Paul Renner’s political beginnings

Renner is about to be the speaker of the House. Here’s how faith and freedom combined to form his political views. The first of a two-part profile.

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Today, it may seem like a foregone conclusion that, in November 2022, Paul Renner will become Florida’s speaker of the House, one of the three most powerful politicians in a state that’s increasingly in the national spotlight. But eight years ago, in summer 2014, Renner’s political future appeared to be over before it began.

He lived in Jacksonville at the time, and he had just lost — by three votes — the Aug. 26, 2014, primary for District 15 in the Florida House of Representatives. After the mandatory recount, one vote was added to his tally, meaning he had lost by only two: 5,962 to 5,960.

But 143 mail-in ballots had been tossed out, due to mismatched signatures. Were any of those ballots actually votes that could be counted for Renner? Could he still have a chance?

Renner and his campaign decided to find out. One staffer went to a voter’s address and noticed a Renner sign in the front yard. That sounded promising, and it was. When the staffer knocked on the door, he met James Rushin, a 77-year-old Navy veteran — someone who Renner later would say looked like he was “right out of central casting,” perfect for the role of righting a wrong in an election. Rushin said he hadn’t known his vote had been invalidated, and he told the staffer, “That’s my signature. I voted for Renner.”

"I do feel — I did feel — a calling, if you will, to put my name out there. But I felt it was about running. Not necessarily that God told me I was going to win."



Rushin agreed to go directly to the Duval County Canvassing Board to make his case. “Both signatures are mine,” he told them.

According to a TV report by Action News Jax, the board debated for about an hour, looking at the two signatures, with Rushin’s testimony in mind. The law, however, was made clear by the board attorney: The only pieces of evidence a Canvassing Board can consider are the two signatures. Do they match, or do they not?

“I have no doubt he’s the person — I have no doubt whatsoever — but what we have as the law to go by is all we can go by,” Canvassing Board member Doyle Carter told Action News Jax.

The Canvassing Board voted 2-1 against Rushin, meaning the margin of defeat remained two votes.

Was the election officially over? Had Renner lost? Not quite.

There was one more avenue. As Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland said, the Canvassing Board vote could be challenged in court.

Renner, who himself was an attorney, was at home, in Jacksonville, with his wife, when he made his decision. His campaign consultant was on the phone, talking strategy, and then Renner said no.

“I decided that the right thing to do is to not litigate,” he told me in an interview eight years later, in May 2022. “There was a point in which — for whatever reason — I wasn’t supposed to win that race.”

To understand why he felt that way, it’s useful to know something of his life story leading up to that point. Over the course of about four hours of interviews, Renner reflected on his upbringing, his faith, his belief in freedom and the Constitution, and how he came to eventually represent Palm Coast in the House, just eight months after that loss in Jacksonville.



Renner felt he had exhausted his legal avenues in the 2014 primary at the time (the laws have since changed to enable further challenges). He felt that even if a sympathetic judge were to go against the Canvassing Board’s ruling, the judge would not be following the letter of the law.

Paul Renner with his wife, Adriana, in a 2015 ad. Courtesy image
Paul Renner with his wife, Adriana, in a 2015 ad. Courtesy image

“A judge that is a textualist, which I believe judges should be, wouldn’t have had the choice [to overturn the election]” Renner said. If Renner were to fight the matter further, he said, “I just felt like at that point, it would be more me striving for what I want. It would have been more about me and not about what I believe in.”

There was a silence in the Flagler Broadcasting conference room, until I suggested a summary of what he’d just said: “And you believe in … the letter of the law.”

He said, “Absolutely.”

He also believed that God was involved.

“I had prayed about it, and I felt like I should run, that it was the right time to put myself out for public service,” Renner said. “And I felt like if I were going to contest that in a lawsuit, that was more about me.”

I asked Renner if he felt that since he felt inspired to run, that meant that God was also promising him a victory?

“No. I view with skepticism the idea that that’s how we interact with God,” he said. “I think our obligation is to find the right path and walk it. There’s a difference between being obedient and praying about it and feeling like it was the right thing for me to do to offer myself up for public service. 

“And I felt very comfortable about that — still do — about that race. I think it was the right thing to do. I do feel — I did feel — a calling, if you will, to put my name out there. But I felt it was about running. Not necessarily that God told me I was going to win.”

And so, Renner called Jay Fant and conceded and said he would endorse Fant in the 2014 general election. But after that phone call, Renner felt disappointed to say the least.

From his father, he had inherited a love of serving others. He had entered the Navy because of that sense of higher purpose. And now that his career in the Navy was over, he felt he could continue serving his country in politics. But it was not to be.

After conceding the 2014 election, he recalls commiserating with his wife. 

“There was 10 or 15 minutes of kicking the dirt,” he said. “I’m a human being.”



Renner’s belief in the letter of the law may have been instilled in him by his father, Arville, who trained in the seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, where Renner was born, in 1967.

Renner’s father became a Methodist minister and led congregations in Maryland, as well as in Florida — Vero Beach, Merritt Island, and then Jacksonville. But his father didn’t agree with the direction the church was taking at the time. The seminary, as Renner remembers it from his childhood, was questioning the Christian tenet of the virgin birth.

“Things that are supernatural or miraculous make some people uncomfortable,” Renner said, but faith is not something that can be compromised; either Jesus was born of a virgin or he wasn’t. Bending that doctrine, which is made clear in the Bible, was an example of bending principle to fit with society.

Looking back on that time, Renner believes that by questioning the virgin birth, “at the seminary, they had kind of gone woke before we had woke.” He said, “The liberal tilt of mainline Protestant churches was going in a direction of saying, ‘Look, we’re going to take pieces from the Bible that we’re comfortable with and leave the rest aside.’”

Renner remembers his father being disappointed with the church. “It began his exit,” he said.

“There’s a Truth with a capital T, and we can disagree over what that is,” he continued. “And I am certain, in humility, that I am wrong on many, many fronts about what that Truth is. I am also certain that there is one. So some churches have become, in some quarters, polluted, becoming just a spiritualized version of current society.”

I asked Renner if any of his father’s sermons stood out to him, any sayings that he lived by.

At first he said he didn’t remember anything specific, but then one came to mind: “How do you spell love? T-I-M-E.”

There was another pause in the conversation, as Renner was fighting back tears.

“That meant something to you,” I said, a half-question, half-observation.

“Yes,” he said.

He then said that the conversation was focusing a lot on his upbringing and his father’s faith. “This part didn’t really influence my politics.”

"... To me, the beauty of the Constitution is not that you think like me, or that you’re a Christian or Republican. It’s that the Constitution protects people who seem to be the exact opposite of me."



But I suggested that Renner’s faith and his politics are impossible to separate. He had told me that he felt satisfied with his 2014 loss and declined to pursue further legal challenges — because he felt that God was satisfied. God didn’t want him to fight it any further.

He then said something that bridged the conversation between church and politics.

“I think you see the churches that are thriving are those that have stuck to principles,” he said.

“No matter how unpopular they might get,” I said.

“Yes,” Renner said.

“Do you think that’s what DeSantis is doing right now?”

“Yes,” Renner said, “but here’s the difference. And this is where I want to try to articulate that experience growing up. I believe in the rule of law, in the Constitution, but I don’t see myself as an ideologue — at all.”

I asked him, “Do you think some people assume you are an ideologue?”

“Of course. I think most people assume that the parties have become too ideological on both sides. But I don’t see myself as ideological.”

His unflinching belief in the Bible is similar to his belief in the Constitution, and that explains why he is unwilling to compromise, politically, on some issues.

“We don’t get to pick and choose our Constitution,” Renner said. “People don’t get to pick and choose the laws they like. We, as a community, come together and agree on that. And to me, the beauty of the Constitution is not that you think like me, or that you’re a Christian or Republican. It’s that the Constitution protects people who seem to be the exact opposite of me. But it only does so if we’re all totally committed to it, if we have an orthodox view that free speech is free for everybody. Speech that I deem contemptuous is still free.”



As a child, Renner met in his home some missionaries who had returned from China and other countries, exposing him to the idea that people in other countries didn’t all enjoy the same freedoms he did in the United States. Looking back, he said, the first political position he took was not about taxes or education but about freedom of speech. During the Cold War, he realized, “Wow, there’s some places where you can’t even say anything or your parents will be thrown in jail.” He said, “That felt wrong.”

He looked at the world map and saw, for the first time, not just lines and colors, but a struggle: There were forces for freedom and forces for control. He remembers thinking, with some trepidation, “Are we going to win?” That led to another question: “What can I do to help?”

As a teenager and in college, he came to see history as the story of freedom vs. control. He saw that the more free people were, the more prosperous they were.

Religious freedom was one example of that. He decided: “My aim was not to make everyone share my faith. My aim is to make everyone free.”

After high school, Renner was offered a full ride scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University. But he also visited a small school called Davidson, in North Carolina, that he loved. The problem was, he was waitlisted at Davidson, while Vanderbilt was a sure thing.

He recalls going to his attic to think. He was looking for a sign, something to tell him that he wasn’t insane to plan for Davidson over Vanderbilt. “Maybe I need a slap in the face,” he recalls thinking.

In the attic, he found, among other books that had been left behind by the previous owner of the house, a copy of “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton. He opened the cover and saw a stamp indicating that this book, decades earlier, had once belonged to the library at Davidson College.

“It was very weird,” Renner recalled. “But I felt like it was Providence.”

He still has the book.



After Davidson, Renner decided to join the military. Growing up in Jacksonville, he was surrounded by Navy families, so it seemed to be a natural path. He also wanted to be part of that great battle for freedom that he had been exposed to as a younger person. And there was a third reason: He wanted to serve someday in a political office. To do that, he knew he needed to do something meaningful with his life, to become the type of person who would be worth voting for.

Paul Renner. Courtesy photo
Paul Renner. Courtesy photo

Years later, in his speech to the Florida House on Sept. 21, 2021, he told his fellow legislators what he learned in the Navy:

“The military taught me about keeping the right perspective. I had the privilege to serve in Operation Desert Storm and, 20 years later, in Afghanistan.

“When you receive deployment orders, reality sinks in there’s a chance you may never come home.

“In a real way though, it’s liberating. You begin to think about what really matters in life, what you would truly miss if you don’t come back, and, in the end, what is worth dying for. …

“When you determine what’s on that list, when you know who and what you are willing to die for, you also discover that those are the only things worth living for. Everything else is a distraction.”

When he returned from Operation Desert Storm, he entered law school. And while other students were stressed out about exams, he was thinking, “This isn’t so bad: Nobody’s shooting at us, nobody’s lobbing a mortar at us.”

He finished law school six months early. He worked in Venezuela so he could learn Spanish better, and he worked in both Miami and Jacksonville, often commuting four hours, to launch his career as an attorney.

In 2013, he and Adriana were married. Shortly afterward, the District 15 seat opened up, and he decided to run for office, with his wife’s support.

But, it was not to be. He lost in that 2014 primary. And he was left thinking, What next? Practice law for the rest of my life?



Renner’s wife wanted to live by the water, and they decided they couldn’t afford Jacksonville’s waterfront prices. So, after the election, moving south was appealing. He also learned of a fortuitous political opportunity: Another House seat —  a Republican-leaning seat — was likely going to open up, in Palm Coast.

“He struck me as someone who was very interested in the details. He didn’t talk a tremendous amount about himself.”



That fall, in 2014, John Thrasher was up for re-election to the Florida Senate, and Travis Hutson was up for re-election to the Florida House, both representing Flagler County.

The rumor was, Thrasher was going to become the next president of Florida State University, and he would then resign his Senate seat. Hutson was expected to win re-election to his House seat and then resign and announce his candidacy for Thrasher’s Senate seat in a special election.

It happened just so, and that meant House District 24 was up for grabs, with no incumbent. The timeline was brisk: The special primary was scheduled for Jan. 27, 2015, and the general election would be April 2015.

Did Renner move to Palm Coast because he wanted to live by the water, or so he could have another chance at Tallahassee? Or both?

No matter the answer, when he moved to Palm Coast and announced his candidacy for District 24, social media chatter showed how some locals felt about Renner:

“Didn’t Fant beat you?”

“Are you running again???”

When Renner posted on Facebook that he stood for strong schools, someone responded: “How dows [sic] that qualify him to represent Flagler and St. Johns County? Did you ever even walk past a school?

Another posted: “What does the term Carpet Bagger mean?”

Milissa Holland, a Flagler County commissioner from 2006 to 2012, heard about this new candidate, Paul Renner, from an old friend whom she respected: Thrasher himself.

Thrasher told her that Renner “was an individual who held deep to his beliefs and values system, and it never altered,” she recalled. Hutson echoed Thrasher’s praise of Renner, and Holland looked forward to meeting him.

So, when Renner called and asked her for a lunch meeting to gain some perspective from a longtime Flagler County resident, she gladly accepted. They met at Mezzaluna in European Village, in Palm Coast, and, in an Oct. 4, 2022, phone interview, she remembered it well. Renner ordered a calzone; Holland had pizza.

She recalled: “I was definitely not oblivious to people’s viewpoint” that Renner was “someone new coming in” to run for the local House seat. But, “I’m an optimist,” she told me. “I like to meet the person before making any preconceived positions about the ‘why.’”

She was sympathetic to Renner’s yearning to serve in Tallahassee; she had felt it, too, leading her to run to represent District 24 in 2012, though she lost to Hutson. Her respect for politicians developed early; she had grown up in the home of her father, James Holland, one of Palm Coast’s original City Council members, who had introduced her to respected state leaders such as William L. Proctor, who served as president of Flagler College from 1971 to 2001 and later represented District 20 in the Florida House, from 2004 to 2012.

“He’s very open about the fact that he had a calling to serve,” Holland said of Renner. “I don’t think there were ever any secrets made about his intention to run.”

At lunch, she told Renner about recent Flagler County history, the struggle for supremacy over water utilities, the incorporation of the city of Palm Coast, the community’s pride in its natural beauty and ethnic diversity.

“He struck me as someone who was very interested in the details,” she recalled. “He didn’t talk a tremendous amount about himself.”

Renner met with other community leaders as he began his campaign. Some of the volunteers who helped him with his Jacksonville campaign followed him to Palm Coast and helped there.

“We had a good feeling on the ground,” he recalled. “My background as a military veteran, former prosecutor … was resonating.”



Still, considering how close his Jacksonville loss had been, he wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“I knew that every day counted, every door counted,” he said. “The race could come down to two votes. So that was a motivator.”

“It’s an impression that I’ll never forget, which I think is special about our democracy: that [voters] have a chance to go out and talk to [candidates], have a chance to evaluate you, get kind of a gut read on who you are, and whether you’re an authentic person or not an authentic person.”



He won the Republican primary, in January, with 73% of the vote.

He won again in April, this time with 67% of the vote.

And so, eight months after that two-vote loss in Jacksonville, he was in Palm Coast — European Village, to be precise — celebrating his victory. Soon, he would be sitting not far from his Jacksonville opponent, Fant.

“It’s a little bit surreal,” he recalled, “because you’re seeing your name being reported. You’re realizing that people are actually going out there and voting for you.

“It’s an impression that I’ll never forget, which I think is special about our democracy: that [voters] have a chance to go out and talk to [candidates], have a chance to evaluate you, get kind of a gut read on who you are, and whether you’re an authentic person or not an authentic person.”

Renner and his wife left the victory party at 11 p.m. But there was no time for further celebration that night: The legislative session was already in progress.

He drove home, packed a bag, and hit the road. They arrived in Tallahassee at 2 a.m. April 8.

Later on April 8, he was sworn in. By the afternoon, he was hearing bills on the House floor.

Eight years later, Renner is poised not only to win his third election but also to become speaker of the House. Would he be in this situation if he had won the Jacksonville seat in 2014 instead?

Looking back, Renner said, in our May 20, 2022, interview, that losing in Jacksonville “turned out to be the very best thing politically.” He thought back to a week in summer 2014, when he was sick and unable to campaign down the stretch. Would that extra week of knocking doors in Jacksonville have tipped the scale in his favor, helping him overcome the ultimate two-vote deficit? He had fretted about that in the weeks afterward, but not after the 2015 special election.

Winning in Palm Coast, he said, “was very much a faith-affirming moment.”

“We’re human beings,” he said, “and we strive for what we want, but not necessarily, like [the Rolling Stones] say, what we need.”


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