WESLEY CHAPEL - It turns out - as if anyone imagined differently - it doesn't matter how long you have been near the seat of power. No, not even if you have shadowed all the hotshots, memorized all the unwritten rules, learned where they keep all the secret levers, war-gamed even the implausible scenarios, even married the boss' daughter. It's like the old catcher said about the prospect who was tearing it up in spring training: "It don't mean a thing until they put it on the back of your bubble gum card." In short, the only way to learn whether you're capable of running the shop is by actually running the shop. So it has been with Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel wunderkind. Long before the November ceremony in which he accepted the keys to the Florida House of Representatives, Weatherford, 33, was orbiting Tallahassee's centers of gravity like some international space station, observing, gathering data, running experiments in his brain.
"It's totally different," he says. "On your way up, you learn a lot about the issues, about structurally how things are supposed to function. But until everybody is looking at you for the answer ... for direction ... and you're the tip of the spear, you can't prepare for it until you get there. "You hope all your experiences will have prepared you," Weatherford says. But you never know. Overseeing the House side of redistricting last year was, variously, spring training and baptism by fire, testing Weatherford's ability to lead responsibly while handling tricky competing interests, tough hops that included the headline sacrifice of former Congressman Allen West's home district in southeast Florida. "It was intense, high-level pressure, and you knew going into it you couldn't make everybody happy," he says. "That was the only trial run I had, and it helped condition me. "Being Speaker, it's an amazing ride. ... But you can't fully see the big picture until you get there." "You want to be inclusive. You don't want to be the guy who's completely rigid based on your ideology so you're completely ignoring anyone else's position. At the same time, there comes a point at which you've got to lead. When you have to give a sense of direction and say, 'Guys, this is where we're going. You've got to be the compass. This is where your north is.' " There's "constant tension," he says, over the clear usefulness of allowing committee chairs and members freedom to navigate while also maintaining authority over the ultimate destination. Says Weatherford, "Sometimes those are in conflict. I thought we could have done better, but overall I didn't see a lot of disgruntled members, or members - Democrats or Republicans - who, even if they disagreed with my position, didn't feel like they weren't treated right." Then again, and at the risk of straining metaphorically, failure to resolve two spotlight issues - public employee pension reform and Medicaid expansion under Obamacare - cast Weatherford as Alex Rodriguez at the World Series: the incredibly vanishing phenom. About that: Weatherford is certain pension reform, at least, will have a return engagement when the Legislature reconvenes next spring. "It probably won't be exactly the same bill we had this year," he says, "but the fact is, the old defined-benefit model (pensions calculated on years worked and salaries earned, paid by your former employer) was invented when people lived to be 65. Now we're living to 85, and the model doesn't work. "It all comes down to who should be responsible for your retirement. Your employer? Or you?" Regarding Medicaid expansion - to which Weatherford remains opposed - the only certainty is the odds against a special session. "Why? Nobody's opinion has changed." Besides - not that you would gather this from local reporting - it's not like Florida is an outlier. Twenty-one states - mostly red, yes, but some purple, too - are opposed, and four others are waging contentious debates. By and large, Weatherford scoffs, states racing for expansion "are the ones that were in trouble in the first place." California and Illinois leap to mind. And he is not eager for Florida to be on the hook when, inevitably, cost projections miss their targets like a North Korean missile and Washington shifts the burden for yet another entitlement to the states. "That's not millions," he says, "that's billions. Who has that kind of money lying around?" Weatherford's personal GPS leads elsewhere, toward tax reform and expansion of virtual schools with the goal of expanding economic opportunity, a more certain cure for what ails the uninsured than any government program. The man has the keys, after all, and he knows how to use them. email@example.com (813) 371-1851 www.Facebook.com/TomJacksonTribune Twitter: @tjacksonTBO