Will Weatherford seems like a fusion of Mitt Romney and Tim Tebow. He’s the second of nine children — all homeschooled through middle school — and cites Atlas Shrugged and the Serenity Prayer with equal aplomb. He played football in college (linebacker and defensive end), married his boss’s daughter, and is about to become the country’s youngest speaker of a state house at the tender age of 32. So it’s no surprise that he’s garnered comparisons to Marco Rubio, praise from Jeb Bush, and rising-star status in the Republican party.
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Will the Paul Ryan of the Florida House, though he’s certainly too modest to say that himself,” says veteran Florida GOP strategist Todd Harris. “He’s ridiculously young, but the minute he opens his mouth it’s clear he’s also ridiculously smart and takes the policy side of politics very seriously.”
Weatherford credits his conservatism to his parents, who had difficulty supporting their family for much of his childhood. While he didn’t describe his family as poor, he says that his father sometimes struggled to feed his large clan, often taking on second jobs to make ends meet.
“I always remember my mom and dad saying, ‘We’re just going to figure it out,’” Weatherford told National Review Online. “As a kid you see other families who were on food stamps or were living off certain subsidies and with my parents, it was just never an option, even though it probably could have been. At the time, I probably didn’t think much of it, but now, thinking back, it had a huge impact on my worldview, of what I thought government’s role actually was.”
Weatherford’s college-football career kept him from being more politically active as an undergrad at Jacksonville University — football season and election season overlap — but he participated in Young Republicans and went on to work as a legislative assistant for Allan Bense, the Florida speaker of the house who preceded Marco Rubio. Weatherford’s first day on the job was pretty exciting; he and Bense almost died when the plane they were taking from Pensacola to Panama City caught on fire, inverted, and fell from 5,000 to 1,000 feet. But, somehow, they made it out alive. Eight months later, Weatherford began dating Bense’s daughter, who is now his wife.
His political career didn’t really take off until 2006, when then-governor Jeb Bush appointed the legislator from Weatherford’s district, Ken Littlefield, to serve on Florida’s Public Service Commission. It was just seven weeks before Election Day and the ballots were already printed, so the Republican party couldn’t change the name of its nominee, even though Littlefield wouldn’t be running for the seat. But it could designate an official replacement candidate who would be credited with Littlefield’s votes. Rubio explained the situation to Weatherford and gave him 24 hours to decide if he wanted to become the party’s new nominee.
He decided to go for it, and a bizarre campaign followed. The campaign printed two-sided leaflets that promoted Littlefield on one side and Weatherford on the other, with the slogan “Vote for Ken to Vote for Will.” Then, three weeks before the election, Weatherford’s Democratic opponent got “Baker Acted,” or required by law enforcement to enter a mental institution, where he remained through Election Day.
He was designated as Florida’s speaker of the house last year, and he’ll formally take on the role this November. The state’s system gives speaker-designates about two years to plan their tenures, so he’s been able to lay out a detailed agenda. He wants to continue the education reforms that Jeb Bush worked on during his governorship, pushing for more school choice and accountability. He’s also interested in starting an online public university. And he wants to change the state’s defined-benefit pension plan, which he calls an embarrassment.
Weatherford’s term will end in 2014, and he wasn’t specific about his plans after that. “If you’re Charlie Crist and all you can think about is the next elected office you’re going to hold, then you’re probably going to do a bad job at the one you have currently,” he said.
Others aren’t as reticent about Weatherford’s political future. Harris thinks he’ll run for statewide office, and Jeb Bush is optimistic about his chances in future races. “He’s an extraordinary young man who I think has great potential over the long haul,” told NRO. “He seeks my counsel, which is flattering for an old guy like me,” he added.
For now, Weatherford is a co-chairman of the Romney campaign in Florida and has been serving as one of his surrogates. That’s probably good preparation for whatever comes next.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.