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Power brokers see bright future for departing house speaker Weatherford

As Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford departs the political scene, he sounds like a man focused more on now than later.

Weatherford, a 34-year-old Wesley Chapel Republican, faces term limits after eight years as a state representative, the last two as speaker.

During that time, he and his wife Courtney also had four children, with the most recent addition to the family — son William Winston — arriving earlier this month.

“I’ve gone from reading bill analyses at night to reading Dr. Seuss with my kids,” he said. “I’ve gone from the challenges of the political process to changing dirty diapers.”

He’ll hand the gavel to Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, this November.

Weatherford says he doesn’t know the answer to the obvious question: How long will it be before his name is back on a Florida ballot?

“I would definitely never rule that out,” he said. “But I would say I’m catching my breath and I’m going to enjoy family life and focus on the private sector more.”

His rest may be short.

“I expect to host a fundraiser for Will Weatherford for governor or U.S. senator sometime in the next five years,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“Will Weatherford is the future of Florida,” Gaetz said. “He will be, if he wants to be, very significant on the Florida political landscape for the next 30 years.”

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In many respects, Weatherford has lived a charmed political life.

His father-in-law is Allen Bense, a Republican former state representative from Panama City who preceded him as speaker 2004-06. Bense chairs the Florida State University trustees, who named state Sen. John Thrasher FSU president Tuesday.

Weatherford has seen almost all of his legislative goals fulfilled, including overhauls of campaign finance, ethics and elections law, and expanding access to school vouchers.

That’s because he had a willing partner in Gaetz. The men presented a united policy front for the two sessions over which they presided.

“With most presidents and most speakers, when their two years are up, you’re lucky if they’re still talking to each other,” Weatherford said. “Don Gaetz and I are better friends now than when we started two years ago.”

Their relationship stands in contrast to that of their immediate predecessors, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, who presided over the “midnight meltdown” of 2011.

Both chambers were at an impasse over competing priorities, including tax breaks and claim bills, and adjourned separately late into the night without the traditional joint “hanky drop” that marks the end of a legislative session.

But Weatherford, stymied by others in the Senate, lost an effort to close the state pension fund to new employees and shift them to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

Despite the relative strength of the Florida Retirement System, Weatherford has long complained of the millions of dollars still needed to shore up the fund each year.

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For many, though, his legacy will be as the man who said ‘no’ to Medicaid expansion.

Two years in a row, Weatherford successfully blocked the state from taking federal money under the Affordable Care Act to insure about 1 million Floridians — those still considered poor but making enough to put them over the poverty line.

Weatherford and House Republicans said they didn’t trust federal officials to follow through, and bucked Gov. Rick Scott, Senate Republicans, progressives, and business, medical and labor groups, all of whom favored some form of Medicaid expansion.

Weatherford offered an alternative House plan to cover about 115,000 residents using more than $200 million in state money. That was rejected by the Senate.

“I just don’t believe there is a way to provide free-market health care to the citizens of Florida who are in the greatest need,” he said.

“No one is refuting that there are people who live within our state who have a need for health care and currently do not have access to it,” Weatherford said. “But to just put them on Medicaid, by the millions across the country, and claim that you’re solving the health care challenges of our citizens, is false.

“That is not a true solution,” he said. “That is a government solution that will not lead to better health outcomes.”

Karen Woodall, executive director of the progressive Florida Center for Economic and Fiscal Policy, is puzzled by Weatherford.

He was so entrenched against Medicaid expansion, she said, but he championed passage of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students — something many Republicans still oppose.

“It’s paradoxical to me that he stood so firm against expanding coverage for hundreds of thousands of Floridians, yet also did something heroic and correct that he’s not going to get a lot of kudos for from his party,” Woodall said.

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In the last few months, Weatherford also has opened a political action committee, seeded with $425,000 from the Republican Party of Florida, and has given to several GOP legislative candidates running this year.

In turn, through the Committee for a Stronger Florida, Weatherford has dispensed $1,000 each to the campaigns for Scott, CFO Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi, all incumbent Republicans.

Campaign finance records show his committee also has passed through $10,000 to a PAC controlled by fellow Pasco County GOP representative Richard Corcoran, on tap to be speaker in 2017-18, and sent $5,000 to another PAC chaired by state Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah.

“I’m always going to support Republicans and conservative Republican across the state,” he said. “It’s something I do because I believe in the party. I understand how important it is to have resources to win elections. We help our friends, people who share our values and our worldview.”

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But political fundraising is just a sideline for him, Weatherford said. For instance, he mentioned doing “business development,” though didn’t have specifics yet.

Weatherford is private about details of his work, though he has disclosed his primary income coming from an environmental remediation company owned by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

“While I have not asked him about his long range plans, it is my hope that he will continue to work for Simpson Environmental Services, Inc.,” Simpson said. “He is a valuable member of the team.”

Family friend and Florida real estate executive Dewey Mitchell says Weatherford has had “a lot of offers.”

“What I mean is, a lot of people have reached out to him,” said Mitchell, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Properties Group. He didn’t drop any names, however.

“He will be successful at whatever he decides to do,” Mitchell said. “And I can’t believe he doesn’t have a very good political future ahead of him.”

Weatherford was inducted last week into the Hall of Fame at Land O’ Lakes High School, where he played football.

Weatherford’s pastor, Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, says that “God has something in store for him.”

“He’s too young to sit on the sidelines or pull up a rocking chair,” Whitten said. “I do believe he has a gift in the area of politics.”

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