House Freshmen Eye Speaker Post

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 20, 2011 --

Less than three months into their legislative careers, four Republican freshmen House members are already jockeying to become speaker of the House in 2016.

Reps. Ben Albritton, Dennis Baxley, Richard Corcoran and Matt Gaetz have all signaled they’re interested in the post - one of the most powerful jobs in state government - even though they wouldn’t ascend to the leadership post until after the November 2016 elections. Instead, one front runner will emerge in the next two years and be viewed as the leader of their class of lawmakers until they become speaker designate.

With state law limiting lawmakers to eight year terms, lawmakers who want the top job in the House have no time to waste, beginning to campaign for the position almost immediately upon taking office, or even before.

Albritton, Corcoran and Gaetz are actively campaigning for the job, asking their colleagues to sign pledge cards that promise their vote. The three appear to be on relative even footing, with all bringing various strengths to the table. Baxley, is taking another route, asking colleagues to hold off on pledging their allegiance to any candidate until the session concludes.

Albritton set up a leadership fund over the summer and has contributed to nearly 50 legislative campaigns already. He also received the endorsement a few days ago of fellow Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, who was once considered a top candidate of the freshmen class for the job.

“He made a big decision,” said Albritton, R- Wauchula. “It’s a big decision to take yourself out of the race.”

There is no set timeline for a class of lawmakers to choose their future leader. Last year, then-Speaker Larry Cretul directed Reps. Chris Dorworth and Erik Fresen, who were campaigning to be speaker in 2014, to wrap up their race before the start of the 2010 legislative session. Fresen has since stepped aside and thrown his support behind Dorworth, only one year into their legislative service.

Current House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has not issued that type of directive to the current crop of leadership candidates.

The early campaigning for leadership has drawn concern from some long time Tallahassee insiders and former legislators who have argued that lawmakers are promising their support to someone they barely know and who may not be qualified for the job.

“We have seen people like Johnnie Byrd who I do not think would have made it if they waited,” said former lawmaker and Tallahassee lobbyist Ken Plante, referring to the former House speaker whose leadership skills were routinely criticized by lawmakers from both parties. “You can’t tell everything about someone from the first three months.”

Baxley, R-Ocala, told the News Service his urging colleagues to wait and see how the candidates handle themselves over the next several months. He helped circulate a pledge among the 41-member freshmen class to essentially not pledge to support a candidate for speaker until after their first year in Tallahassee.

“ I’ve taken a different strategy,” he said. “I’ve tried to give the members a chance to work a session.”

Nineteen members of the class so far have signed on to not support a candidate right out of the gate, Baxley said.

Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, noted that members need time to make a decision and said he didn’t want to “be anyone’s impulse buy” in the leadership race. He said all contenders, himself included, are all “trying to be a good member” right now to show their colleagues that they can trust them in the future.

The campaigning will likely begin in earnest after the first session and into next fall as lawmakers begin to get their footing on major issues passing through the Legislature. There is no current count on where the candidates stand.

“It’s much like a campaign really,” Albritton said. “You’re working to earn the trust of the people you’re working with.”

For his part, Corcoran, R-Trinity, said he is trying to postpone the “inside baseball” maneuvers of a speaker’s race until after the session and noted that most voters are not interested in the internal workings of the Legislature.

“Our primary focus, for all of our whole conference, is to get our state back on track,” he said.


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