Chris Dorworth's defeat was Florida's political story of the year

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Scott Maxwell

Published December 29, 2012


Across America, pundits are debating the political story of the year.

Here in Florida, though, the choice is clear. It's a story that unfolded right here in Orlando's backyard in Seminole County, to be precise.

That's where 36,983 voters did something that hadn't been done in a quarter-century: oust a chosen speaker of the Florida House.

Newspapers from all over the state marveled at the defeat of Speaker-designate Chris Dorworth, calling it "shocking," "stunning" and "one of the largest upsets in the history of the Florida Legislature."

Really, though, all local voters did was take a stand against self-serving politics, conflicts of interest and abuses of power.

And in doing so, they sent shock waves throughout the state and a wake-up call to Tallahassee.

In fact, the entire Legislature is now talking about revamping the shady way it does business, cracking down on lawmakers' access to special-interest money, high-priced travel and political perks.

It's reform that is overdue yet which probably wouldn't even be on the table if voters in this one district hadn't united in bipartisan fashion to say: Enough.

Ironically, Dorworth should have been able to cruise to re-election.

Not only was his district drawn specifically for him, he was flush with special-interest money.

He had political sugar daddies ranging from Disney World to mega-trial lawyer John Morgan.

Dorworth would support legislation that Disney wanted. And Disney would fill Dorworth's campaign coffers $180,000 last year alone.

It was the kind of "magic" Disney doesn't like to talk much about when promoting its squeaky-clean image.

And this political marriage probably would have continued to thrive if Dorworth had simply kept his head down.

But low-key was never Dorworth's style.

Instead, he chose to live high on the hog even when he was so broke he couldn't afford to pay his home mortgage.

With his house facing foreclosure he hadn't made a $10,000-a-month mortgage payment for three years Dorworth began jetting around, staying at posh resorts and racking up massive restaurant and bar bills.

Special interests underwrote it all.

Dorworth also made a slew of other cringe-inducing headlines for everything from conflicts of interest to unpaid tolls. One day he was revealed to be on the payroll of a local developer. The next, the state was siccing a collections agency on him for not paying an elections fine.

In Tallahassee, veteran politicos began sharing worried whispers.

They were concerned that Dorworth was giving them all a bad rap and that maybe they had made a mistake when, way back in 2009, they had started supporting Dorworth's quest to be speaker in 2014.

But none could muster the courage to say such things publicly. Partly because Dorworth was an affable, backslapping guy. And partly because Dorworth spread his special-interest money around, re-gifting his donations to other campaigns.

In politics, money buys allegiance.

Ultimately, though, voters got the last word.

Even though Dorworth's legislative buddies stocked his newly drawn district with 25 percent more Republicans than Democrats (helping cost neighboring GOP incumbent Scott Plakon his seat), Dorworth lost.

Democrats and independents voted for the capable Democrat, Mike Clelland, who ran a grass-roots campaign on a shoestring budget. And they were joined by Republicans, many of whom voted for Mitt Romney and other top Republicans but couldn't bring themselves to support Dorworth.

Voters did what party leaders would not. They cleaned up a mess and made history in the process.

Kicked to the curb, Dorworth found work, appropriately enough, as a lobbyist. I bet he'll do well.

And the nervous legislators left behind are now vowing to reform their system of legalized slush funds, which allow lawmakers to spend unlimited amounts of special-interest cash on everything from plane trips to bar bills.

Good. But they shouldn't stop there. They should also reform this silly system of selecting House speakers so far in advance. Call me crazy, but I think newbie lawmakers should learn how to get around the House before they launch campaigns to run it.

In fact, if politicians in Tallahassee would just slow down, do their jobs and stop looking for handouts, they'd make a lot fewer messes in the first place.