Presidential hopefuls hailed from here; the state’s electoral votes were coveted; and its Senate race could have determined control of the U.S. Senate.

But just like many predictions in 2016, some of the prophecies for Florida’s outsized role on the national stage fell flat. Many believed a Sunshine state politico would be a presidential nominee (not quite right) or that the election would hinge on its 29 electoral votes (close but no cigar). And that much anticipated battle for the U.S. Senate? It fizzled out before the first vote was even cast.

Here are the dates that really mattered in Florida politics this year. And some of them might just surprise you.

Jan. 20Florida Senate says it won’t appeal redistricting decision — A years-long battle over the state’s political lines came to an end in January, when Senate leadership announced it planned to let the court-ordered maps go into effect. The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported the four-year legal battle cost Florida taxpayers more than $11 million. The new maps threw a wrench in the 2016 election cycle, with all 40 of Florida’s state Senate seats on the ballots. While many believed the new maps could boost Democrats chances in 2016, that didn’t quite pan out.

Feb. 20 — Jeb Bush ends 2016 presidential bid —  All signs pointed to Jeb Bush being the front-runner for the GOP nomination. The son and brother of two presidents, the former Florida governor racked up a massive war chest and plenty of big-name endorsements. But Bush couldn’t make headway in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls and was often on the receiving end of then-candidate Donald Trump’s attacks. After a sixth place finish in Iowa and a fourth place finish in New Hampshire, Bush hung his hopes on South Carolina. He spent days on end campaigning in the Palmetto state, but it was just too late. He came in third, and ended his campaign that night.

March 15Donald Trump triumphs in Florida primary — Was it the turning point for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign? Maybe. The New York Republican was already on a winning streak by the time the March 15 primary rolled around, but the Sunshine State contest was the biggest one to date. And Trump was up Sen. Marco Rubio, who was believed to be a hometown favorite. Turns out, Florida voters weren’t keen on sending Rubio to the White House. Trump trounced Rubio, winning every county except for Miami-Dade County. Rubio ended his presidential campaign that night, saying America was in “the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami. And we should have seen this coming.”

April 21Gwen Graham hints at 2018 plans — When the dust settled on new congressional districts, one thing was clear: Florida’s 2nd Congressional District was solidly Republican. What wasn’t entirely clear was whether Rep. Gwen Graham would run for re-election or follow in her father’s footsteps and run for governor in 2018. She put the rumors to rest in April, announcing she was dropping her re-election bid and was “seriously considering running for governor in 2018.” In the months since, Graham has continued to fuel speculation about her plans for 2018, most recently telling reporters every part of her “wants to run for governor,” but that her husband’s battle with cancer will play a significant role in her decision.

April 28Workers’ compensation decision rocks business community — A Florida Supreme Court decision striking down the state law limiting attorney’s fees in workers’ compensation cases might have been a victory for injured workers, but it also set the wheels in motion for what would become significant workers’ compensation rate hikes. The 5-2 ruling in Castellanos v. Next Door Company was just one of the decisions striking down workers’ compensation laws this year. Those rulings prompted the National Council on Compensation to ask state regulators to approve a nearly 20 percent rate hike. That rate, which was eventually lowed to 14.5 percent, went into effect Dec. 1. The state’s business community has said the rate hikes could have a dramatic impact on business, and are pushing lawmakers to tackle workers’ compensation reform in 2017.

June 1249 killed in an attack on Pulse nightclub — In the wee hours of the morning on June 12, a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring more than 50. It was the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, and sent shockwaves through the state and country. Gov. Rick Scott spent several weeks in Orlando, visiting with the victims and their families, attending funeral services, and meeting with members of the community. In the weeks and months that followed, the community came together to support the victims and their families. Spearheaded by Mayor Buddy Dyer, the city set up the OneOrlando Fund to assist victims of the attack. As of Dec. 2, the fund distributed $27.4 million for 299 claims, or 98 percent of all eligible claims filed.

June 17David Jolly drops out of U.S. Senate race, announces re-election bid — When Rep. David Jolly announced he was forgoing a re-election bid to run for the U.S. Senate, all signs indicated former Gov. Charlie Crist would sail to an easy victory. But after more and more politicos pushed encouraged Sen. Rubio to run for re-election, Jolly ended his U.S. Senate bid and announced a re-election bid, challenging Crist in an effort to keep his seat in a newly drawn district that favored Democrats. He had the support of many local Republicans, but Jolly’s push to end the practice of lawmakers dialing for dollars soured many congressional Republicans. When Election Day rolled around, Crist defeated Jolly, 52 percent to 48 percent.

June 22 — Marco Rubio reverses course, decides to run for re-election — After a devastating loss in his home state’s presidential primary, Sen. Rubio swore he wouldn’t run for re-election. The Miami Republican said multiple times that was going to serve out the remainder of his term and then go back to being a private citizen. And, as he mentioned on more than one occasion, a close friend — Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera – was already running for his seat. But in the days after the Pulse shooting, Lopez-Cantera encouraged his friend to run for re-election. Rubio ultimately announced his re-election bid just days before the qualifying deadline, effectively clearing the Republican field. He walloped Carlos Beruff in the Republican primary, and led in nearly every poll between him and Democrat Patrick Murphy. Rubio sailed to victory, winning a second term with 52 percent of the vote.

June 29 — Gov. Rick Scott declares state of emergency after algae clogs waterways — The Army Corps of Engineers began releasing Lake Okeechobee discharges down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers after record rainfalls earlier in the year. While those discharges sparked outrage in both communities, the appearance of algae blooms on the state’s east coast prompted action from the governor. Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties in June, and called on the federal government to quickly approve permits for dispersed water management projects. The declaration helped push the issue of water quality to the forefront of many campaigns.

July 8Corrine Brown indicted — It was a no good, very bad year for former Rep. Corrine Brown. Florida’s 5th Congressional District, which she represented since 1993, was redrawn as part of the state’s ongoing redistricting case. She and several other political operatives were served with subpoenas at a BBQ joint in Jacksonville. And in July, Brown and her chief of staff were indicted on federal corruption and fraud charges. The charges stem from her involvement in an allegedly fraudulent charity scheme. Brown was defiant, saying “just because someone accuses you, doesn’t mean they have the facts.” To add insult to injury, Brown was lost her primary in the newly drawn district.

July 29 — Zika comes to Florida — The first reported cases Zika virus in the Sunshine State began popping up in February, when state health officials confirmed there were nine travel-related cases of the mosquito-borne virus. Gov. Scott declared a public health emergency in four Florida counties, a number which would grow as the months wore on. As concerns about the illness spread, officials called on the federal government to assist Florida in combatting the disease and minimize the chances of homegrown cases. But in July, health officials announced the first cases of locally acquired Zika had been reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly issued a travel warning for the Wynwood neighborhood, where the first cases were found. The state eventually identified several Miami-Dade communities, including a portion of Miami Beach, where local people had contracted the illness. The state cleared the final Miami-Dade Zika zone in early December. According to the Department of Health, there were more than 250 cases of locally acquired infections reported this year.

Aug. 30The Grayson era comes to an end — Rep. Alan Grayson was known throughout Florida — and beyond — as a bombastic, no holds bar congressman. And he lived up to that reputation when he ran for U.S. Senate. Grayson made headlines after his ex-wife claimed domestic abuse over two decades, a claim he refuted (but not before getting physical with a reporter). Grayson gave up seat in Florida’s 9th Congressional District to run for office, but convinced his second wife to run. That pitted Dena Grayson against Susannah Randolph, a former aide to the congressman, both of whom tried to carry the banner for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. And there was no party at the Grayson house when primary night rolled around. Rep. Murphy crushed Rep. Grayson in the U.S. Senate primary; while former state Sen. Darren Soto defeated both Dena Grayson and Randolph (Dena Grayson came in third). The hits kept coming for the Grayson political dynasty. In November, Star Grayson, the former congressman’s daughter, finished a distant third in a three-person race for the Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors.

Sept. 2Hurricane Hermine ends Florida’s hurricane-free streak — The Category 1 hurricane was the first storm to make landfall in Florida since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. And boy, did it leave an impression. The storm smacked the Panhandle, knocking out power to thousands upon thousands of customers. While power was restored in some communities relatively quickly, Tallahassee struggled to get up and running. That led to a tussle between Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum and Gov. Scott. In a testy press release, the governor said the city was declining help from other utility companies and expressed frustration over how long it was taking to get the power back on. Gillum shot back, saying Scott was just trying to undermine a cooperative process. But politicos across the state noted the way Gillum, a rising star in the Democratic Party, handled the situation might come back to haunt him in future political runs.

Sept. 26 Water contamination concerns prompt rule changes — Days of rain leading up to, and following, Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed St. Petersburg’s sewer system. City officials opted to release millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, marking the first time in about a year the city did that. Combine that with news that a Mosaic Fertilizer sinkhole released 215 million gallons of toxic, radioactive water into the water supplies, and it’s no wonder concerns about Florida’s water supply ran rampant this fall. After many people raised questions about when the spills were reported, Gov. Scott ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to establish new reporting requirements. Those requirements are meant to guarantee local governments and the DEP are notified within 24 hours of a pollution incident. The state in October reached a deal with Mosaic over the sinkhole, which held the company accountable for fixing the sinkhole and rehabilitating the impacts of the spill.

Oct. 7 — Deadly storm threatens Florida’s east coast — One month after Hurricane Hermine made landfall near Tallahassee, Floridians were faced with another hurricane barreling toward their shores. What started as destructive tropical cyclone morphed into Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007. Gov. Scott and other officials throughout the state encouraged Floridians to evacuate and warned of days without power. The storm sideswiped the entirety of the East Coast, causing damage up and down the coast. The storm tore apart A1A in Flagler Beach, forcing it closed and requiring significant restoration.

Nov. 8Medical pot becomes legal — The second time was the charm for a medical marijuana ballot initiative. The constitutional amendment which allows people with debilitating medical conditions to use medical marijuana, easily passed with 71 percent of the vote. Supporters of the amendment, led by Orlando attorney John Morgan, were able to fend off opposition attacks. Florida was one of six states that legalized marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes on Election Day, marking one of the biggest electoral victories for marijuana reforms in years.

Nov. 10Corcoran era brings new rules to Florida House — Calling for a new culture of transparency in the Florida House, House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced new rules aimed at getting tough with with the capital’s lobby corps. The rules prohibit representatives from flying on planes owned, leased or paid for by lobbyists; require lobbyists to filed individual disclosures for each bill, amendment and appropriation they’re working on; and increased the lobbying ban on former members from two to six years. Corcoran also created the Committee on Integrity and Ethics, an oversight committee.

Dec. 22Will Weatherford rules out 2018 gubernatorial bid — Considered a likely 2018 gubernatorial contender since he left office in 2014, former House Speaker Will Weatherford ended the year (and helped officially kick off the 2018 election cycle) by saying he would not run for governor in two years. “I have decided that my role in the 2018 gubernatorial election should be as a private citizen and not as a candidate,” he said in a statement. “My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business.” Weatherford was the first candidate to formally say whether they were running. But even without Weatherford in the race, Floridians can expect a crowded field. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is expected to run, and Speaker Corcoran has been mentioned as a possible candidate. On the Democratic side, Rep. Graham has already expressed her interest, as has trial attorney Morgan. And Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer are all believed to be pondering a run.

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Adam Putnam political committee brings in more than $2.3 million in 2016

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam raised more than $2 million in 2016, boosting his war chest ahead of a likely 2018 gubernatorial bid.

State records show Florida Grown, Putnam’s political committee, raised more than $2.3 million through Nov. 30. The committee has raised more than $6.3 million since February 2015, according to state campaign finance records.

Records show Florida Grown spent nearly $1.4 million in 2016, including at least $240,000 for political consulting and $51,450 for advertising and advertising design work.

Putnam is one of several Republicans pondering a 2018 gubernatorial bid. While he hasn’t formally announced his plans for 2018, many consider Putnam to be the man-to-beat in what will likely be a crowded Republican field.

Former House Speaker Will Weatherford announced on Dec. 22 he decided against a 2018 bid, saying his role in the 2018 gubernatorial election “should be as a private citizen and not as a candidate.”

“My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to supporting Republican candidates that share my conservative convictions and can keep Florida headed in the right direction.”

But Weatherford is far from the only Republican considering hoping in the race. House Speaker Richard Corcoran is believed to be considering a run, and a recent Gravis Marketing poll conducted for the Orlando Political Observer tested how Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater and former Rep. David Jolly would fare on the ballot.

The field is expected to be just as crowded on the Democratic side. Former Rep. Gwen Graham, the daughter of former governor and Sen. Bob Graham; John Morgan, an Orlando trial attorney and top Democratic donor; Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine; Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn; and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer are all considering a run.

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Will Weatherford’s timing off, but only for the moment

Like comedy, politics is most often all about timing. No one knows this better than Will Weatherford, who at the age of 26 rocketed from obscure legislative aide to Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives because of unanticipated, but perfectly placed, events (more about which in a moment).

Now, arguably, this once-rising star of the Republican Party has fallen victim to his breathtaking start. In short, two years after he surrendered the gavel as America’s youngest state House speaker, Weatherford has nowhere to go.

The man said so himself Thursday afternoon:

“While I’m compelled at some point to re-engage in the political arena, I just think the timing right now is not right,” he told the Miami Herald.

At least, nowhere to go that strikes him as being worth the harrowing trade-offs. Thus, shall Weatherford, not so long ago included in everybody’s lists of top politicians under the age of 40, apparently skip the inviting 2018 races, ostensibly to concentrate on business opportunities with brothers Drew and Sam, leadership development within the Florida Republican Party, and — most important — join his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Bense Weatherford, parenting their four young children in their Southern-Living designed neighborhood in Wesley Chapel.

It’s not like Weatherford’s preferences for 2018 haven’t been an enticing target. As recently as Thursday morning, “The Fix,” a Washington Post politics blog, listed him prominently among probable candidates for Florida’s open gubernatorial seat.

Now, despite having jammed his chin into the mix last summer — “Don’t count me out,” he said on the podcast hosted by fellow SaintPetersblog contributor Joe Henderson and me — Weatherford has audibled out, perhaps sensing the defense was stacked against him.

He would, of course, be right. By training — he was a Jacksonville University linebacker — and instinct, Weatherford knows when a play won’t go.

Polk County’s Adam Putnam, the Agriculture Commissioner and presumed GOP frontrunner, opens with better name recognition, a wider base of contributors and the advantage of having twice won — handily — statewide races.

Moreover, if he has flaws, they are less obvious than those of Bill McCollum, the last Central Florida GOP frontrunner in a race for an open governor’s seat. And Weatherford lacks Rick Scott’s self-funding prowess.

Ah, yes. Rick Scott. And his enormous pile of campaign cash left over from 2014.

If he didn’t seek the Governor’s Mansion, conventional wisdom went, Weatherford surely would chase the Republican nomination to sideline Democrat Bill Nelson, Florida’s senior U.S. senator. Republicans had to like the prospects of a Weatherford-Nelson tussle, which would have contrasted the challenger’s youth and conservative bona fides against the septuagenarian representative of an increasingly hard-left partly

But there’s Scott, the two-time governor and early ally of President-elect Donald Trump — whom Weatherford prominently opposed — who’s widely rumored to be angling for a shot at Nelson. And did I mention his enormous pile of leftover campaign cash?

So here is Weatherford, still just 37, deciding to bide his time. Yes, his announcement Thursday cited specifically only the contest for governor, but there was a blanket nature to it as well:

“My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business. I look forward to supporting Republican candidates that share my conservative convictions and can keep Florida headed in the right direction.”

Show of hands. Who else detects the careful phrasing of someone who has spent the last two years learning about how to invest?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the arc of Weatherford’s political career has, to now, suggested, if not impatience, then at least alacrity.

After all, things fell just so to get him launched: Then-Gov. Jeb Bush nominated state Rep. Ken Littlefield to the Public Service Commission after the ballots were printed in 2006, leaving the Pasco County Republican Party to identify Littlefield’s stand-in and successor.

Several prominent east Pasco volunteers were passed over in favor of Weatherford, who grew up the oldest of nine children in Land O’ Lakes but, with college and assorted jobs in the Legislature, hadn’t lived in the district in years.

On the other hand, he had the benefit of being Speaker Allan Bense’s top lieutenant and son-in-law. One thing led to another and — badda-bing — there was Weatherford, winning election under Littlefield’s name one day and rounding up the commitments from fellow House freshmen to become speaker-designate-designate-designate the next.

So fast. So very, very fast.

Still, the Sunshine State politician to whom Weatherford has most often been compared — Marco Rubio, Florida’s once-and-still junior U.S. senator — learned a tough lesson about being a young man in a hurry earlier this year. Sitting out 2018 might well mean Weatherford spent the autumn channeling Yogi Berra, who famously noted “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

So, 2018 isn’t Weatherford’s time. That doesn’t mean his time won’t come.

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Don Gaetz is ‘saving his Rolodex’ for Will Weatherford

Former Senate President Don Gaetz said he respects Will Weatherford’s decision not to run for governor in 2018, but is “disappointed for Florida.”

“I spoke with Will about his decision,” said Gaetz, who presided over the Senate in 2012-14 when Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, was House Speaker.

“One of the attributes of Will Weatherford is his devotion to his family,” Gaetz said. “I once deferred running for office until my children were older so I understand his decision.”

But, the Niceville Republican added, “I am disappointed for Florida. I still believe he would make a great governor—or senator.”

In late 2014, as both men were leaving their leadership roles, Gaetz told the Tampa Tribune that Weatherford “is the future of Florida.”

“I expect to host a fundraiser for Will Weatherford for governor or U.S. senator sometime in the next five years,” he said then. “He will be, if he wants to be, very significant on the Florida political landscape for the next 30 years.”

Gaetz hasn’t changed his mind, saying Weatherford’s “pragmatic conservatism solves problems.”

He used the example of the state budget under their leadership. In the previous two years under House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos – “both good men,” Gaetz is quick to add – relations between the chambers were strained, at best.

“Will came from his home in the Tampa Bay area all the way to me in northwest Florida, sat down in my living room and asked if we could do a joint work plan,” Gaetz said. “He told me, ‘let that be the building block for a budget.’ ”

The Legislature passed two budgets in a row based on such work plans, he added.

“I give most of the credit to Will Weatherford,” Gaetz said. “He didn’t ‘give in’ to me, but he never wanted to leave the table till we did everything we possibly could to find a solution that was best for the people of Florida.

“We did not always agree but we were always agreeable,” he added. “His principles are rare in politics … I think the world of him.”

But Gaetz said Weatherford also carries the “obligation of such an immensely talented person.”

“I’m still saving my invitation cards and Rolodex for the next Will Weatherford fundraiser. If not for 2018, then maybe for 2020.”

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Will Weatherford’s decision enhances, not removes, future options

I think Will Weatherford’s just-announced decision not to run for governor in 2018 merely delays the inevitable. I believe he will be Florida’s governor eventually, and that will be a good thing.

Weatherford, the Land O’Lakes Republican, is a smart, articulate, center-right conservative in the Jeb Bush tradition. He has a strong legislative resume, including a turn as House Speaker. At age 37, he also is young enough that he can afford to wait eight years, which is another way of saying “Merry Christmas, Adam Putnam.”

The sea certainly does seem to be parting among Republicans for Putnam to make his move on the governor’s mansion. Florida CFO Jeff Atwater has shown no appetite for the job. Attorney General Pam Bondi is more likely targeted for a job in Washington.

Weatherford would have been a formidable challenger, but says his top concern right now is family.

He has four children – the oldest is 8, the youngest is 2. Last year he and his brothers Drew and Sam launched Weatherford Partners, a venture capital group, and serves as managing partner. Tellingly, he did not fall into the Republican conga line in the presidential race. He said he did not vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

His decision to sit out the governor’s race this time removes a lot of drama, for sure. Weatherford and Putnam are pals, but so were Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and we saw how that went.

If Weatherford had gotten into the race, it could have gotten bloody for Republicans. Having two candidates as strong and well-known as Putnam and Weatherford could have split the party, but what this does is increase the likelihood of a Putnam coronation for the nomination.

It allows Putnam to stay low-key for the next year or so, stockpiling cash and support while waiting for the Democrat slugfest between Gwen Graham (assuming her husband’s prostate cancer doesn’t worsen) and possibly Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Weatherford can campaign now for Putnam, and wouldn’t a photo of the two of them together on a platform make for a mighty fine poster for Republicans?

Weatherford will need to find a way to stay in the public eye. As he saw with Jeb Bush, sitting on the sidelines for too long in politics means someone else is getting all the headlines. A cabinet job or gubernatorial appointment to a public post could both keep him in the news and allow him to tend to family matters.

Deciding for now to wait doesn’t remove Weatherford’s options. If anything, it enhances them. If his aim is to one day sit in the governor’s chair – and, really, why wouldn’t it be – then stepping back now doesn’t hurt his chances one bit.

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Will Weatherford opts out of 2018 gubernatorial bid

Will Weatherford is taking a pass on 2018.

The former House Speaker said Thursday he won’t run for governor in two years, saying his role in the 2018 gubernatorial election “should be as a private citizen and not as a candidate.”

“My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to supporting Republican candidates that share my conservative convictions and can keep Florida headed in the right direction.”

First elected to the Florida House in 2006, Weatherford quickly rose to a leadership. He was selected to serve as House Speaker for the 2012-14 legislative session, during which time he was one of the youngest Speakers in the country.

He used his time in office to advocate for education reform, lower taxes and free-market health care. And in 2014, he led the charge to push through legislation that allowed children of immigrants in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities.

Weatherford left the public sector at the end of his term in 2014, choosing to spend more time with his growing family. He and his wife, Courtney, have four children — Ella Kate, Molly, Madelyn, and William, who was born in September 2014.

But almost as soon as he left office, the chatter began about his next step. He was often mentioned as a potential 2018 contender, and earlier this year indicated he was considering a run.

“I tell people I’m not running towards it, but I’m not running away from it,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in May. “I’m really focused on our company and our business. My guess is sometime after the election I’ll have to make a decision internally.”

Weatherford is the managing partner of Weatherford Partners, a venture capital and consulting firm he founded with his brothers, Sam and Drew.

“For Will, I know this was not an easy decision to make, but it’s a decision that is right for him at this juncture in life,” said Alan Bense, a former House Speaker and Weatherford’s father-in-law, in a statement. “I have no doubt that when the time is right for him and his family, Will will answer Florida’s call and return to public service. His core conservative principles are rock solid and his commitment to doing what’s right – even when unpopular – will never go out of style.”

Bense continued: “Florida’s loss is our family’s gain. We enjoy the time we spend with Will, Courtney, and their four wonderful children. I look forward to seeing what’s in store for Will down the road.”

A supporter of former Gov. Jeb Bush, Weatherford was an often outspoken critic of then-candidate Donald Trump. He has said didn’t vote for Trump, called the president-elect a divisive figure, and has indicated the negative tone of recent elections doesn’t appeal to him.

Weatherford is one of the first potential Republican contenders to make his 2018 plans known, and several Republican leaders said they were disappointed he decided against a run.

“He’s a fine young man,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. “I would have looked forward to supporting him.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is largely believed to be preparing for a gubernatorial bid, raising nearly $6.4 million for his political committee since February 2015. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has also been mentioned as a possible 2018 contender.

On Thursday, Putnam said Weatherford’s “passion (for) giving all Floridians the (opportunity) to fulfill their God given potential is matched only by (his) devotion to family.”

“(Will Weatherford) was a great Speaker for Floridians,” tweeted Putnam shortly after Weatherford’s announcement. “His voice will always be heard by people seeking serious solutions to challenges.”

The 2018 is expected to be hotly contested on both sides of the aisle. Several Democrats — including Gwen Graham, the one-term congresswoman and daughter of former governor and Sen. Bob Graham; John Morgan, an Orlando trial attorney and top Democratic donor; and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn — are considering a run.

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John Morgan torn on possible governor run, in no hurry

John Morgan has powerful split emotions about the prospect of running for governor in 2018 as a Democrat, and figures he has at least a year to decide.

Morgan, the 60-year-old Orlando trial attorney who championed Florida’s Amendment 2 medical marijuana initiative this year, said others – not he – are pushing for him to run for governor. And while flattered, he insisted it’s not his idea, and he’s not giving it any serious thought yet.

“I don’t think I have to do anything this year, 2017,” Morgan said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it now, if only when he’s driving around, kicking it around in his head.

“The advantage I have, for better worse, is they [any other candidates for governor in 2018] are going to have to spend $25 million at a bare-bones minimum to have any name ID. To me that’s a starting number,” he continued. “And so for better or worse, except for Miami and Fort Lauderdale, I[his Morgan & Morgan law firm featuring him in TV and billboard advertising] am in all those markets, and have been for 30 years or so. I also have the advantage of four years of [campaigning statewide for medical] marijuana, and a very big following. When people come up to me, they thank me for marijuana.”

A group of south Florida politicos, led by Democratic operative Ben Pollara, have put together “For The Governor,” a campaign pushing a petition drive to draft John Morgan for governor, through social media and other communications. Pollara was Morgan’s former campaign manager for United For Care, which ran the successful Amendment 2 campaign this year

Pollara said he’s in the process of formally incorporating a For The Governor Political Committee and expects to begin raising money.

He and Morgan both stated that they had not discussed the initiative with each other, though Morgan hasn’t dismissed it.

“You’ve got to be careful because our egos can really get us into trouble,” Morgan said. “Everybody says, ‘I like you. I like you. I like you. I want you to do it.’ All of the sudden you like what you are hearing, and all of the sudden you go off on a venture you shouldn’t go off on, for a lot of reasons.”I’ve got a great life.”

“I’ve got a great life.”

In the interview, Morgan quickly explored several reasons why he wouldn’t dream of running for governor.

* He professes no clear Florida governing platform at this point, other than a strong conviction that something must be done about low wages in Florida. And he’s not convinced that his being governor would be the most effective way for him to address that; he’s exploring another constitutional amendment initiative to do so.

“I would only want to do it [run for governor] if there was something that I thought that I could make a difference in. And what I worry about is, even if I defy all odds, and win, could I even get anything done with a Republican senate and house?” he said.

* He’s very close to U.S. Rep. Gwen Grahamthe most likely Democratic candidate for governor so far, and particularly close with her father, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. And he expressed admiration for other potential Democratic candidates, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn,  and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

* He even likes some potential Republican gubernatorial candidates, citing Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran and former Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, among others.

“If I find someone who inspired me, then I would go, ‘You now what? the state would be in good hands with this person.’ It doesn’t matter if they’re a Republican or Democrat,” Morgan said.

* His business interests are complex on a level approaching Donald Trump’s, and he’s not sure he wants to unwind, disengage or liquify anything. Besides his law firm, which is in 18 Florida cities and eight other states, his business interests including hotels, real estate, shopping centers, and attractions.

* Finally, he’s not crazy about enduring personal attacks and knows his profession and lifestyle leave him and his family wide open to ugly anti-Morgan campaign smears.

“I’ve been on TV for 30 years, so I’ve had people writing mean things to me, calling me with mean things, discussing my fat face, my, you know, whatever, so I’m used to mean things. But with this [draft John Morgan campaign] out there, the meanness out there ramps up a little. So I’m like, ‘Who wants this?'” Morgan said. “I’m used to the one-offs. I’m used to people writing me: ‘You’re an ambulance chaser.’ But I’m not used to this where everybody can weigh in. That’s been kind of unnerving.

“It seems like in politics people believe they have a special license to be meaner than usual. That’s what I’ve found these last few weeks,” he said, adding it bothers him, “Because I like to be liked.”

But Morgan does see reasons to run.

He’s not convinced Graham or the other Democrats can actually win. He’s at a point in his life when he’s contemplating the difference between being “successful” and being “significant.” He takes his victory with the medical marijuana initiative to heart on a humanitarian level. He likes that feeling. And he thinks more must and can be done.

“You know, there are things I believe very fervently. I believe that the real issue out there in America is people are not paid fair wages for a fair day’s work,” he said. “Now I don’t know what the number is. I don’t know what the number is. But I believe peoples’ frustration is, they go out, they do everything right, they put on a uniform, and at the end of the day they’re further behind than they were before.”

Perhaps the answer is another constitutional amendment initiative, one aimed at creating a living wage in Florida, Morgan said.

“I’ve already started researching what that language would look like. It may be that my best bet to do what I want to do would be to have a constitutional amendment. I now know how to navigate that world, after making lots of mistakes the first time around,” Morgan said. “But is $15 too much? Would that pass? What’s the magic number? I don’t know.”

The lessons Morgan draws from 2016 political victors is that voters are rejecting career politicians and the status quo, whether it’s Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica of Winter Park. Morgan is certain he fits the outsider identity. If he ran and won, he said he’d pledge a one-term tenure and donate the governor’s salary to charity.

He believes voters want someone who’s less partisan and more practical. Morgan has backed Republicans in the past and said he certainly would in the future. He even praised Gov. Rick Scott for being single-minded on jobs, and for delivering on that.

But mostly, Morgan said, voters deserve someone with compassion for them, and that’s a mark he believes he has.

“What I think is missing in politics today is compassion. I think it’s too much not about what’s for us but what’s for them,” Morgan said. “I don’t believe somebody should be a non-violent felon, go to jail, and not have their civil rights restored. That’s a crime. I don’t believe drug addiction is a crime. The leader I’m looking for is someone who is compassionate and thinks about people first. And I think that includes the minimum wage.”

Pollara and others pushing the draft-Morgan campaign have many of the same concerns about a Morgan run that Morgan himself expressed. Yet they also have his same concerns about the Democrats’ prospects without Morgan. The next governor will oversee another redistricting, which could lock a party’s power in Florida for another decade, Pollara cautioned.

The draft Morgan effort, he said, is “a product of anxiety we Democrats feel about this upcoming governor’s race. Now we’re looking at 2020 redistricting,” which could lead to a “generation of irrelevance” for Democrats.

Morgan also expressed a clear, proud sense of accomplishment, having pushed medical marijuana into Florida’s constitution.

“I got beat with the marijuana the first go around [in a failed 2014 campaign.] I learned my lessons,” Morgan said. “And I think the people who are supporting e the fact I didn’t quit, and I won, and I didn’t just win, I won in a big way.

“And what I did in four years was more than any legislator has done in the last 40 years.”

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Rick Scott declines to comment on proposal to repeal immigration bill he signed in 2014

Rick Scott is declining to comment on a proposal filed for the 2017 Florida Legislative Session that would repeal a major immigration policy change that he signed into law two years ago.

Last week, Sarasota state Senator Greg Steube filed a bill (SB 82) that would repeal legislation approved by the GOP-led Legislature in 2014 that offers lower in-state tuition rates in Florida state colleges and universities for undocumented immigrants. Passage of that bill was uncertain until the end of that year’s session, but was strongly supported by then-House Speaker Will Weatherford and Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala.

“I haven’t seen it,” Scott told this reporter about the bill as he took questions after hosting a press conference at the Florida Highway Patrol offices in Tampa on Monday.

“I think there are about 2,000 bill that are being proposed during the session, so as I go through the process if they get to my desk, I’ll review,” he added. “I need to look at the bill.”

The legislation is a political power keg, as are most items concerning immigration. Scott campaigned as a tough on immigration candidate in 2010 when first running for governor, getting behind what was then known as an “Arizona style” immigration proposal that asked suspects stopped by the authorities for proof of their citizenship, similar in nature to the conversion SB 1070 immigration law passed earlier that year in Arizona.

“We need to come up with an immigration policy that works for the country,’’ Scott told the Miami Herald back in late 2010. “If you’re stopped in our state — no different than if you’re asked for your ID — you should be able to be asked if you’re legal or not,” he told the Miami Herald.

But the Legislature failed to pass that proposal, along with other major immigration bills in the spring of 2011, including a much discussed E-Verify bill that was killed by Lake Wales Republican J.D. Alexander.

In addition to giving the undocumented a break on their college tuition payments,  the Legislature in 2014 also passed a bill that would allow some undocumented immigrants to obtain law licenses from the Florida Bar.

There has been no companion bill filed in the House, but there is plenty of time for that to happen, with the 2017 Legislative session not commencing until next March. House District 60 Republican Jackie Toledo campaigned during her primary race on a platform to repeal both measures, but has not publicly commented on Steube’s bill.

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John Thrasher finally free to lobby for FSU

John Thrasher has registered to lobby for Florida State University, two years after his installation as the university’s president.

Under state law, former legislators must wait two years before becoming eligible to seek to influence their former colleagues. Thrasher’s registration took effect on Monday, according to state records.

Thrasher is a former House speaker who turned lobbyist with Southern Strategy Group before beginning service in the Senate in 2009.

He became FSU president in November 2014.

Also lobbying for the university is Kathy Mears, whose registration took effect Sept. 27. She had served as chief of staff to House Speakers Will Weatherford (2012-14) and Steve Crisafulli (2014-16).

The two-year lobbying ban extends to such key state employees “unless employed by another agency of state government,” according to state law.

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Gwen Graham says she’s poised to run a 67-county strategy for Florida governor

Emphasizing her centrist political persona while addressing a packed restaurant in South Tampa Friday morning, Gwen Graham said her potential candidacy for governor of Florida in 2018 would be a “transcending of the politics” that currently exists today.

“I have heard from so many people who say ‘you’re exactly what the state of Florida needs,'” Graham said at the weekly “Cafe Con Tampa” lecture series at Hugo’s Restaurant in Hyde Park. “I will commit to running the type of gubernatorial campaign that will excite the state of Florida from one end to the other, and if I run … I will run a 67-county strategy.”

The Democratic U.S. representative from Tallahassee announced months ago she would strongly consider a run for the governor’s mansion in 2018, after redistricting the already Republican-leaning district would have made it a virtual impossibility for her to earn a second term in 2016. Her appearance Friday before dozens of mostly Democrats in the state’s third-largest city seemed to be an important one for Graham, who spoke with her mother, Adele, sitting next to her (to her surprise), while her father Bob Graham was speaking live on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on the television monitors above her for part of her speech.

For the uninitiated, Bob Graham is perhaps the single most-popular Democrat living in the state of Florida. The soon to be 80-year-old former Florida governor and U.S. senator is still extremely active, making media appearances this week across the nation on behalf of a new edition of his book, “America: The Owner’s Manual” (co-written with Chris Hand). His reputation and legacy have redounded onto his 53-year-old daughter, Gwen, who never ran for political office until two years ago. While looking up at her father on the television, Graham herself brought up the issue of running on her father’s coattails, and embraced the notion.

“You know what, y’all? Those are the best damn coattails in the whole wide world,” she said, as the crowd heartily cheered. She added she was “honored” to have her father as a role model growing up to see what a true public servant could be.

Graham’s short record in office shows she is a centrist. She boasted about how she overcame the odds against her in 2014 when she ran in one of the most conservative congressional districts of not only the state, she says, but the country, in defeating the Republican incumbent, Steve Southerland, 51 percent to 49 percent.

In that campaign, Graham vowed to oppose Nancy Pelosi for the party leadership’s top slot in the House, where she ended up after being elected in early 2015. She repeatedly emphasized in her 45-minute appearance how she would in fact, transcend politics-as-usual if she were to become the first Democrat elected governor in two decades.

“I think the state desperately needs someone who is willing to reach across to anyone for good ideas,” she stressed. “I don’t believe this is a Republican question, or a Democratic question or an independent question. It’s a question for Floridians. What do we want our next governor to focus on? How can we make the lives of Floridians better?”

That centrist persona doesn’t mean that she doesn’t understand politics, however. She’s been relentless over the past six weeks in pestering the Rick Scott administration and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection into making more information public about what the DEP knew and when did they knew it when it came to the massive sinkhole that opened up in late August at a Mosaic phosphate processing plant near the Hillsborough/Polk County line. It was originally reported as being 300 feet deep — but in fact, may be larger.

 Graham said she was “horrified” by what happened at Mosaic, calling it an environmental, human health and, ultimately, a “transparency catastrophe.”

On growth management issues, she said she would bring back the Department of Community Affairs, abolished by Scott during his first year in office. “We’re booming” she said of the state’s growth, adding developers and environmental advocates need not be at odds.

Like many Democrats in Florida, Graham is strongly opposed to the utility-backed solar power initiative known as Amendment 1 on this year’s ballot. She said the amendment as written is a “manipulation of the voters in Florida,” and “flat-out deception,” before adding that it’s up to the voters to read up on amendments that could end up in the state’s constitution.

Regarding economic development, Graham is in the Richard Corcoran camp when it comes to opposing economic incentives Gov. Scott prefers. “I think it’s about growing Florida from within, not bribing people to come in from without,” she said.

In responding to questions from the crowd, Graham said she supports the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, said if the opportunity ever comes around for money for high-speed rail from the feds that she would take it, and that she would take a “hard look” at the Tampa Bay Express project if neighborhood groups remain virulently opposed to it.

As to when she will make an official decision about running for governor, Graham predicted it would be sooner rather than later, but will not be on Nov. 9, the day after the general election. That’s when Bob Graham turns 80, and she said she didn’t want any distractions on that day.

Though “Cafe Con Tampa” co-organizer Bill Carlson made it sound like the general election contest had already been decided when he said his group had hosted Graham and previously Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (who addressed the same group a couple of months ago), there are plenty of both Republicans and Democrats in the state who aren’t ready to accept that conventional wisdom.

Other Republicans who could explore a run include the aforementioned Corcoran, former House Speaker Will Weatherford, and CFO Jeff Atwater. Other Democrats in the mix include state Sen. Jeremy Ring, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

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