Photo: Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times
Among the 20 or so GOP seats that will open up statewide in 2016, six will be in northeast Florida.
Statewide Roundup - Tallahassee Trend
Ducks in a row: Jacksonville's leaders want more clout in Tallahassee
Jacksonville leaders are hoping to avoid repeating a mistake that cost the region clout.
During the 2008 election cycle, six freshmen lawmakers from the Jacksonville area entered the Florida Legislature. The numbers created a prime opportunity: If the members of the northeast Florida delegation united behind one candidate, they might put that person in line to become Speaker of the state House of Representatives for the 2014-16 term — and give northeast Florida its first House Speaker in more than two decades.
Jacksonville blew it. The delegation split its support between state Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) and former Rep. Mike Weinstein (R-Jacksonville). Neither had enough votes on his own to win, and McBurney decided to support former Rep. Chris Dorworth (R-Lake Mary). (Dorworth unexpectedly lost reelection a few years later, and the speakership ultimately went to Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Republican from Merritt Island.)
That big 2008 class is now being forced out of office by term limits, and the opportunity to snag a leadership position is presenting itself anew. Among the 20 or so Republican- held legislative seats that will constitute the class of 2016, six are in northeast Florida, more than any other region.
Jacksonville’s business and civic leaders are determined not to miss their chance this time. They’re already organizing meetings and making phone calls in hopes of unifying a new crop of lawmakers from northeast Florida behind a candidate for Speaker — even though that person, assuming election by voters and then selection by colleagues, won’t actually become Speaker until 2022.
“We believe that Jacksonville is poised to present a candidate for Speaker, and we recognize how important that is for our economy,” says Deno Hicks, managing partner of lobbying firm Southern Strategy’s Jacksonville office. “We are already attracting quality candidates in most of the open seats, but of utmost importance will be to build consensus around a candidate.”
At stake is the power wielded by a presiding officer of the Legislature and the benefits that flow to his or her region. The late Senate President Jim King (R-Jacksonville), who presided during the 2002-04 term, used his influence to change the state’s public school funding formula, which brought millions of dollars a year in extra funding to Duval County and other northeast Florida school districts (at the expense, most significantly, of Miami- Dade schools).
Jacksonville could use the help. In coming years, city leaders will have to cobble together more than $370 million in local and state funding to help pay to deepen the port harbor. State money could also help redevelop downtown, stabilize the police and fire fund, buttress local schools and help the region’s safetynet hospital. Having a presiding officer who represents the region is “critical,” says Hicks.
Of course, lining up a single candidate to carry the region’s banner is not easy. Local fundraisers and political strategists are already beginning to lobby for their own preferred candidates. Insiders say at least two people have privately expressed interest in running for Speaker: Rep. Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast), who got a head start when he was elected in a special election this spring, and Jacksonville City Council member Richard Clark, who is running for election in a Jacksonville-based seat.
“The first focus is getting elected and serving the district,” Clark adds. “But I would certainly want to have the discussion. I’m certainly interested, as I imagine everyone else would be.”
Meanwhile, outgoing Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford is thinking about running for a state House seat, and local political strategists say he will likely see himself as Speaker material.
In addition, Jacksonville leaders say they expect JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis to play a role in orchestrating a speakership campaign. Davis is a former state representative who ran for Speaker himself, losing out to Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes), who will take over the chamber in 2016.
Renner, Rutherford and Davis would comment on their plans.
With the 2016 elections still more than a year away, much can change. The race for an open U.S. Senate seat may attract several members of Congress to leave their seats, creating a domino effect that leads to even more state House openings. And even with a large group of new lawmakers from northeast Florida, leadership candidates from other parts of the state will likely emerge. Many people expect state Rep. Jamie Grant (R-Tampa) will run for Speaker, though Grant says he has not yet made up his mind.
Regardless of the final tally of open seats, the behind-the-scenes jockeying illustrates how early the leadership campaigns begin in today’s term-limited Legislature, particularly in the House.
Corcoran, for example, won his race for Speaker barely two months after his class was elected. His expected successor, Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes), declared victory just days after his class was elected.
In the most recent race, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando) appeared to sew up his speakership after the 2014 primaries but before the general elections, although some members of his class have recently begun reconsidering their support for him.
By contrast, it took former House Speaker Allan Bense (RPanama City) four years after he was first elected in 1998 to win his race to become Speaker for the 2004-06 term.
Bense says he doesn’t think an early decision is any better or worse than a protracted race like his. He says it is often easy to spot the strongest leaders in a class quickly. “With future Speakers, there’s a demeanor about them. You have to be able to get people to pledge to you, so you have to be thoughtful, considerate, deliberate,” Bense says.
“Sometimes, if you’re running for Speaker early on and you go visit members, they can sense that,” he says. “And you shouldn’t hold them back.”