The race to become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives is largely considered to be down to two men: Northeast Florida Rep. Paul Renner and Rep. Jamie Grant of Tampa.
Business and political leaders in the Jacksonville area have rallied behind Renner, raising money for his political committee and talking up his leadership skills to whoever will listen. But they don’t have any direct say-so in deciding who will earn the job for a two-year term that begins in 2022.
The vote will come down to the 27 Republicans currently serving their first terms in the House. It could happen as early as June 30.
Until then, those who want to become speaker are not allowed to actively campaign for the second-most-powerful position in Florida government. Renner has never publicly said he wants the job, but he and Grant reportedly were among four House members who expressed interest during a closed-door meeting earlier this month.
“The meeting in Winter Park was the most productive thus far,” Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, said. “It afforded the opportunity for all freshmen to hear from those colleagues interested in becoming speaker.”
Renner continues to decline to speak on the record about his aspirations to become speaker. But there is no hiding the fact that he has been hitting the road to meet with colleagues and is raising money through his Florida Foundation for Liberty political committee.
He reportedly collected six figures during a May 25 fundraiser at Jacksonville’s River Club, although campaign finance documents haven’t yet been filed to verify the amount. The event co-chairs were political and business heavyweights John Rood, Howard Korman, Tom Petway and Mori Hosseini.
Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, is a veteran legislator and doesn’t have input in the 2022 speaker’s race. But as a member of the House’s current leadership team and a senior member of the Northeast Florida delegation, he is plugged into the grapevine.
“He’s in as good of a position that he could hope for at this point,” Cummings said of Renner, who moved from Jacksonville to Palm Coast to win his legislative seat in a 2015 special election.
Cummings said both Grant and Renner bring strong qualities to the job and it’s a toss-up between them. But Cummings is also among those who think it is time for the top job to go to someone from the First Coast, something that hasn’t happened in nearly 20 years.
“I’ve long believed that Northeast Florida not only greatly desires but deserves to have a presiding officer,” he said. “And it’s been way too long since Speaker (John) Thrasher and, for that matter, Sen. (Jim) King served.”
In the past, members who wanted to be speaker collected pledge cards for over a year, starting even before most were elected to the Legislature. New rules backed by House Speaker Corcoran prohibit active campaigning until June 30, in order for freshmen to get one session under their belts before they decide who will be their leader for the remainder of an expected eight-year tenure in the House.
Despite the new guidelines, there was still jockeying that played out during the legislative session that just adjourned.
Politico Florida reported that a group of freshmen attempted to form a voting bloc with the agreement that the speaker would come from among their ranks. This subgroup was identified as being aligned with Grant and not Renner, but as they worked to create a 14-member majority, the news leaked to the public.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues has consulted with freshman members as they try to navigate the speakership race under the new guidelines. He said nothing he has heard or read indicates that anyone crossed a line.
“I don’t think the rules have been broken,” he said recently. “I think what we’ve made clear is what we didn’t want during the committee weeks and session was a situation where you had active campaigning and the collection of pledge cards.”
Rodrigues said his main concern is making sure that freshman Republicans come up with a voting process that adheres to both new and established House rules.
For example, the freshman caucus agreed to at least begin their voting process by secret ballot in order to allow people to decide freely without worrying about repercussions. Rodrigues said that could work at the beginning, but eventually the rules call for members to publicly say who they are selecting for speaker.
“At the end of the day, somebody has to slow pledge cards with names on them that reflect the majority of your caucus,” he said.
Tia Mitchell: (850) 933-1321