By KEITH LAING, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 2, 2009……….Sometimes still using the “we’s” that would often be used by one of 120 members of the Florida House instead of the “I’s” that might be used by the chamber’s leader, Rep. Larry Cretul spoke publicly Monday for the first time since assuming the House speakership from Rep. Ray Sansom.
Cretul’s news conference was another progression in a quickly unfolding process that appears to be headed toward the permanent conclusion of Sansom’s controversial speakership when lawmakers begin the 2009 legislative session March 3.
House Republicans had already announced plans to elect a new conference leader Monday night before Cretul spoke. Party leaders have said they fully expect Cretul, the speaker pro-tem, to be elected conference leader. If that happens, the Ocala Republican will carry out duties of the speaker until an election on March 3.
House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, said Monday that he believes the Monday evening vote would put House Republicans “in a posture to elect a new speaker.” Asked if that would then end the speakership of Ray Sansom, Hasner replied, “that would be the correct interpretation.”
“Currently Speaker Cretul is serving as speaker pursuant to Rep. Sansom’s recusal pursuant to rule 2.5 of the House,” Hasner said. “Tonight the House Republican Conference will convene…in order to elect Speaker Cretul as the permanent leader of the Republican Conference, at which time he would continue to serve as speaker of the House for the remainder of the committee meetings. Then, it is our intention as the Republican conference on the first day of session to elect Speaker Cretul officially.”
Under the timeline laid out Monday by Hasner, the only hold-up to the permanent end of Sansom’s term as speaker is the fact that the session has not yet begun.
Election of a new speaker “cannot take place until we are in session, and that means we have to wait until March 3, but I think that (timeline) addresses where we are currently and where we intend to go,” Hasner said.
Hasner appeared with Cretul during Monday’s news conference, as did Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, and former House member Dudley Goodlette, tapped Monday by Cretul to be his chief of staff.
Cretul’s appointment as Republican leader – a precursor to his ascension to speaker – was an early flash point in the wake of Sansom’s recusal. At least one lawmaker, Rep. J.C. Planas, who was the first Republican legislator to publicly call for Sansom to step down hours before he did, said to have Cretul just move directly into the speakership sent a bad signal that things were being worked out behind closed doors.
But Cretul said Monday that the meeting to pick a new Republican leader would be an open election.
“This is a caucus meeting,” he said. “If somebody wants to put someone’s name on the floor for nomination, that’s why we are having the meeting.”
However, it appeared likely Monday that Republicans would coalesce behind Cretul, if his well-attended press conference is any indication. Also, Planas was quoted as saying he would vote for Cretul.
Cretul said he had spoken with Sansom, R-Destin, since the former speaker’s announcement Friday that he was temporarily recusing himself from the duties of the office. Since then, however, Republicans have gradually moved toward making the decision permanent.
Rules and Calendar Committee chairman Bill Galvano said over the weekend that the House should elect a new leader permanently when members return. Galvano released his opinion after questions arose about Sansom’s role should he be cleared of wrongdoing in investigations into his relationship with a state college that received an exceptionally large amount of money under a budget written by Sansom and then hired him when he became speaker.
Cretul, who Monday appeared likely to be that new full-time leader, said that Sansom would play a role going forward as a duly elected representative. But Cretul also said that the embattled former speaker would not be a larger factor than any other lawmaker.
“We are friends,” Cretul said. “He’s a good man and he will play a role. Let’s not forget he is an elected member of the House of Representatives and he represents his district…I will confer with Rep. Sansom just as I would with any other member of the House.”
However, none of the other lawmakers will have the shadow cast over them that Sansom now has. Prior to Sansom’s recusal, Galvano recommended that a special investigator be appointed to investigate a rules complaint that accuses the speaker of violating a House rule that requires members to promote public confidence in the integrity of the Legislature.
That task would normally fall to the speaker pro-tempore, unless of course, the pro-tem just got a promotion. Cretul said Monday that he would appoint a new speaker pro-tem soon, though he did not yet know who that would be.
And while Cretul searches for a new speaker pro-tempore, he said he will also be looking for the investigator Galvano requested.
“We are still within – I am still within the time frame to appoint a special investigator to fulfill the charge,” Cretul said, apparently speaking as speaker pro-tem and not speaker. “I am looking at different individuals as we speak. I will meet the required time.”
When he went back to speaking as the new speaker, Cretul said that the he largely agrees with former Speaker Sansom ideologically, so there would be little change in the governing philosophy of the House leadership with the gavel now in his hands.
“I would suspect the speaker picked me (to be speaker pro-tem) because maybe we have similar philosophy,” he said. “No one’s identical (but) I can’t think of anything in particular that I have a difference of opinion on.”
However, Cretul did say that he looked forward to restoring “order” to the House. The ascendant speaker also distinguished himself quickly from Sansom in another way, pledging to regularly speak with members of the media.
Sansom held a news conference in the days leading up to his formal election as speaker in November, and did not take questions from the press again until Jan. 22.
“I plan on being available on a regular basis working in my schedule to do this,” Cretul said. “If you will just allow me a little more time as we work through it, once we get our feet – my feet – on the ground, we will set these things up regularly,” Cretul told reporters Monday.
Cretul said he spent his first weekend as acting speaker readying for the post.
“I have been reading the rules of the House, which were written by lawyers and approved by members,” Cretul said. “Perhaps they should have been written by members and approved by lawyers,” he quipped.
Cretul also said he has begun his speakership by reading the budgets approved by lawmakers in the 2008 legislative session and the recently completed special session.
“Our immediate focus now is to get back to the business of the Florida House and also the households of the state of Florida,” Cretul said. “The first place we will start is by doing some prioritizing in some of the scheduled committee meetings.”
Cretul added that he did not ascend to the speakership the way most speakers have, lobbying their colleagues for pledges of support years in advantage. Republicans have already picked Reps. Dean Cannon and Will Weatherford to be speakers for the 2010-2012 and 2012-2014 sessions, should they remain in power, and jockeying has already begun for 2014.
“I did not campaign for this position and I have no promises to fulfill,” Cretul said. “I have no ambition, other than spending time with my grandsons and they are the only ones I hope to impress…I never thought I’d be in this position to serve the people of Florida.”
But that did not stop Cretul from acknowledging the tough job ahead, when the House he will lead is facing an estimated $4 billion deficit and counts among its members a sitting former speaker with legal trouble.
“If I look tired, I am,” he said.