It took Will Weatherford 10 years to catapult from political novice to one of Florida's most influential legislators. An untested $22,000-a-year campaign worker fresh out of college a decade ago, Weatherford, 33, is now one of the youngest House speakers in the state's history.
Weatherford began his political journey after graduating from Jacksonville University by helping former state Rep. Allan Bense pick up support in his successful campaign to become House speaker. Weatherford then joined Bense as a legislative aide handling constituency issues and married the speaker's daughter along the way.
But, his father-in-law points out, Weatherford earned his spurs on his own.
"He is much, much smarter on public policy issues than I was," said Bense, who was speaker from 2004 to 2006. "He's in Jeb's (former Gov. Jeb Bush) league in terms of details on public policy. He (Weatherford) can debate points I wouldn't even think about. It's uncanny."
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, first caught Bense's eye during his final year at Jacksonville where he was a football teammate of Bense's son, Jason.
"Within a minute after meeting him, I said to myself, 'This guy has got potential,'" recalled Bense.
Maybe more than Bense first knew: It wasn't long before Weatherford and Bense's daughter, Courtney, started dating. They married in 2006 and now have three daughters under the age of 5. Weatherford, who has eight siblings, says he's in negotiations for a fourth in hopes of a son.
Weatherford recalls how nervous he was when he approached Bense, who was then his boss, about asking out his only daughter.
"I say, 'Hey, I don't want to get fired, but I'm thinking about taking Courtney out on a date if that's OK,'" Weatherford said. "He said, 'Sounds good, don't worry.' About nine months later we were engaged."
And Bense said whenever there is an issue between the two, he sides with his son-in-law.
"Always," Bense said. "I couldn't ask for a better son-in-law."
Or one who shares his love for politics.
In Weatherford's case, politics has been in his blood since childhood. His grandmother, Carolyn Warner, ran for governor in Arizona where she is a longtime Democratic activist and one-time the state's superintendent of schools. Her father, Weatherford's great grandfather, was a state senator in Oklahoma.
The new Florida speaker can actually trace his ancestry back to William Weatherford, known as Chief Red Eagle in the Creek Indian tribe. He negotiated a peace treaty with Col. Andrew Jackson in the early part of the 19th century following battles in parts of Alabama and Florida.
Weatherford lists "faith, family and football," as his priorities in life. He and all six younger brothers played college football at varying levels. One, Drew Weatherford, was the starting quarterback at Florida State for three years. Their youngest brother, Peter, was just 2 when he died of cancer. Will Weatherford was 15 and helping his older sister Jackie hold down the fort at home while their parents tended to their dying son.
"I had to grow up real quick," Weatherford said. "It was time to step up."
While Will Weatherford's political philosophy is largely a result of his formative years under his mother Cathy Weatherford's tutelage, he credits his legislative style to observing Bense.
"People rarely remember what you do or what you say, but they remember how you treat them," Weatherford said. "He made sure people knew that he cared about them."
The Texas-born, home-schooled Weatherford formally became speaker in November. The youngest speaker was the late Doyle Conner, who was elected at the age of 28 in 1958.
One of Weatherford's primary goals for the 60-day legislative session that begins March 5 is to eliminate guaranteed pension benefits for newly hired state employees as a way to reduce the cost of paying for them. Instead, all new hires would go into the state's defined contribution plan, which is currently optional. Those benefits can vary depending how successful an employee's investment choices turn out, similar to a 401k plan.
Eliminating the defined benefit for new hires could be the young speaker's toughest challenge.
"If we could afford it, it would be great, but we can't afford it long term." Weatherford said during a half-hour interview in his fourth floor office at the Capitol. He said it will cost the state $500 million this year to keep the retirement fund sound.
Weatherford and other critics of the present retirement system are worried it can't remain sound in the future without more taxpayer contributions.
"It's a ticking time bomb in every state and in every city across the country," Weatherford said. "Why would we allow people to go into a fund that we're going to have to bail out every year?"
Rep. Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader, said he looks forward to working with Weatherford although there are bound to be some fights.