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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Weatherford has primary foe

WESLEY CHAPEL - By all accounts, Will Weatherford has led a charmed political life. He was plucked out of general obscurity in 2006 just weeks before the election to replace longtime Republican Ken Littlefield on the ballot. His opponent in that race, a 26-year-old Democrat with no funding and a history of mental health issues, suffered a nervous breakdown during the campaign. Weatherford was also just 26, and he hadn't lived in the district since he finished high school. He had spent two years in Tallahassee working as an aide for then-House Speaker Allan Bense. And he was newly married to Bense's daughter, Courtney. District 61, which encompasses much of central and east Pasco and parts of New Tampa, is solidly Republican. The district has not elected a Democrat for more than 40 years. For Weatherford, a former high school football star with monumental political connections, the first election was a cakewalk. His name wasn't even on the ballot, but Weatherford still took 60 percent of the vote. He ran unopposed in 2008.
Now at age 30, he's in line to become the youngest speaker of the House since 1957. Younger even than Marco Rubio, who was 34 when he was elected speaker. But first he must do something he's never had to do before, win a primary. Tea party activist Kevin Wright is hoping to capitalize on anti-incumbent fever that has influenced some recent elections. He said the Florida GOP has been corrupted by "big money." Wright, 55, lives in Wesley Chapel and owns a small sportswear company in Tampa. His campaign has gained little momentum. He has raised little money, and he failed to get enough signatures to qualify by petition. His Facebook page has fewer than 200 fans. Even the tea party movement has been slow to embrace him. "Some tea partiers don't know what to make of me because I was not supportive of Senate Bill 6," he said, referring to the teacher tenure bill vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. "They think teachers are a bunch of socialists. Well, I've never had a teacher try to push a socialist agenda on me. I think most of them are pretty apolitical." The winner of the Aug. 24 primary will face Democrat Elena McCullough on Nov. 2. Wright has taken aim at Weatherford's somewhat lukewarm support for offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil disaster. "There are plenty of people in the Republican Party who still support offshore drilling," Wright said. "It's too compelling an occasion, and there are already too many wells." Weatherford's campaign website includes a position statement on his energy policy. "The best way for new technologies and industries to emerge is through the working of the free market," it reads. "However, when it's appropriate, government should partner with private industry to speed the development of alternative energy sources. As another way of lessening our dependence on foreign oil, offshore drilling should be allowed at safe distances." Weatherford said he has never supported drilling in Florida's waters, and he supports the president's moratorium. "We need to take a time out," he said. "We can't rely on countries who don't like us for our oil supply," Weatherford said. "We shouldn't allow any future drilling until we figure out what went wrong and whether it could be done safely." University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said that because of Florida's term limits, prospective speakers must start campaigning for leadership positions almost from the time they file to run. His family connections certainly helped open doors, but MacManus said Weatherford also is a skilled politician in his own right, who comes across as someone who genuinely likes what he does. She had a chance to observe both candidates at a recent Pasco GOP leadership event. She came away impressed by Weatherford's ability to work the crowd. "I was rather surprised by how many people he knew by name," she said. "And he didn't just know their names, he asked about their families. He has good people skills, and he's friendly." He also has a war chest well more than $440,000, and he was invited to speak this month at a national GOPAC event in Pittsburgh. "At least somebody thinks I'm conservative," he joked. If he does assume the speaker's position in 2012, Weatherford would be front and center when the Republican National Convention convenes in Tampa. He would have to step down after one term, but that would still give him plenty of time to "bring home the bacon" for his district, MacManus said. "As speaker, you have an easier chance of getting something passed that could help your district because you appoint all of the committee chairman," she said.

Research Buddy Jaudon contributed to this report. Reporter Laura Kinsler can be reached at (813) 259-8109.

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