Will Weatherford: Florida's Politician of 2012

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In 1988, during a period of prolonged drought in Florida, catastrophic wildfires burned numerous homes. At first, the dry conditions caused by the drought were blamed. However, upon further review and study, forestry managers in the Florida Division of Forestry concluded that the underlying cause was previous cessation of controlled burning. This was prompted by complaints from some of the same homeowners who saw their properties destroyed by the wildfires. Controlled burning has its place in nature — and, as Speaker Will Weatherford demonstrated this year — in politics.

For his role in the controlled burning of the Republican caucus in the Florida Legislature, for his statesmanship during the decennial reapportionment process and for his commitment to repair several crumbling pillars of state government, Weatherford is my choice for Florida Politician of 2012.

Before explaining the selection of Weatherford, allow for an explanation as to why other Florida politicians didn’t win.

Several congressional candidates — Patrick Murphy and Allen West come to mind — deserve consideration, but none of them rose to a level of singular importance to justify winning this award. That said, an argument could be made for “Florida’s Congressional Candidates” as a whole to win this award. Murphy, West, Ron DeSantis, Alan Grayson, Lois Frankel, Adam Hasner, Steve Southerland, Al Lawson, Steve Southerland, John Mica, Sandy Adams, Joe Garcia, David Rivera, Vern Buchanan, Keith Fitzgerald, Bill Young, Jessica Ehrlich, Dan Webster, Val Demings and all of the other candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives created such an interesting tapestry of political stories that, again taken a whole, they merit consideration for newsmakers of the year in Florida politics.

However, these races mattered more to those in Washington, D.C., than to Florida voters as most of these pols are but pawns in the larger game of chess between national Democrats and Republicans. So no trophy here.

Governor Rick Scott is certainly in the running for Florida Politician of the Year, especially if one goes by Time Magazine’s criteria of “who most influenced the news for better or worse” — worse being the operative word. Scott, with an eye already on his re-election campaign, spent much of the year attempting to undo the damage he created during his first year in office. Unfortunately for him, the governor is so unpopular that even in these efforts, Scott came up short or was not given credit for his efforts, such as is the case with his proposal to “increase” education funding by $1 billion. Had he not signed into a law in 2011 a budget which cut funding by $1.6 billion, perhaps Scott would not have needed to restore one billion dollars.

Beyond his policy failings, 2012 was a year during which Scott was largely ignored, at least by the Republican presidential candidates who made Florida their second home. Scott was rarely seen during the presidential primary in January, during the GOP convention in Tampa in August or on the trail with Mitt Romney in the Fall.

None of Scott’s colleagues on the Florida Cabinet deserve this year-end award. Neither Jeff Atwater, nor Pam Bondi, nor Adam Putnam had the kind of year which warrants accolades. Atwater spent much of the year secretly yearning for Scott to move to another state; Bondi worked as hard as she could to position herself to the right of Attila the Hun; and Putnam, while efficient in his oversight of the Department of Agriculture, seems to be biding his time until 2018 when he will have a clear shot at the GOP nomination for governor.

Perhaps deserving of the award is Senator Marco Rubio. The darling of the Republican Party had a year marked by addition by subtraction. While others around him — Romney, Chris Christie, etc. — saw their stocks fall during 2012, Rubio’s seen his skyrocket, so much so that he is the odds-on frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But Rubio didn’t really do much in 2012 except be Marco Rubio, which is a perfectly fine way to pass the time, but doesn’t earn you the title of Florida Politician of the Year.

If you would have said that the opponent Rubio so easily dispatched in 2010 — former Republican turned Democrat Charlie Crist — would be under consideration for this award this year, you’d be accused of having spent too much time in 2012 campaigning to legalize marijuana in Colorado. Yet, Crist had the kind of year which certainly deserves full consideration. “There has been a single specter that constantly would raise its head wherever partisan events transpired,” writes Jim Turner of Sunshine State News about Crist.

There he was, speaking before the Democratic National Convention. There he was, endorsing President Obama’s re-election. There he was, helping to deliver Florida to Obama’s campaign. There he was, criticizing Rick Scott and the Republicans for their role in the state’s voting problems. There he was, switching parties. There he was, time and time again, dominating Florida’s political media.

However, Crist, with all of the buzz and publicity, is still an ex-elected official and not a current one. His opinions may make their way into the Washington Post and Tampa Bay Times, but Crist’s impact is most felt by, well, Charlie Crist (and the political bloggers and reporters who hang on his every word). Crist will need to become a candidate/elected official or Obama administration appointee again before takes home the trophy for Florida Politician of the Year.

While he isn’t yet on the stage of a Crist or a Rubio, Will Weatherford is not lacking in star power. During the Republican National Convention, Weatherford performed capably as chief ambassador, so much so that he was described on more than once occasion as “the next Rubio.” 

“It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Will the Paul Ryan of the Florida House, though he’s certainly too modest to say that himself,” said veteran Florida GOP strategist Todd Harris to National Review. “He’s ridiculously young, but the minute he opens his mouth it’s clear he’s also ridiculously smart and takes the policy side of politics very seriously.”

It’s this attention to the policy side of politics that earns him my vote for Florida Politician of the Year. Weatherford’s honest handling of the ultra-contentious redistricting process was so well done that there were very few critics of the new legislative districts once they were completed. In my estimation, this is the under-reported story of the year: that reapportionment was completed with such relatively light criticism.

Think back to 1992 or 2002 and compare those redistricting processes to this year’s. They were as difficult as negotiating peace in the Middle East, while this year’s went off like fireworks on the Fourth of July. In the end, no one got everything they wanted, but everyone got something. Democrats & Republicans, Fair Districts advocates and Supreme Court justices, academicians and lawyers … all were equally pleased and displeased. That tells you how good of a job Weatherford did presiding over this process.

Weatherford also deserves praise for the “controlled burn” of the GOP caucus referenced above. The then-incoming Speaker of the House understood fully that a two-thirds Republican majority was more difficult to control than a caucus forged with a narrower majority. Why would the rank-and-file listen to a Speaker or Speaker Designate, if there was no fear of anyone ever losing their seat?

At the onset of the redistricting process, Weatherford had to know that Florida Republicans would lose a half dozen seats in the Legislature, especially in a presidential election cycle. Minimizing the GOP’s losses in the House during a “wave year” is the kind of double-negative that’s difficult to prove, but if recognized shows true political genius.

It was not just during the reapportionment debate that Weatherford showed his policy chops. On issue after issue — funding for the University of South Florida, the need for reforms to the state’s ethics and election laws — Weatherford has displayed both leadership and a much-needed promise of change from the status quo, all while remaining true to his conservative principles.

Because make no mistake, Will Weatherford is a rock-ribbed conservative and Republican. He’s a partisan fighter who has had no problem criticizing Barack Obama or Charlie Crist. But he’s done it in a way that harkens back to an era in politics when politicians standing across the aisle from each other could also reach across said aisle to find solutions.

To those who want President Barack Obama or Congress to fail, Weatherford said, “You are wishing America to fail, and that is unacceptable.”

Have we heard such statesmanship from anyone else of significance in Florida politics? Hardly.

For so often being the exception to the rule in a state governed by those so unwilling to follow any rules, Speaker Will Weatherford is the 2012 Florida Politician of the Year.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.