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Rules changes sparked Byron Donalds to seek Speakership

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Byron Donalds started thinking about running for Speaker early on in his legislative career.

He knew he could be a voice for change and offer a different perspective than some of his classmates, but also knew the traditional method for electing a leader meant the Speakership was unlikely for a lesser known freshman. Then the rules changed; and in some ways, so did the state of the race.

When members voted to change the rules to prohibit speaker candidates from campaigning or accepting pledges before June 30, Donalds said he decided “it was something to take on.”

As the Speaker’s race speeds toward a June 30 vote, the 38-year-old Naples resident is one of five freshmen —including Randy Fine, Erin Grall, Jamie Grant and Paul Renner — trying to make the case for why he is the best the person for the job.

“No. 1, I think I’m willing to take on major issues, like education and tort reform, things that are critical to the future of the state,” said Donalds in an interview. “Secondly, I think I resonate well with the people in general.”

As a freshman lawmaker, Donalds has made a name for himself as someone who is willing to take on tough, even unpopular issues, from proposing changes to the state’s Sunshine Law to supporting sweeping changes to education policy.

His commitment to education policy and school choice is no secret. He mulled a run for Collier County school board in 2012, but opted instead to run for Congress when a seat opened up. His wife, Erika, ended up winning a school board seat and is now a member of the Constitution Revision Commission. Together they played an active role in getting Mason Classical Academy, a Collier County charter school, off the ground. Donalds served on its board until he went to Tallahassee.

And Donalds isn’t a stranger to tough campaigns, either. He was one of six Republicans who ran in Florida’s 19th Congressional District in 2012. A relative unknown back then, he won Collier County and made a good showing, capturing 14 percent of the total vote. By comparison, Trey Radel, the Fort Myers Republican who would go on to win the general election, won the primary with just 30 percent of the vote.

He easily won his House District 80 race, despite another tough primary. But unlike those races, Donalds said it’s tough to gauge where he stands in the race for Speaker.

That’s because under new Republican conference rules, candidates may not directly or indirectly solicit or accept any “formal or informal pledge of support” prior to June 30. And Donald said acting within the rules means he’s not asking for votes, like he would if he were if he were a candidate for any other type of office.

Still, Donalds said he thinks he’s been received warmly and plans to “just keep talking to people” as the vote approaches. And Donalds sees the push for a secret ballot, instead of accepting pledge cards, to “transformational in and of itself.”

“I think you show who you are by your work, and talk to members about what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Donalds. “In our political world, the messenger matters, it just does. I’m a little different. I’m not the prototypical Republican. It shows the depth of our party and it shows the depth of our Legislature.”

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