Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, whom the Miami Dolphins blamed for their legislative failure in Tallahassee this year, fired back Friday, expressing solidarity with three lawmakers targeted in political ads due to their opposition to the football team's plans.
Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, didn't mention the Dolphins by name in his keynote speech at the Miami-Dade Republican Party's Lincoln Day fundraiser. But he didn't have to.
"No matter where you were on that bill, for it or against, it, it doesn't matter to me," he said. "But the fact that there are people who are attacking members of your community, your representatives, because they stood on principle, is wrong. And I've got their back, and you should have their back, too."
The three lawmakers in question -- Miami Republican state Reps. Michael Bileca, Jose Felix Diaz and Carlos Trujillo -- were present at the GOP dinner. And Weatherford got plenty of applause for defending his colleagues.
Outside the DoubleTree Hotel in Miami where the fundraiser was being held, a small group of protesters demonstrated against Weatherford for not taking up Dolphins-backed legislation before the end of the annual session. The bill was required for Miami-Dade to hold a referendum asking voters to raise the mainland hotel-tax rate to fund part of a $350 million renovation to Sun Life Stadium.
"Good jobs denied to Miami-Dade residents," one of the protester's signs read.
Monica Rodrigues Smith, a protester who notified reporters of the demonstration, told the Miami Herald that the group was unaffiliated with any labor union, political party or campaign committee.
"It's just a bunch of citizens that just decided to come out," she maintained.
Immediately after the end of session, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross accused Weatherford of reneging on a promise to bring the legislation to a floor vote in his chamber if the team had enough support. Weatherford denied ever making the promise.
Last week, a new PAC created by Ross, Florida Jobs First, mailed fliers to voters attacking Trujillo, Diaz and Bileca. Trujillo and Bileca were among the most strident opponents to the Dolphins' financing plan for the upgrades. This week, the chairman of the Hispanic legislative caucus blasted Ross for taking aim at the lawmakers.
Most of Weatherford's remarks focused on boosting the spirits of the GOP faithful. Sounding like a politician likely to run for higher office someday, he spoke about national issues, criticizing President Barack Obama and Planned Parenthood and cracking jokes about political targeting by the IRS and extensive surveillance by the NSA.
He also mentioned the death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin. The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, is currently on trial in the Orlando suburb of Sanford.
"The liberal activists tried to us that tragedy as an opportunity to take our rights as Americans," Weatherford said. "We stood our ground on Stand Your Ground," he added, referring to the state's controversial self-defense law.
Weatherford pointed to the honored guest at the fundraiser, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, and said he would do "everything" he could to reelect Scott next year.
Scott, for his part, touted the state's lower unemployment rate and recent public-education spending -- both likely campaign platforms.
"We should learn to do exactly what Texas does," he said. "I lived in Texas. The second day you live there, you start bragging."
Friday night's dinner marked the reemergence of former U.S. Rep. David Rivera of Miami, who has kept a low profile since being ousted from his seat last fall. Since then, a Democratic candidate with alleged ties behind the scenes to Rivera has been convicted of breaking election laws. A federal judge delayed sentencing for Justin Lamar Sternad earlier this week.
A jolly Rivera, who now works as a consultant, schmoozed with party members before the fundraiser and took part in the program, delivering a toast to the late Mary Ellen Miller. Miller chaired the party before Rivera, who left the post when he was elected to Congress in 2010.
Current Chairman Nelson Diaz promised to focus on getting Republican elected in 2014 -- particularly to the seat formerly held by Rivera. Several Republicans have pounced at the prospect of running, especially since incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia's campaign became embroiled in an investigation into fraudulent absentee-ballot requests.
"We're going to send liberal Joe Garcia and his cronies out," Diaz said.