TALLAHASSEE (FBW)—Daniel Webster was “minding [his] own business” 28 years ago — rearing a young family, running his family air conditioning contracting company, and serving as a lay leader in his church — when he asked a question that changed his life: “Who sets public policy?”
As building committee chairman of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, Webster put the query to a county official after the church’s zoning request was rejected as “adverse to public policy.”
Told the Florida Legislature makes public policy, Webster decided, “O.K., I’m running for the Legislature.”
That fateful declaration and his unlikely election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1980 not only changed Webster’s life, but also transformed the institution, according to both his political allies and opponents.
Universally known for his Christian testimony and advocacy of pro-family issues, especially the sanctity of human life, Webster’s departure will leave a large hole, observers note.
Also an expert in transportation issues, he was recognized April 30 when the Senate approved a measure to name Department of Transportation Turnpike District Headquarters the “Senator Daniel Webster Building.” In 2005, State Road 429 in Orange County was designated “Daniel Webster Western Beltway.”
Early in his final legislative session on March 11, Webster sat down for an hour-long interview with Florida Baptist Witness reflecting on his legislative tenure and the duty of citizens to be involved in government.
Although he is distantly related to the American statesman Daniel Webster of antebellum history known for his oratorical skills, Orlando’s soft-spoken Daniel Webster didn’t plan on being a politician. Before filing for his first run for office, he had never been to Tallahassee, knew little about government, and his involvement in politics consisted of voting.
Webster was first elected to the Florida House over a previously entrenched incumbent Democrat in an era when Democrats dominated state government.
During the campaign many people said he was a “nice guy” but couldn’t win, and the initial results seemed to confirm those predictions when he was declared the loser by various media outlets. As the final vote count came in, however, the vote was tied with one precinct left — Pine Hills, where he grew up, lived and went to church. Webster won.
He was opposed for reelection in 1982 and 1984, but never again through successive terms in the House and Senate. The longest-serving legislator not opposed for reelection, Webster says it’s only by “the grace of God” because “I’ve done all kinds of things for which I should have been opposed.”
In 1980, as one of only 39 Republicans in the 120-member House controlled by the Democrats, Webster was told not to bother introducing legislation because it would never be heard. Instead, he studied the rules and dreamed.
“I read the rule book because I wanted to know the rules … and I dreamed of being Speaker of the House, and how if I ever became Speaker of the House what I would do,” Webster told the Witness.
As a minority party member with virtually no influence, he observed the unfairness of the system and determined it would be different if he ever became Speaker.
That time came in 1996 — after 16 years in the minority, Republicans gained control of the Florida House by one vote, 61-59. Having previously won election as House Republican leader in 1993, Webster was elected Speaker of the House in 1996, serving for two years.
Summarized in a Florida House resolution adopted unanimously April 28 naming the body’s largest committee room, “Speaker Daniel Webster Hall,” Webster “radically reformed” the Florida House “permanently changing the culture of the Florida Legislature,” according to House Resolution 9183.
The first Republican Speaker in 122 years emphasized the importance of family by requiring all House business be concluded no later than 6 p.m. He empowered members of the minority party by allowing their bills to be considered on their merits, rather than on partisanship. Webster revised the rules of the House and eliminated 72 committees.
Webster’s reforms “garnered him the widespread admiration and respect of those who served under him for his benevolence, the universal accolades of members and observers for his justice and fairness,” HR 9183 states.
Early in his legislative career Webster learned the value of beginning each day in prayer and Bible study.
“He rises when it’s dark every day of his life and seeks God’s face and prays, reads the Bible and gets guidance from the Bible because in it are the answers to life’s questions and the answers to the problems in our state and our families,” Sandy Webster, his wife of 35 years, told the Witness April 30 after a Capitol reception honoring her husband.
He especially prays for his fellow legislators “by name,” Sandy said, including his political adversaries.
“What people don’t know about him is what a prayer warrior he is. And even though he’s not going to be here, he’ll be praying for all these people still,” she said.
Webster led Sandy to Christ as a teenager, she told the Witness.
In his final address to the Florida Senate April 30, Webster gave his colleagues “three don’ts” and “three do’s” : “Don’t go to Clyde’s” (a Tallahassee bar frequented by legislators and lobbyists); “don’t make it personal;” and “don’t hold grudges.” In contrast, he advised: “Do rise early; do read the Bible; do serve others.”
Telling senators he came with his family, principles and faith and he would leave with all three intact, Webster said, “It’s no secret that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. … I have been open to anyone who’s open to talk about it.”
His Christian commitment is attested to by his pastor, Clayton Cloer, who told the Witness Webster “serves faithfully in our church” as Sunday School teacher, makes evangelistic and hospital visits, attends funerals, and serves on committees.
“He is always the same. It does not matter if he is hanging out with the governor or if he is at church socials pitching softballs. He walks with integrity,” Cloer said.
Webster recently joined the 15-member Florida Baptist Witness Board of Directors, elected by the Florida Baptist State Convention last year.
Webster told the Witness living the Christian faith for a senator is no different than for any other follower of Christ.
“I think all of us, no matter what we’re called to … I think our main calling is to live out our faith, both from a lifestyle but also from the words that we speak,” he said.
His Christian faith drove Webster’s political convictions, widely regarded as the premier champion of pro-family causes in Tallahassee.
Recognized by pro-family organizations with many awards, including Florida Christian Coalition and Florida Family Policy Council (which named its annual award for him and gave him the first award in 2006), Webster has sponsored numerous bills defending family values.
Just as his election to the House was against longs odds, so was Webster’s first bill to become law — the landmark 1985 Home Education Program Act legalizing homeschooling in Florida. Incredibly, the bill became law when Democrats controlled the Florida House and Senate, and served as governor and commissioner of education, and during a time when many legislators of both parties were very skeptical of homeschooling.
Senate President Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie) presented Webster with a framed copy of the law during an April 30 Senate tribute, noting University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and thousands of other homeschooled children in the Sunshine State were beneficiaries of Webster’s measure.
Webster told the Witness the homeschooling law was his most significant accomplishment, noting the current California homeschooling controversy could have happened in Florida because that law is identical to the statute Webster’s bill changed.
He also sponsored Florida’s abortion parental consent law, although it was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, and many other pro-life bills, including a measure this year requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. The bill died April 30 in the Senate on a tie vote.
His greatest disappointment was the Legislature’s failure in 2005 to pass legislation saving Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman who was the subject of international attention and controversy. Schiavo died March 31, 2005, when nutrition and hydration were removed by court order in accordance with her husband’s wishes and over her parents’ objections.
Recalling the vote with tears in his eyes, Webster told the Witness the experience was draining and difficult: “I stood as hard as I could against what I believe was a moving of the line between life and death in this state.”
In contrast to some politicians who have back-tracked on their support of Schiavo legislation, Webster said he has no regrets.
“Some have said it was the worst vote they made. ... I thought it was the best stand I made,” he said.
Webster not only advocates pro-family public policy, he is a family man, Sandy told the Witness.
All six of the Webster children express an interest in following in their father’s political footsteps. The Websters have five grandchildren.
“He has been a wonderful example to all of them, and a great leader to them,” she said.
After his homeschooling legislation became law, the Websters began homeschooling their own children and would often bring them to Tallahassee.
He refused to hold any political events on Sundays, and while home in Orlando during the weekends he protected the time for family and church activities.
“I am blessed beyond what I could ever imagine. I’m married to the finest man on the planet,” Sandy said.
In his final comments to the Senate, Webster credited Sandy with “holding down the fort” during his long legislative tenure.
“I couldn’t serve without a wife,” Webster said with Sandy sitting by him. “Sandy, thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Thank you for allowing me to serve these 28 years.”
At his April 30 farewell reception, the Witness asked Webster about possible future political office, noting some speculation has centered on a possible run for U.S. Congress or mayor of Orange County.
Webster said there may be another run for office, but for now, he doesn’t feel God’s leading. He’s content to turn off his BlackBerry and go home.
“This is the time for me to leave the Senate. It doesn’t mean there’s not something else for me, but it might. I think I came at the right time. I think I’m leaving at the right time. God’s led me the entire way and for that I’m grateful,” he said.
Quoting Psalm 27:14, Webster said, “I’m going to wait on the Lord and be of good courage.”
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