The Other Side of Ray Sansom

Rep. Ray Sansom Replaced as House Speaker

Story Updated Feb. 4, 2009

Emerald Coast magazine’s Feb./March cover feature on Rep. Ray Sansom was written before Sansom subsequently recused himself as speaker of the Florida House and then was replaced permanently.

In a surprise move, Sansom announced Jan. 30 that he is stepping down temporarily as speaker, effective immediately. Sansom made the decision as the result of pressure from fellow Republicans who said his legal troubles are a distraction to the business of the Legislature.

Subsequent to Sansom’s decision, the Republican House members replaced him permanently Feb. 2. Speaker pro tempore Larry Cretul is acting as leader until a formal vote when the regular Legislative session begins March 3.

“Effective immediately, I have decided to recuse myself from the exercise of my duties as Speaker of the House of Representatives,” Sansom wrote in a memo to his fellow representatives. “Ongoing legal proceedings have temporarily created an inability for me to carry out my responsibilities as Speaker. Under the House rules, during this temporary inability, Speaker pro tempore Larry Cretul will exercise all the duties, powers and prerogatives of Speaker.

“I know Larry will manage the House with distinction and it will be an honor for me to serve under him at this time, until any legal proceedings I face are resolved,” Sansom wrote. “The allegations and reports associated with these proceedings have caused my family grave pain and this has prompted my decision. I expect positive outcomes and am confident that when the facts are known, my honesty and integrity will be confirmed.”

Sansom maintains his innocence. And though the investigation is ongoing, he will remain a representative in the House.

In a statement regarding Sansom’s decision, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said, “I respect Speaker Sansom’s difficult decision today. There is important work ahead of us in the upcoming session, and I am eager to work with members of the House and Senate to address the challenges facing Floridians.”

Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, also responded in a statement, saying, “Florida’s families and businesses face unprecedented challenges right now, and it is important that the Florida Legislature is free from any additional distractions while its members do the important work in front of them. We support Representative Sansom’s decision to temporarily step down from his position as Speaker in order to focus on clearing his name, and we are confident he will do just that. In the meantime, we look forward to working with both the Florida House and Senate to get our economy back on track and keep taxes low for families and businesses.”

Story shown below as published in the February-March issue of Emerald Coast Magazine:

The Other Side of Ray SansomNorthwest Florida Values and Deep Roots Characterize the Speaker of the Florida House

By Wendy O. Dixon

Whenever Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom is in Tallahassee, he remembers who sent him there. The Destin Republican and Fort Walton Beach native, who is at the helm of the Florida House of Representatives for the next two years, wants to ensure that the people who voted for him get what they were promised.

“(The voters) pick the team, and it’s a perfect way to run government,” said Sansom, the first speaker in state history elected from Okaloosa County. “When you live in Northwest Florida, you go to Tallahassee to let people know Northwest Florida is here and should be a vital part of the state. When you go to Tallahassee, you go to advocate for the people who sent you there. If you don’t, you haven’t done your job.”


Ray Sansom and family. Ray Sansom and family.

SANSOM HOUSE IN SESSION Top: Sansom, his wife, Tricia, and daughters, Jessica (far left), Carlee (middle) and Julia (second from right) enjoy a typical Friday night playing board games. Photos by Scott Holstein.

Except for a brief time living in Alabama from first through third grade, Sansom spent his childhood in Fort Walton Beach living in a rented home on Brooks Street with his parents, three older brothers and an older sister. The Sansom family was not wealthy. His father worked two jobs, while his mother stayed home with the five children. Nor were they a political family. But Sansom’s parents instilled in him the values and tenacity that would serve him well as a public servant.

“We were raised on love, not money,” Sansom said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because when you have a strong foundation and a loving mom and dad, that’s really all you need. Sure, we noticed we didn’t have some things others did. But that really didn’t matter.”

Sansom spent his school years playing football and baseball, but admits that his competitive nature outweighed his skills on the field.

“I didn’t like to lose,” Sansom said. “Whatever team I was on usually lost, and my mom knew that at some point on the ride home I was going to start crying because I hated to lose.”

Sansom said he feels privileged and proud to have grown up in a small Northwest Florida town that celebrated family and faith. And despite the area’s growth, those values are still present.

“(The Fort Walton Beach and Destin area) was a small place when I was little and didn’t really start growing until I got out of high school,” Sansom said. “Destin and South Walton used to be ‘way out there’ – just woods and beautiful beaches. Northwest Florida has taken on a whole different face since then but still has the small-town charm.”

As a youth, Sansom wasn’t sure he could even get a college degree.

“My parents told me, ‘We can’t afford to send you to school, but you have a home here as long as you want,’” he said.

Although he worked to pay his own tuition, Sansom couldn’t afford to leave home to go to school, which is why, he said, the community college system is so important.

Grateful to get a collegiate start at Okaloosa-Walton College (now Northwest Florida State College) in Niceville, Sansom went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida State University in 1984 and a master’s degree in education administration from the University of West Florida in 1993. He worked for the Okaloosa County School District and Alabama Electric Cooperative Inc., and served on the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners and as an economic development official for PowerSouth Corp.

As a freshman at the Niceville college, he said he didn’t even know what the speaker of the House does. Sansom, 46, who was first elected as a state representative in 2002, now is intimately aware. Being in one of state government’s most powerful positions, Sansom stated that his goal is to make sure that all of the representatives are successful under his administration and that when they return to their districts they can tell their constituents that their time in the Legislature was well spent.

His leadership style as speaker of the Florida House is to show patience, to listen and to focus “like a laser beam” on finding solutions to problems or debating a bill. He has earned admiration from his fellow representatives, who say his character is what makes him a worthy leader.

“He’s a good man,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Larry Cretul, R-Gainesville. “He’s very well grounded in faith and family, an extremely hard worker, very intelligent, a deep thinker, and he doesn’t have any knee-jerk reactions, which is what we need right now.”

Cretul said Sansom’s run for speaker was unconventional, and was based on the premise that the other representatives already knew his record and should decide whether or not he could do the job.

“Usually, speaker candidates have a courtship with a potential pledge, but Ray sold himself solely on his vision and how he could help the representatives succeed,” Cretul said. “He made no assignments or campaign promises. He just asked the representatives to ask, ‘Is Ray the guy to do (the job)?’”

Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who was elected with Sansom in 2002 and is part of the Republican Hispanic caucus, sees a speaker who has embraced the rich diversity of the state and Legislature.

“(You can see) the depth of his passion and caring, not just for his family and friends and community but for the people of the state of Florida,” Rivera said. “His life experience of growing up in the segregated

South opened his eyes to injustices and had a lasting impact on him. He wants to make sure all Floridians have the opportunity to accomplish what they set out to do.”

Sansom seems to have the respect of the other 119 representatives, regardless of party affiliation.

“Especially those that were elected with him in 2002,” Rivera said. “But the power has not gone to his head. The Ray who was elected in 2002 is the same Ray that he is today. Although he may have a few gray hairs now, what you see is what you get.”

Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-West Palm Beach, served on the Appropriations Committee Sansom chaired the past two years. She sees him as a patient leader, answering every question asked by Republicans and Democrats.

“Ray’s always been hard-working and attentive to the needs of the people of Florida, and I’ve found him to be an honorable man,” she said.

Serving His Community
As a political science major at Florida State University, Sansom served an internship in the Florida House in 1984 and was a legislative aide in 1986. It was then that Sansom became interested in public service.

His favorite part of the job as speaker is the human aspect of politics.

“My parents raised me truly saying that the greatest thing you can do in your community is to give back to it,” Sansom said. “And you certainly don’t have to be an elected official to give back to your community.

But the opportunity was there when I was a staff person. I really enjoy working with people. There’s a whole human side of politics that people never really talk about and never really see. But I will say that about 80 percent of the time you spend is helping people – helping them try to work with agencies, helping them to better themselves in their jobs and industry, and helping people make their community better. I really enjoy that.”

In Tallahassee, Sansom said lawmakers sometimes get involved in talking about the budget and bills but forget about the human side of politics.

“I really like to be part of a vision for a community and for a state,” he said.

Not only does he want to help his constituents, Sansom wants voters to remember that the Legislature has flawed humans who can get emotionally involved with their positions and the political power that they bring.

“I think people might forget that the Legislature is made up of people who come from a variety of backgrounds and biases and opinions and judgments,” Sansom said.

As speaker, he tries to encourage his fellow representatives to be more open to what’s important to the state, rather than letting pride get in the way of making sound decisions.

Thousands of students and civic groups from all over Florida visit the state Capitol in Tallahassee each year to get a glimpse of the law-making process. Sansom wishes everyone would show an interest in how laws are made and learn about how the process works – and remember that they elect the lawmakers. It’s a system that still awes him.

“When 160 (representatives and senators), who have individual differences, somehow pass a $66 billion budget and pass laws that change education and how we handle health care, it’s a fascinating process to see and to be a part of,” he said.

Facing Criticism
Sansom, who said he had developed thick skin from life’s challenges before ever getting into politics, has faced his share of controversy as of late. He has been criticized for taking the position of vice president for planning and development at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, a job that he accepted after securing $25.5 million in state funds for the school. Critics said he was only given the job as thanks for the funding and for promoting legislation that would allow several community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees.

According to news reports from the St. Petersburg Times, the question of whether Sansom’s vice presidency position at the college is a reward for getting state funding for the school has consumed the capital and distracted lawmakers who struggle with a $2.3 billion deficit.

“Newspaper editorial boards have been highly critical, as has Joe Scarborough, the former Panhandle congressman and current MSNBC personality who said Sansom was once an ally. Other lawmakers are getting angry messages from constituents,” the article said.

At press time, State Attorney Willie Meggs was bringing the issue before a grand jury in Leon County to see if it warrants an investigation.

But even Democrats who sat on Sansom’s budget committee said the college appropriation should have come as no surprise to anyone paying attention.

“I have a community college in my own district, so I was paying attention to the budget,” Brandenburg, the Democratic lawmaker, said of the allegations. “I saw it before we voted on it and before we debated on it.

So it wasn’t a big surprise. It was right there in black and white for anyone to look at.”

Sansom, who resigned the vice presidency position after statewide pressure grew for him to step down, defended his position by saying he wanted to serve where he was first given a chance at a prosperous future.

“I can’t help what people say about it but I know in my heart what the reason is,” Sansom said. “I found myself wanting to go back to what got me here, and that was community college.”

In a prepared announcement, Sansom said, “Unfortunately, some have disagreed with my decision to work at the college. While I do not question their motives, I strongly object to their conclusions. In all my years in public service, I have sought to act in a manner worthy of the trust that the people have placed in me.”

Although Sansom resigned, he said he took the job with the college with pure intentions and good reasons.

“You have to have a vision when people question you, and you have to hold strong to that,” he said. “There are two ways to govern – you can govern with your roots planted deep or you can be (swayed by) the polls and the critics. I’ve never seen a leader who didn’t have deep roots, but I’ve seen a lot of politicians who are pushed along by the polls.

Leadership, Sansom believes, means holding firm to one’s beliefs despite public opinion – or, as he described it, being deeply rooted. According to him, there is a word for politicians who break away from their roots and are, instead, driven by opinion polls – “tumbleweeds.”

“These are the ones who have ambition for the next office,” he said. “If, in your campaign, you told people what you were going to Tallahassee to do and you won, then go do it. Don’t get up there and change.

Respect their opinion but know that the people elected you to do what you said you were going to do. Deeply rooted values and convictions and principles are more important than listening to the polls. There’s a delicate balance in working together, consensus building, being pragmatic, being realistic and not being too driven by what the opinion polls might be.”

Sansom said the experience of growing up in a family with strong faith (he regularly attends Village Baptist Church in Destin), family values and principles gave him the deep roots that keep him from going with the flow in politics.

“There’s no question about it,” he said. “My family and Northwest Florida values – family, community, working together – made me the man I am today. The traditions and characteristics of growing up in Northwest Florida are a cooperative spirit – we work together, our families spend time together, we worship together, and we try to better our community. Those are the values I take to Tallahassee. This Northwest Florida culture is partnership-oriented; the people here want to work together, not against each other. We’re as happy for Bay County’s new airport as Bay County is for our (Air Strike Force).”

Sansom’s response to criticism he received for initially taking the vice president position at Northwest Florida State College is to let his character speak for itself.

“That’s what I call politics,” he said. “You have to set it aside for what it really is. The 24-hour news and the blogs are changing politics. It will redefine itself at some point, but it’s a different world of public service. I was a staff person for six years as an aide and on the county commission and now in the Legislature. Politics has changed a lot since then – some for the good and some for the bad.”

Sansom said the political industry is changing like all other industries because of the challenge to provide immediate, accurate information.

“With the computer, people can say anything and it appears that it’s true,” he said. “More at the national level and state, it’s a constant bombardment of what’s wrong and not what’s going right. I think people in public service are trying to figure out what this really means. I can have a press conference about something and 10 minutes later, you can read about it. The morning news is no longer the morning news.

It’s a different industry for public service that I think people will have to get accustomed to,” Sansom said. “It’s good for people to know what you’re doing, to have open access to the government and to elected officials, but the blogging is a whole new arena.”

Speaking of Success
Sansom said his success and sense of accomplishment come from watching people work together.

“To see the county commission partner with the state college on an emergency operations center – it’s an amazing partnership,” he said. “And to watch cities and counties and colleges say, ‘We can do better than it has been done,’ and watch the dynamics of partnering and the pooling of resources together. That’s probably the thing that intrigues me the most – to watch that happen at the state level, to watch the House and the Senate and the governor and all the different pressure points ultimately come together. (The budget) is a fascinating document to watch get put together by all of the 160 politicians. Those politicians should be the eyes and ears and hearts of their community.”

If Sansom can help all legislators to be successful in Tallahassee, then he believes he has served the state of Florida.

“The people of Florida will never know who I am, nor will they care, but they do know who their legislator is,” he said. “So if I can help their members become successful and try to reach the goals they have and try to put their communities on the map, then they can go home and say they went to Tallahassee and accomplished what they set out to do. That’s what I consider a successful speakership.”

Sansom, who is one of the most politically powerful people in Florida, wants to avoid letting his ego get in the way of a successful term as speaker.

“If I make it about me and what office I’m going to run for next and what kind of publicity I can get next, how many TV cameras can I get in front of and how many times can my name be mentioned for the next office, then I’m a failure,” he said. “So that’s not what I’m trying to do. I want to go there and not be distracted by the next office I’m running for. I want to be distracted by the amount of conversations I have with people about how to make Florida better.”

Florida’s term limits mean every day in office counts, and Sansom is making the most of his time there.

“Our time in service does come to an end,” he said. “So (we must) do the job we came here to do, because we’re going to be sent back home pretty soon.”

Family Time is Prime Time
Sansom and his wife, Tricia, met as kids while living in Fort Walton Beach and became fast friends. They were sweethearts while attending Fort Walton Beach High School, and now they are raising three teenage daughters in Destin: Jessica, 19, Carlee, 14, and Julia, 13. Their favorite times are spent enjoying Friday night dinners, going to the movies, playing board games and going out to lunch after church on Sundays.

Cretul, the House speaker pro tempore, said Sansom has earned the respect of the representatives he serves with because of his family values.

“Many evenings, he would leave the Capitol late just to spend a little time with his girls,” Cretul said. “I’ve watched him leave here late and in some cases drive back early morning to come back the following day. That says a lot about a person.”

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, said all House members have immense respect for the man, a feeling he attributes to Sansom’s cool head under pressure, his fortitude and, most importantly, his commitment to put his family first.

“He has the patience of Job, in large part due to the fact that he has three girls,” Hasner said with a laugh. “To be in a household with four women has to have helped him develop the patience you need to be speaker. It always impressed me that he puts family first. That doesn’t always happen in the Legislature. His priorities are family, community and faith. I truly admire him for those qualities.”

And that’s what attracts so many people to Sansom, said Rivera, adding, “He has risen to one of the highest levels in Florida government but still makes it a point to put his family first. That’s rare in politics these days.”

Sansom said the essence of his philosophy as speaker is to see things from the future Floridian’s point of view. It’s a philosophy with deep personal roots, starting with a desire for his own daughters’ prosperity, safety and quality education.

“I hope for them to stay in Florida with their families and have fulfilling careers,” he said. “I dream of neighborhoods where (their children) can ride their bikes without worry, a place where they can get a good education.”

Future Plans
Sansom cannot run for re-election in 2010 because of term limits. Still, public service and community outreach have been his professional priorities all of his adult life. After his term as speaker concludes, Sansom expects his future will include work that benefits the community in northwest Florida.

Sansom has fond memories of his role as a public servant. He advises his daughters, and others, to find their passion and pursue it with vigor.

“I told my wife the other day that for the last 22 years of public service, I never felt like I’ve gone to work yet,” he said. “It’s something I do because I love it. The paycheck happens to follow it. I’ve never felt like I’ve had a job. I’ve always felt like I had an amazing opportunity to be part of a great community. And I would encourage anyone that’s looking to get their degree or deciding what to do in life to figure out what it is you would do if you didn’t have to get up and go to work every day and pursue that. The money will take care of itself. I’ve met a lot of wealthy people who don’t enjoy life, and I’ve met a lot of people who enjoy life who don’t end up wealthy. So it depends on how you define wealth.”