By Kenric Ward
While Senate President Mike Haridopolos has been the whirling dervish of Florida politics, House Speaker Dean Cannon has been quietly going about his business.
Haridopolos made headlines in recent weeks with his high-profile positions against Obamacare and support for education reform. He traveled to Washington, D.C., where he advocated for passage of a states’ rights “Reform Amendment.”
These activities set the stage for the Merritt Island Republican’s yet-to-be-announced campaign for U.S. Senate in 2012.
Cannon is simpatico with Haridopolos’ legislative agenda, but he’s not running for anything. Indeed, the Winter Park attorney seems content to stick close to home, with no aspirations for higher office.
“Cannon is a unique speaker in many respects. He’s been the power behind the throne for two years serving as a sort of shadow speaker,” said one longtime Republican strategist from South Florida who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The downfall of speaker-designate Ray Sansom gave Cannon time to prepare to lead the 120-member House after Speaker Larry Cretul’s retirement.
For all its members and diverse issues, power tends to concentrate in the hands of a few top House leaders. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is Cannon’s most trusted ally.
“Five guys really run the place. The rest are rowing on the slave ship,” the Republican operative said.
Cannon’s House figures to closely track the Senate agenda next year. Both chambers have supermajorities of Republicans, and both appear to be in sync with Gov. Rick Scott’s budget-cutting mantra.
On health care, Cannon mirrors Haridopolos’ approach by introducing a joint resolution for the state to opt out of the federal program. Both houses are on the same page regarding Medicaid reform as they work to tighten the system.
On education, Cannon and Haridopolos both want to resurrect portions of vetoed Senate Bill 6, instituting rewards for teachers based on performance.
On the budget, both houses will focus on trimming public-sector expenses while promoting job creation in the private sector.
But even amid such seeming solidarity, fissures with the governor’s office could develop. No one can forget that both Cannon and Haridopolos supported Bill McCollum’s gubernatorial bid, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars from their coffers into the attorney general’s primary battle against Scott.
The state’s three top Republican leaders are said to have mended fences, but five House members who supported Scott early on reportedly have been relegated to marginal committee assignments and “exiled” to less-than-desirable offices on the House complex’s third floor.
Rep. Mike Weinstein, a Jacksonville former prosecutor who is on Scott’s transition team, was removed as vice chairman of the Civil Justice and Court Policy Committee.
Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, was bounced out of his chairmanship of the Energy and Utilities Policy Committee.
Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, was relieved of his chairmanship of the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee.
Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, no longer chairs the Health Care Regulation Policy Committee.
Rachel Burgin, R-Tampa, did not hold a chairmanship in the 2010 session, but will vice-chair the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee next year.
All incoming and returning House members were asked to rank their top and bottom choices for committee assignments.
Weinstein, who angered GOP leadership by voting against SB 6 last session, ended up in his least favored area, the Health and Human Services Access Committee.
“Whether my Rick Scott support played into the assignments, I don’t know for sure. I do know that the House, like the Senate, is a political body and politics are a part of the process,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein, who listed education and public safety as his leading committee choices, added, “I personally suffered in Tallahassee for my SB 6 vote. That probably has more to do with my status than supporting the governor-elect.
“I don’t fault anyone for where I am. I’m pleased to participate and will continue to vote my conscience,” he said.
Glorioso said, “Being a senior member (elected in 2004), I thought I would have an overall committee chair.
“There’s at least a perception that Scott supporters didn’t get what they thought they had earned,” added Glorioso, who has applied to be secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
Cannon spokeswoman Katie Betta said, “We have announced committee chairmen and vice chairmen and subcommittee chairmen and vice chairmen, and each of [these] members was given a leadership role.”
Betta added: “Every [one of the five] members has either an equivalent or more senior position than that member had previously.”
As for “exile” on the third floor, Betta noted that the majority leader’s office is located there.
“Office assignments for committee and subcommittee chairmen typically coincide with where their committee is located,” Betta explained. “The committees are located on the lower floors of the Capitol and House Office Building. We locate member offices nearby, so they can be in close proximity to committee staff.”
Of the five, only Patronis chairs a full committee (Government Operations). Glorioso landed the only other chairmanship (Judicial Appropriations Subcommittee).
Phone calls to Kreegel, Patronis and Burgin were not returned by deadline.
Speaking on background, the Republican strategist discounted the notion of political payback against Scott supporters.
“In Cannon World, there may be personality conflicts. But the bigger issue is one of capability. If you’re not going to work hard on your first assignment, you’re not going to get an important second assignment,” the operative said.
“Cannon needs people who have been through few battles,” added the strategist, noting, “There’s not a lot of bench depth.”
As for working with Scott, Cannon spokeswoman Betta told Education Week that the speaker is reviewing the incoming governor’s sweeping proposal for school vouchers.
“Traditionally, initiatives that have increased school choice are things that the House has supported,” Betta said. “But we haven’t seen the specifics.”
Meanwhile, Cannon is channeling Haridopolos in supporting new efforts to reward teachers based on performance.
A new teacher evaluation and pay system is something the speaker “wants to consider at the state level,” Betta said.