For Webster, a Silent Role

His plodding, low-key style yields an unremarkable first year in Congress. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

For someone who shares a name with one of the most loquacious and eloquent men to sit in the United States Congress, 8th District Rep. 
Daniel Webster has been nothing like his historic namesake since leaving for Washington. By December 2011, the Winter Garden Republican had yet to make a single major speech on the House floor or introduce a substantive piece of legislation—in marked contrast to the freshman lawmaker he unseated in 2010, Democrat Alan Grayson, by all accounts one of the mouthiest politicians on Capitol Hill.

In a year’s time his office has issued just 31 press releases, and from June through December, Webster, 62, held no public town hall meetings, although he did meet with 25 invited guests at Valencia College in November. One reason Webster has been so elusive may be that a town hall meeting in April turned raucous, provoking some of the meager press coverage about him–after which his office circulated a “watch list” of six Florida activists to other GOP members of Congress.

So, what’s up with the bland, soft-spoken, former longtime state legislator and Tea Party favorite? Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at University of Central Florida, says Webster sees himself as “a foot soldier in what the Republicans [are] trying to do, and not necessarily being a leader in the movement.” Donald Davison, of Rollins College’s political science department, takes a similar view. “My impression is, the guy’s invisible,” Davison says. “My guess is he’s following the leaders of the Republican leadership in the House: united opposition to Obama.”

Others, like former Republican Congressman Lou Frey of Orlando, now a WMFE-FM political commentator, see Webster’s work in Washington as a continuation of the low-key, bipartisan style he cultivated for decades in Tallahassee. “He’s consistent, a really solid legislator. He thinks before he talks, his word is good and he’s not afraid to reach across the aisle. He’s not hunting for the headlines, and he’s carried that to Washington.” As a result, Frey speculates that if Webster stays in Congress for any length of time, he is likely to rise in his party’s leadership.
Webster, who told a reporter last spring that “I don’t possess the first Webster’s oratorical skills,” says he is more interested in process than in glitz. “I’m a plodder. I move along and then I reach a goal,” he says during an interview on a rainy December morning, while visiting some Winter Garden businesses. He eschews late-evening, showboating rants for the camera from the well of the House because “speaking to an empty chamber is not what I believe is a top priority. Working underneath, building relationships have been the very best ways for me to do things, larger than a single sound bite. . . . It worked for me in Tallahassee.”

A Southern Baptist, Webster has continued to support an evangelical agenda in Congress, as he did in the Florida House and Senate for 28 years. He joined colleagues in Washington in support of a House resolution reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto, though the slogan wasn’t under attack.

Webster has toed the party line, even when doing so has cost his district funding. He refused to claim a previously budgeted, $5 million appropriation for Florida Hospital at Celebration’s Nicholson Center for Surgical Advancement, angering philanthropist Tony Nicholson. “He told me, ‘No more earmarks,’” Nicholson says. “He didn’t care that the money was to be used for robotic surgery on our military in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Webster confirmed the encounter. “It’s not that I wouldn’t; I couldn’t,” he says, although some Congressional Democrats say Republican House leaders have devised a sly way to get around their earmark ban by relabeling them as “pre-approved amendments” to appropriation bills.

Webster will face former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, who is African-American, in November, provided she wins her party’s nomination. As proposed in a preliminary redistricting plan released by the state Senate (the House has offered seven different maps), the 8th District would lose sections of Marion County, while adding substantial numbers of registered Republicans from Polk County. There would still be a slight Democratic majority in the district, with 12 percent of registered voters African-American. Demings, with her deep local roots and law-and-order background, is thought to have considerably more support among centrist Democrats and critical swing voters than the abrasive Grayson did, with his left-wing agenda. In November, the
Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running radio ads accusing Webster of protecting tax breaks for billionaires by voting against President Obama’s job package, signaling that they have targeted his seat for recapture.

The thing is, there’s no anger, much less outrage, in Webster. He has made no outlandish statements that could be used against him, making his quiet demeanor a possible asset in the era of super-polarized partisanship. For Webster, the less said may be better politically.

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