Last year, when the incoming Speaker Will Weatherford named ethically challenged Lake Mary Republican Chris Dorworth as his prospective Majority Leader, it sent a strong signal that the GOP continued to be unfazed by publicly embarrassing and unethical behavior. After all when you have had an uncontested majority for so long you tend to forget about the voters, labeling anyone who questions you as an “enemy.”
By tapping Dorworth, Weatherford thumbed his nose all of those who think ethics and humility matters in state government. Thankfully Dorworth was defeated by Mike Clelland on November 6th in an election that should have sent shock-waves throughout the state. Dorworth, whose ethical lapses were too great to list here became the poster child for what has long been an arrogant, reckless and out-of-touch GOP majority.
But despite that defeat the GOP still holds a huge majority in both chambers of the legislature, a fact that owes itself to the long -term structural ineptitude of the Florida Democratic Party and the dysfunctional nature of the House and Senate “Victory” committees.
Will Weatherford is smarter than most Republican legislators. Yet his decision to entrust someone in Dorworth whose public conduct brought shame onto the GOP caucus showed an appalling lack of judgement. Despite this I hold out hope that Weatherford’s speakership could be a new beginning for the majority party in the House, which has generally been led by partisan,and ideologically motivated figures like Tom Feeney, Johnnie Byrd and Marco Rubio. Weatherford as discussed last week on this site more resembles his father-in-law Allan Bense in approach than the aforementioned former Speakers. Bense was a conservative but also a fairer Speaker than any other since the GOP took the majority in the 1996 election.
The arrogance of Florida Republicans means that humility is not a trait that comes easily to the legislative leadership. With seemingly unchecked power and wielding an ideologically motivated ax to state programs, the GOP has developed a Soviet like control over Florida Government and politics. Defiance is crushed among activists, corporations and lobbyists using various levers of power to intimidate and punish perceived “enemies.” Submission to the leadership has become a trademark of GOP rule over the state and this arrogance has also led directly to a culture of cronyism and entitlement. Either you play ball with Florida’s Republicans or you get crushed, in a more subtle way than the Soviet crushed their internal opposition but with the same ruthless effect. Speaker Will Weatherford has the potential to change this culture while understanding that despite a 32 seat majority much of the GOP agenda was shot down by voters in the form of ballot initiatives this past November.
On the Senate side, President Don Gaetz has developed a reputation for arrogance. But President Gaetz is also an accomplished administrator and problem solver. Gaetz is smart enough to realize that the continuing GOP Senate majority has to do with his skill in manipulating the redistricting process last year, as well as the general ineptitude of the state’s Democrats. The defeat of several big ticket conservative items on the November ballot has many in the GOP wondering how aggressively the party should push an ideological agenda.
While the vast majority of Floridians not only do not pay attention to Legislature but they do not even know when legislative session takes place, the GOP leadership may be reading the tea leaves. I sense we may see a more measured approach from both Republican leaders this year when contrasted with each chamber’s leadership predecessors. As Florida realigns on issues and demographic changes continue to move the state further and further away from the national GOP, expect the shreds of pragmatism contained by GOP legislative leaders to become more and more visible.