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Church committee job launched Fla. speaker’s political career

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–Daniel Webster served his local church as building committee chairman 16 years ago. He became speaker of the Florida House of Representatives last November. One led to the other.

In chairing the building committee at Orlando’s First Baptist Church of Pine Hills, now First Baptist Church of Central Florida, Webster asked the county commission for a zoning variance on property the church owned near a five-lane highway. There was a general feeling of opposition to church growth, Webster recounted, and the commission denied the request.

“I thought that was a bad decision,” Webster said. “So I asked who made the policy. They told me it was the legislature. So I called my mom and said, ‘I think I’m going to run.'”

With the help of volunteers from his church and community, Webster began a door-to-door campaign in District 41, which serves Lake, Orange and Osceola counties.

He was “so late in the game” he had to start on chapter eight of the campaign guide he was using. “I’ll never forget that chapter. It was called ‘The Fast Finish.'”

Despite all the obstacles in mounting a campaign, Webster qualified for — and then won — a Republican runoff. In the general election, all the winners had been declared and all the papers had reported he had lost. But when the final precinct was counted, Webster had won his race.

Now, as House speaker, Webster said, “There are a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t be here. But there’s only one reason why I am — that’s the grace of God.”

He added, “… any accomplishments I may have achieved come only from the investment that God and others have made in my life.”

Webster said his first election taught him the need to keep people informed and to make sure they exercise their rights as voters.

“Baptists are no different than the general populace,” he commented. “They are not really registered, or if they are, they vote spasmodically. Many don’t vote with enough information about a candidate.”

If people want the freedoms they now enjoy to continue for the future, he emphasized, they need to register to vote and then “become a voter and be an informed voter.”

Webster is the first Republican speaker in 100 years — quite a change since he began his political career as one of few Republicans in the Florida legislature.

“When I started in office we had so few Republicans that we sat in the back and watched,” Webster said. Currently the party is in the House majority, with 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats.

As a leader in the legislature, “I ask that all laws be principle-based,” Webster said. The five major principles he asks other legislators to consider before submitting a bill are less government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, individual freedom and empowering the traditional family.

Family is important to Webster, 47. He and his wife, Sandra, have six children. But he acknowledged the job as House speaker often takes him away from his home in Ocoee, near Orlando.

“Nobody could have forewarned me about the job,” he said. “I knew it takes a lot of time being in the office and being away from home. But I’m a homing pigeon; I go home as much as possible.”

When he is away from his family, Webster finds support from other Christian leaders in Tallahassee, many of them Baptists. A group of legislators often meets to study Scripture and share prayer requests, and each Tuesday morning on the 22nd floor of the Capitol building a group of legislators and staff meet for prayer and devotions.

Given the job demands, “You establish a schedule and have to have priorities,” he said. “Those priorities have to be our relationship with God and our families and our service to others.”

Webster was named 1995 Legislator of the Year by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and earned recognition from several state organizations. He served as Republican House leader from 1994-96 and as leader pro tempore from 1992-94. He holds a degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech University and owns Webster Air Conditioning and Heating in Orlando.

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  • Laura Johnston