Collegial and conservative: Wilton Simpson prepares to take Senate gavel
Low-key egg Farmer Wilton Simpson will soon take the reins as Senate President.

Simpson's colleagues say he'll bring a new kind of leadership to Tallahassee.

There are a couple of different sentiments about Sen. Wilton Simpson’s new title as Senate President-designate. Collegial behavior and conservative principles.

Simpson officially adds President-designate to his Senate title Tuesday. It’s not a leadership role he takes lightly and it’s one his colleagues in the Senate are looking forward to.

“I think he’s a guy who really cares about the state,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel. “With him, what you see is what you get.”

She described her colleague as calm, often quiet and passionate about caring for the residents of Florida.

Stargel expects Simpson to be a champion for the state’s businesses — a byproduct of Simpson’s professional career. Simpson’s Pasco County egg farm has earned him millions. The growing business went from an $8.4 million worth in 2012 to $14.4 million at the close of 2018.

He also owns an asbestos removal firm worth $6.4 million.

Setting the stage for pro-business growth is, as Stargel expected, among Simpson’s priorities. But unlike some of his past predecessors who have come in with high-profile priorities — Sen. Bill Galvano had his higher education package — Simpson is avoiding, as he’s always done, stamping his name to top ticket issues.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some priorities, though.

“I prefer to do what is in the best interest of the state of Florida structurally,” Simpson said. “The closest thing is probably to work with the foster care system and adoptions.”

Thousands and thousands of kids languish in foster care, some in better situations than others. Simpson wants to see more of those kids get adopted. To do that, he said Florida needs to take a close look at the bureaucracy that keeps families from adopting kids.

“We so often express early education importance. We say that by three or four they have to have a foundation for their education, but then we have 33,000 kids that we flip from house to house and we act like the problem is not there,” Simpson said.

But the fix might not be easy, he acknowledges. To make it easier for families to adopt children in the foster care system, it often means terminating parental rights for the child’s biological parent. Those are tough waters to navigate because the question still lingers — at what point do you take a child away from his or her parent forever.

It’s an issue Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat, looks forward to working across the aisle with Simpson and other Republicans to address.

“It’s something he and I have talked about,” Book said. “We have this push and want and need to reunify, to not terminate those rights. We often make it much more difficult for young children to be adopted.”

Still, reunifying children with their families “should not be taken lightly,” Book said.

Provided Republicans hold onto their majority in the Senate next year, Simpson will take the gavel in the 2021 Legislative Session with Book being a member of the minority party.

But she lauds his ability to work across the aisle.

“I’ve always been very surprised because when I came in, it was always described as a divisive place to work in,” Book said. “But he wants to dig in and he wants to engage. He just likes to right a wrong.”

The Senate, for the past several years, has been considered the more moderate chamber.

“The Senate, in the future, might be more conservative than the House,” Stargel said. “The two chambers in a lot of ways will be more likeminded.”

Sen. Aaron Bean agreed.

“We’re going to have a more conservative debate,” Bean said. “We’ll be deliberative, but if we can do anything to move in a direction of a better state to live, work and play and retire in, it will be explored.”

Bean would know. He’s been Simpson’s Tallahassee roomie since 2013. Asked how Simpson’s leadership would represent a more conservative pivot, Bean agreed that Simpson’s business-background has something to do with it.

“He’s lived under the red tape of bureaucracy,” Bean said.

Bean also hinted that Simpson could take on another fight.

“He’s seen what a litigious society can do to an economy. Our lawsuit-happy environment in Florida really threatens the small business man or woman and that’s the back bone of the economy.”

Simpson didn’t get into those details, but he did say he’s watching the economy closely.

“We’re experiencing one of the longest economic expansions in the U.S.,” Simpson said. “Capitalism has recessions periodically. The odds that at some point we will have an economic slow down or recession is greater each year.”

That means the state must ensure it has the resources it needs to fund its needs even if revenue dries up like it did during the Great Recession.

“I think that we have a very good level of reserves today. It’s almost $4 billion. I hope this year we will push that up a little more,” Simpson said. “Those years that you have a recession your revenue is going to fall and you can use those reserves to back fill the state’s needs.”

He said battling a recession, if one hits, could be his biggest leadership challenge.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


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