It has been almost 10 years since former Speaker of the House Ray Sansom began his fall from grace. His plunge from the top of the state's political hierarchy into the mire of scandal and political intrigue has left him bruised but not beaten.
In the decade since he was forced to give up the speakership, Sansom has been working quietly at the Rader Group, helping to run programs for at-risk youth in three counties.
And 2019 may see him in the public eye again. Rumors are swirling through Okaloosa County and beyond that he’s considering running for Mary Beth Jackson’s seat as the superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools in 2020.
And he’s not denying them.
“I have never received the encouragement to run for office that I’m receiving now,” he told the Daily News last week. “I’m not sure the end of my story is how it ended.
“If I run, I’m not going to worry about losing,” he says. “I’m not going to not run out of fear.”
Sansom, who lives in Niceville, says supporters started asking him to consider running for the superintendent’s seat even before Jackson and the School District were dogged by allegations of improper handling of special needs students.
Four teachers and School District employees face criminal charges, and three months ago a grand jury met, in part, to decide whether Jackson should also be arrested.
“I was receiving phone calls before all this happened,” Sansom says. “They have increased.”
His long fall began shortly after being he was anointed speaker in November 2008, when details emerged concerning a job he'd been given at Northwest Florida State College, millions of dollars he'd helped divert to the school and a suspicious-looking arrangement to build an airplane hangar at developer Jay Odom's Destin Airport business.
In the wake of the scandal, Sansom relinquished his speaker's job in January 2009 and was forced to resign his House seat a year later in the face of a hearing on an ethics complaint. He was indicted in May 2010 on grand theft charges in connection with the hangar transaction.
Vindication for Sansom came when charges against him and co-defendant Odom were dropped in mid-trial in 2011. Two years after that, he was awarded compensation for all of his attorney fees — a number that topped $500,000.
“I went to trial, proved my innocence and got my legal fees reimbursed,” he says. “What I went to trial for was a lie."
Sansom, who has been elected to public office eight times, is still a recognizable figure around town. Sitting in a coffee shop in Fort Walton Beach, two old friends approach him, one referring to him as "Congressman," a title he's never owned but cheerfully answers to nonetheless.
But if he still has many friends and supporters, he also has folks in the community — some quite prominent — who may not be as willing to let go of the past. To those individuals, he points out that in this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. And he was never proven guilty.
"Hopefully I was always innocent,” he says, referring to public perception. He adds that he never “for one minute” believed he would be found guilty.
Before being elected to the state House of Representatives in 2002, Sansom served two terms on the Okaloosa County Commission. When named speaker sesignate in 2005, he said that he'd won the speaker's job with "a cellphone and a note pad."
His demise was fast — and hard for his many admirers to watch. It was also tough for him and his family.
"It made me tough. It made me compassionate,” he says. "It broke me. I went through a stage of grief. That was a hard fall.”
He said he called Jackson two weeks ago to let her know he was considering running for superintendent in the next election. He characterized their relationship as a good one and said they have worked together in his role at the charter school organization and hers as the head of the School District.
“She said she really appreciated me calling,” he said. “I’m still in the considering phase.”
Jackson did not return an emailed request for comment.
If Sansom runs, he says he will likely enter the race officially early in 2019.
Staff writer Tom McLaughlin contributed to this report.