Will Weatherford’s ‘Nixon-goes-to-China’ moment on in-state tuition for undocumented students

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For a full decade, a measure filed in the Legislature was doomed before bill drafting entered the final line. The proposal — to give in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants living in Florida — was unthinkable in Florida’s two Republican-controlled chambers. 

Remember, these elected Republicans were to answer to their Republican constituents every election cycle, and there’s nothing one assumes conservatives dislike more than giving taxpayer money “away” to those they see as undeserving.

Case in point: the then-unknown Rick Scott defeated veteran conservative Bill McCollum in a Republican primary based almost entirely on five words, taken out of context, in which McCollum was captured by the “Caputo-cam” saying “we don’t need that here” about Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

But that’s about to change.

You see, this year it isn’t a Miami-based Hispanic legislator pushing for the measure — as it was beginning in 2003. And it isn’t a hard-liner Democrat, either — as was the case with then-Rep. Dwight Bullard from 2011 on. 

It’s House Speaker Will Weatherford, whose reputation among his supporters is about as unassailable as Nixon’s was in 1972 when the president chose to meet with China’s Chairman Mao Zedong — a move that would have been unthinkable by any whose credentials were less solid. 

In this case, Weatherford’s distinct ability to articulate conservative principles and relate policy measures back to these values will mean a change to how “tuition fairness” is seen by his colleagues and supporters. 

“The federal government requires us to educate all children in the state of Florida, regardless of their immigration status,” Weatherford said in a Miami Herald report. “But when some of those children get to college, we pretend they are no longer Floridians.” 

Weatherford, acknowledging that the issue provokes “strong opinions” among his peers, is drawing a line in the sand. He has made known his support for Florida students who seek a college education but would have to pay out-of-state rates because they’re undocumented — and in doing so, has reframed the issue as one that conservatives can embrace. 

The decision may not be easy for some — particularly those who face re-election in solidly conservative districts — and Weatherford acknowledges this, too. 

“This is a personal decision that members of the House will have to make,” he said. “But my button will be green.” 

Weatherford risks being labeled a “R.I.N.O.” over his support for tuition fairness. But that’s a misguided label that even the most thoughtful, deliberative and consistent conservatives can avoid. 

If the proposal becomes law, Florida will join states such as Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Kansas, all of which have introduced tuition fairness under Republican leadership. 

This will bring far greater opportunities to young Floridians who themselves made no choice as to their legal status, and all of Florida will be the better for it. 

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.