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Heavy Hitter: Florida Speaker Richard Corcoran wields power

The most powerful legislator in Florida of the past 100 years was a Panhandle rancher named Dempsey J. Barron. He spent just one term as Senate president, from 1975 to 1976. But he controlled the chamber for years, and everybody knew it.

Among the portraits of Senate presidents and House speakers that hang in the legislative chambers, Barron’s portrait stands out. He had himself painted sitting astride a horse, the reins visibly dangling from his right hand. It was, according to Tallahassee lore, a message: No matter who was Senate president, Dempsey Barron held the reins.

Barron still ruled the Senate in 1983 when a briefcase-carrying kid from Hudson High School in Pasco County arrived in the state Capitol. Sponsored by a local legislator, Richard Michael Corcoran had been selected to be a messenger in the Florida House of Representatives through a program that gives middle and high school students from around the state an opportunity to experience state government up close. The program lasted one week. But Corcoran never really left.

Since running messages as a teenager, Corcoran has climbed slowly through the state’s political universe, bouncing among the House of Representatives, the Republican Party of Florida and private legal and consulting gigs. And after nearly three decades, he reached the pinnacle of legislative power in November when he was elected as the new speaker of the Florida House.

Now, Corcoran is vowing to upend the same system he has spent a lifetime mastering. He has condemned the influence of special interests — and the weakness of individual legislators — and promised stronger ethical firewalls and a state budget with more transparency and less pork.

A free-market evangelist who describes nearly all forms of regulation as lobbyist-led schemes to stifle competition, Corcoran wants to deregulate across state government — especially in K-12 education and health care. He has denounced the Florida Supreme Court and called for term limits for all appellate judges. And he has challenged Gov. Rick Scott by threatening to eliminate spending on economic incentives and tourism advertising.

More than any presiding officer since Republicans won control in the mid-1990s, Corcoran is in a position to deliver on his vision. Due to a combination of his own planning, circumstance and luck, Corcoran has amassed more power and influence over the process than anyone since the man on the horse. One friend predicts, “He’s going to be the Dempsey Barron of the House.”

Corcoran’s record doesn’t always align with his unflinching and ideologically rigorous rhetoric. He vilifies special interests while soliciting five- and six-figure campaign contributions. He criticizes legislators who profit from their public service — despite having taken a $172,000-a-year job at a top law firm the same year he secured the votes to become House speaker. He ridicules runaway government spending after serving the past two years as House budget chairman and being one of the primary architects of the two most porkridden budgets since the recession — budgets from which the governor vetoed more than $700 million. Meanwhile, Corcoran warns fellow legislators that voters are tired of politicians constantly campaigning for higher office even as he stokes speculation he himself might run for governor in 2018.

Though most are too timid to say it publicly, many legislators and lobbyists in Tallahassee regard Corcoran as the ultimate creature of the system rather than its savior.

Corcoran, who turns 52 this month, can be derisive and caustic about people he disagrees with. He quotes Thomas Hobbes, Martin Luther King and the movie Braveheart and tends to describe public policy debates in apocalyptic terms.

He is most comfortable smoking cigars and drinking red wine late into the night with small groups of people he trusts. But he says his reputation as a master manipulator — the Machiavelli of Tallahassee — is a fiction invented by the lobbyists and special interests who have the most to lose if his reforms are successful.

“Unlike these guys, I’ve read ‘The Prince.’ These guys haven’t. They’ve just heard a term,” Corcoran says.

“I tell the members all the time, fight MMA — not ninja,” he says, referring to mixed-martial arts combat. “My philosophy has always been: I’m going to tell you what exactly I’m going to fight for. And we’ll get into an octagon and we’ll fight it out.”

» ‘I’m an American’

Corcoran was born in Toronto on March 16, 1965, the fourth of five children (he has a twin sister born nine minutes earlier). His father, Robert, served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and then became a diplomat for the State Department, with stations in Budapest and other eastern European cities. The elder Corcoran later worked for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Canada.

Corcoran’s mother, Josephine, was born in 1925 in Darjeeling, India, to British parents who managed a tea plantation. She was sent to boarding school in London, where she lived through the German air blitz while serving with the British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

The Corcoran family settled in Toronto, where Corcoran’s father established a private immigration practice helping to arrange U.S. visas for prominent Canadians. The family lived in a home on Lake Ontario, but Corcoran says he was uncomfortable living in what he calls a “foreign land” — his was the only family he knew that celebrated the Fourth of July. Later, when his parents encouraged their children to apply for Canadian passports, Corcoran says he refused. “I’m an American,” he told them.

The family moved to the States in January 1977, just before Corcoran turned 12. His father had invested in a concrete-block plant in Pasco County. When that went bust, he resumed his business of helping people get visas.

There were two constants in the Corcoran family. One was sports. His mother had been a top athlete — she once qualified for Junior Wimbledon — and she encouraged her children to play and compete. They played basketball, tennis, baseball and golf. When his father asked the family whether they should build a swimming pool or a tennis court, they chose the tennis court. “I don’t care if it was darts or throwing socks over a fan — everything was a competition,” Corcoran says.

The other constant was politics. His parents, whom Corcoran describes as “Rockefeller Republicans” not as socially conservative as he is, were active in local campaigns, first for candidates for parliament in Canada and later for candidates for Congress in the U.S. and in the Legislature in Florida.

Several Corcoran children made their way into politics. Corcoran’s eldest sister, Jackie, worked in the administration of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and is now a senior adviser at the National Democratic Institute, an NGO in Washington. His youngest brother, Michael, is a lobbyist in Tallahassee.

But Corcoran was the one most drawn to the political world. By high school, he had already mapped out his career path: An undergraduate degree from the University of Florida followed by a law degree from Harvard.

That plan lasted five semesters and six credits, at which point he was suspended from UF with a 0.43 grade-point average. “I had a good time,” Corcoran says. His problem, he says, was not partying. It was sports: He regularly skipped classes to hang out at the campus gym playing pickup basketball.

» Plotting a new route

Back in Pasco County, working in construction, Corcoran decided on an alternate route into politics: Relationship-building. He enrolled in the local community college and finished his undergraduate degree at Saint Leo University. While in school, he started a local Young Republicans club, through which he met John Renke II, a Republican legislator from the area and the minority leader in the Florida House. As soon as Corcoran finished at Saint Leo, Renke gave him a job in Tallahassee.

From the House minority office, Corcoran jumped to the Republican Party of Florida, which made him its field rep in charge of coordinating Republican campaigns for the state House during the 1990 elections. Among the candidates he met was an attorney running for a seat in Citrus County named Paul Hawkes. The two became friends. When Renke unexpectedly lost reelection, Hawkes, who had won his race, gave Corcoran a job as his legislative assistant.

Hawkes, now a lobbyist in Tallahassee, describes Corcoran as more consigliere than assistant. “He would point out to me who was talking to who amongst the membership — when the members were wandering around the floor and not sitting in their chairs, who was sitting next to who,” Hawkes says. “He said to watch that and you’ll see relationships. And once you see the relationships, then you make better decisions.”

Corcoran and Hawkes grew close with several other freshman Republicans elected in 1990, especially Tom Feeney, who represented an Orlando-area district, and Chris Corr, who held a Jacksonville seat. Young and ambitious, they regularly worked well past midnight, drafting their own bills and amendments because they didn’t trust the legislative staff. Feeney says Corcoran was the “mastermind” behind a built-from-scratch state budget that the Republican minority wrote themselves to contrast with the Democratic majority’s spending plan; the clerk’s office refused to print the document or to let them imprint it with the House seal.

The foursome was also part of a larger group of conservative lawmakers and political operatives who had no interest in working with the Democratic power structure. They met regularly with Daniel Webster, another Orlando-area Republican and leader of the conservative movement, and plotted ways to force Democrats into votes that could be exploited in campaigns.

Corcoran left Tallahassee in 1993 to go to law school at Regent University, the private Christian school in Virginia Beach founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. He kept a hand in Florida politics by creating a political consulting firm and using the profits to help pay his tuition. Hawkes, who lost a bid for circuit judge in 1994, joined the company.

While at Regent, he began dating a student named Anne Gainer. She followed him back to Florida, transferring to Florida State University and earning her own law degree. The two married in 1994 and now have six children, ages 4 to 16. The Corcorans put their kids in a private school and then homeschooled them when that school closed in 2011. All now attend a charter school that Anne Corcoran founded and still runs as CEO for a salary of $1 per year, which she does not collect.

» Crash course

Corcoran graduated from law school in May 1996 and immediately caught a big break. It appeared likely that summer that Republicans were going to win a majority in the state House. Dan Webster, who stood to become House speaker, hired Corcoran and Hawkes to help with policy and to help rewrite the rules for the Florida House. “Both Paul and Richard were free thinkers,” Webster says. “They were the ones that grasped ahold of what I wanted to do.”

The job gave Corcoran a crash course into the arcane world of legislative rules and an understanding of the rules’ power. Few legislators outside of leadership ever have more than a cursory understanding of the rules; rewriting them, even if the changes are ultimately fairly minor, further empowers the new leadership.

Before Webster took over as speaker, Corcoran also helped orchestrate a special election victory for Feeney. He then helped Feeney secure enough pledges from Republican members to become speaker in 2000. In return, Feeney hired Corcoran as a special counsel to the House. Feeney says one of Corcoran’s jobs was to ensure the passage of Feeney’s priorities, which included the creation of a new congressional district in central Florida in which Feeney could run.

“Richard was very helpful in thinking ahead of time, ‘Here are your priorities; here are the committees. We needed to make sure that, on the things that you care about, we’ve got folks that are sympathetic,’ ” Feeney says. “These appear to the outside world as accidents. But it’s a very complex thing, and it’s the kind of thing Richard has been working on a long time.”

During that time, Corcoran befriended a freshman legislator from Miami. Marco Rubio, elected as part of a huge new class of freshman lawmakers, wanted to run for speaker and sought out Corcoran to help, signing him up over a dinner at a Chili’s in Ocala.

After winning the race for speaker, Rubio rewarded Corcoran by naming him chief of staff and paying him an annual salary of $175,000 — more than the governor earned. As Rubio’s top staffer, corcoran oversaw an office that some legislators described as heavyhanded. Rubio’s office “had a chart that basically scored members on how they voted with the speaker,” says John Legg, who was a secondterm Republican House member during the Rubio regime. “They kept score, and if you didn’t vote with the speaker enough times, you weren’t given a chairmanship.”

Corcoran had more influence than any staffer in the Legislature but wanted to wield the speakers’ gavel himself. He had made one unsuccessful run for the Legislature, losing badly in a 1998 House race. But he hoped to run again, particularly as he learned more about the Legislature’s inner workings. Hawkes, who remains one of Corcoran’s closest friends, says, “I remember one time he said, in his opinion, speakers tend to have one of three different weaknesses: Either they’re unduly afraid of their membership or they’re unduly afraid of the press or they’re unduly afraid of lobbyists.”

In March 2007, Corcoran quit as chief of staff to run in a special election for an open Senate seat. The campaign put a dent in his reputation as a political genius. Running against two sitting House members, Corcoran persuaded Webster, then the majority leader in the Senate, to get the Senate leadership to endorse him. Webster convinced the Senate’s appropriations chair, Sarasota Republican Lisa Carlton, who was reluctant, to back Corcoran, as well. They, along with Senate President Ken Pruitt, jointly endorsed Corcoran on a Wednesday. That weekend, Corcoran, without warning, quit the race after concluding that he couldn’t win. “I didn’t talk to him for six months,” Webster says.

Corcoran returned to a private law firm he ran with his wife. Some of his most lucrative work came from personal injury cases, including nursing-home and water-pollution litigation.

» Luck and influence

He made a third — and successful — run for the Legislature in 2010 when a House seat opened up in Pasco County. He won a threeway Republican primary with 5,319 votes and then walked into the seat with no general election opposition. Two months later, before his first session as a legislator, Corcoran secured the pledges to become the speaker of his class.

His influence grew rapidly. He benefited from luck: A future House speaker ahead of Corcoran unexpectedly lost election, creating a vacuum that Corcoran, with more inside knowledge of the Legislature’s workings than anyone, was able to fill.

Corcoran also worked to cement his power. His first act upon becoming speaker? Completely rewriting the rules of the House.

Corcoran enjoys a tailor-made base of support. He has spent hundreds of hours over the past six years cultivating relationships with House members, learning about their businesses, their families, their strengths and weaknesses. He seems to have gravitated especially to young, ambitious conservatives whom Corcoran believes will share his vision. Some members of that inner circle, who are intensely loyal to Corcoran, call him “the old man.”

“Those younger representatives in their 30s and some in their early 40s were who got his attention from day one,” says former state Rep. Ray Pilon, a Sarasota Republican who is 72 and who, like Corcoran, was elected in 2010. “He was breeding his leadership crew from the day he got there as a freshman.”

Some current and former lawmakers also say Corcoran has worked to influence leadership races in the classes after him. Many believe Corcoran helped orchestrate the victories of Jose Oliva, a 44-year-old Miami businessman who will become speaker in 2018, and Chris Sprowls, a 33-year-old Palm Harbor attorney who should become speaker in 2020.

Corcoran calls it all gossip. But some of his allies differ. “Look, Jose Oliva is going to be the next speaker because of Richard Corcoran. Chris Sprowls is going to be the speaker after Oliva because of Corcoran,” says Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former legislator and a friend of Corcoran’s.

Even before he became speaker in November, there were signs that Corcoran had the heft to go his own way in the House. Three years ago, he crossed House Speaker Will Weatherford to vote against a bill allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Florida universities. Last year, he battled Speaker Steve Crisafulli over economic development incentives.

Allies say it is Corcoran — not Weatherford or Crisafulli — who is responsible for the House’s refusal in recent years to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, despite pressure from the Senate and, at times, Gov. Rick Scott. “Medicaid expansion, but for his leadership, I think would have passed,” says Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a 34-year-old Miami Republican whom Corcoran chose as House appropriations chairman.

» Personal gains

Corcoran’s finances have improved in step with his political fortunes. In 2011, the same year he won his speaker’s race, Corcoran was given a $172,000-a-year job at Broad & Cassel, a top law firm with an extensive lobbying practice. The next year, he and his wife paid $369,000 cash to buy a home in Land O’ Lakes. Two years later, they bought a $325,000 second home near downtown Tallahassee.

Corcoran has also traveled and dined on the money raised from an assortment of special interests through the Republican Party of Florida and his own personal political committee. (Business at his brother’s lobbying firm, meanwhile, has roughly doubled, from approximately $1.5 million in annual fees in 2010 to $3 million a year now, thanks to a long list of clients that includes everyone from Walmart to the Florida Orchestra.)

Corcoran publicly derides lobbyists as an insidious force trying to distort good public policy in their own interests. Lobbyists privately deride him as a hypocrite. Says one lobbyist who declined to be identified: “Richard has no problem kicking the sh*t out of lobbyists at a press conference for a story that you will write in the morning and then calling over and asking for 10 grand in the afternoon.”

Corcoran dismisses such criticism as the slings and arrows of cowards trying to preserve the status quo.

“The truth is objective and knowable,” he says. “If you govern from a set of tried-and-true principles — and you’re willing to die for them — you’re going to have enemies.”