Prospective Florida House Speaker Dorworth fends off fire from GOP rivals

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By John Kennedy

Published July 2, 2012


TALLAHASSEE — Already tapped by ruling Republicans as Florida’s House speaker in a couple of years, Rep. Chris Dorworth faces unusual hurdles on his path to power.

And they’re in his own backyard.

Dorworth, an Orlando-area real estate investor whose finances have rollercoastered in recent years, faces two Republican opponents in an increasingly bitter Aug. 14 primary, with a Democratic challenger poised to take on the winner in November.

Usually lawmakers designated as future leaders get all but a free pass in election years.

But Dorworth has proved a political lightning rod – drawing the wrath of his opponents, who also have begun shading his candidacy with dark moments from recent Florida GOP history.

“He’s an embarrassment to the Republican Party,” said John Moffitt, treasurer of the Seminole County GOP, who is challenging the two-term incumbent. “His personal life also is a train wreck. We don’t need someone like this again.”

Moffitt and fellow Republican challenger Jeffrey Onest say Dorworth helped then-Gov. Charlie Crist install former Jim Greer on the Seminole County Republican Executive Committee, shortly before Greer was elected Florida Republican Party chairman in 2007. Greer faces trial July 30 in Orlando, charged with money laundering, grand theft and fraud for steering $200,000 of party money to a fundraising firm he formed with a top aide, keeping his control of the company a secret.

Dorworth’s critics even say his finances pose enough potential trouble that they draw comparisons with former House Speaker Ray Sansom, a Destin Republican who resigned two months after his election. Sansom was engulfed in scandal and faced criminal charges, later dropped, that accused him of steering state money to a college which gave him a six-figure job.

Dorworth dismisses such attacks. He acknowledges being a Seminole GOP committee member when Greer was named – but denies playing a role in the disgraced Greer’s ascension. Dorworth also shrugs off his challengers as little more than pawns of local political rivals, driven by intra-party bad blood.

A former vice-chairman of the Seminole REC, Jim Bomford, is a steady Dorworth critic who is prodding his opponents to attack, the incumbent said.

“I enjoy a whole lot of support in Seminole County, and I don’t think you’ll find one member of the Republican caucus in the Legislature who is against me,” Dorworth said. “Aside from local gadflies, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who doesn’t think I’m going to become speaker.”

Moffitt, 57, is a professional sports official. Onest, 44, is a former Army lieutenant, who has been working temporary jobs. The Democrat in the race, Mike Clelland, is a lawyer and retired firefighter.

Dorworth is slated to lead the House following the 2014 elections, should Republicans retain control.

But Dorworth’s influence over legislation and policy will grow steadily over the next two years, when he serves as an heir-apparent under incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Dorworth, Weatherford and another future Republican leader, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, have recruited candidates, are meeting donors, and helping raise millions of dollars to finance House election campaigns this fall.

“I’m never surprised when someone has a race,” said Weatherford, who faced a primary opponent two years ago and won 80 percent of the vote. “But this is not Chris’s first rodeo. And as a candidate, he’s going to have a great story to tell.”

Dorworth, 35, is a former University of Florida student body president who rocketed to the top following his 2007 election to the Legislature.

He rallied enough support that, in less than three years, he was tapped as a future speaker by his Republican colleagues, positioning him for one of the most potent political posts in Florida.

Last year he sponsored a business-backed ballot measure that will go before voters in November, aimed at cutting property taxes for non-homestead and commercial property and giving first-time homeowners a big tax break. Supporters said it could kick-start Florida’s sluggish real estate market.

Dorworth this spring also spearheaded repeal of a controversial septic tank inspection program and led Gov. Rick Scott’s push for repealing duplicative rules and regulations. He won honors from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

But the trajectory on Dorworth’s personal story has not proved as smooth.

Dorworth reported a $4 million net worth when he was first elected, but in qualifying papers filed in June his finances had plunged to a negative $56,290. He’s in the middle of a tough divorce and has been fighting foreclosure for three years on his $1.5 million, 8,200-square-foot home.

Dorworth reported earning $215,142 last year, most of it from a holding company that he said does consulting and is chartered in Delaware. But he also reported $235,169 in losses from development deals that went bust between 2004 and 2007, and still lists $2.7 million in liabilities from a legal judgment involving from a failed land sale.

“Look, I had a very successful real estate business until 2006 and 2007 happened,” Dorworth said of the economic downturn. “But I think people in Florida can understand that and don’t hold that against me. I’ve got a good legislative record and I ask people to judge me on that.”

Indeed, at last month’s Seminole Hob Nob, a 30-year-old election year tradition among insiders and activists, Dorworth drew 74 percent of the 317 votes cast, topping Moffitt’s 22 percent and the 4 percent siding with Onest.

As a powerful incumbent, Dorworth also spends lots of time raising money.

The latest fundraising quarter just ended and reports were not immediately available. But Dorworth had $167,388 of cash-on-hand in April, while his Republican opponents had only just begun fund-raising.

Dorworth also controls a political committee, Citizens for an Enterprising Democracy, which has raised more than $640,000 over the past three years, with contributions from citrus growers, gambling interests, health care companies, U.S. Sugar Corp. and Walt Disney World.

For Dorworth and other leaders, such committees are usually used to steer dollars to favored candidates. But Dorworth’s committee has been spending almost everything it takes in – much of it on consultants and expenses rather than on those whose elections are key to keep the GOP’s House majority.

Even as election season is bearing down, Dorworth’s committee has spent more than $100,000 of the $140,000 it has collected this year on KFR Consulting, a one-man Tallahassee firm.

KFR is Kevin F. Reilly, a 2009 UF grad and, like Dorworth, a former student body president.

Dorworth, though, said raising money costs money. And he said plenty would be available to help Republican candidates this fall.

First, he added, he has a race to run.

“Look, when you get in line to be speaker, you make some great friends but you can make some enemies, too,” Dorworth said.