He is far from being a household name in Florida and yet he will command one of the three most powerful positions in state government with the ability to control every piece of legislation — from how much money goes to public schools to whether the working poor have access to affordable health care.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, from Land O’Lakes in Pasco County, will be designated speaker of the Florida House on Wednesday for the two-year term beginning in November 2016. He will be formally elected by his GOP peers to a job that comes with prestige and enormous power over the 120-member chamber dominated by Republicans.
Behind the governor, only one other person has as much clout as the House speaker. But that job, Senate president, is being bitterly contested by Republicans Joe Negron of Stuart and Jack Latvala of Clearwater and may not be settled until after the 2016 election.
As a former legislative aide and legal adviser to three former speakers and Gov. Rick Scott, Corcoran brings with him more than 25 years of legislative experience, a network of loyalists, an allegiance with the governor, and an agenda determined to shake up what he considers the “corrupting” influences of Tallahassee.
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Working behind the scenes since he won enough pledges to be named speaker of his incoming class in 2010, Corcoran and the 28 members of his class have developed a white paper he calls “The Manifesto.” In it, they outline a plan to blow up the top-down process of House leadership that has allowed special interests to drive a wedge between lawmakers.
“The special interests are the biggest cowards in this process,’’ Corcoran told the Herald/Times. “They split up the herd and go after the weak ones, and they’ll even go after the big ones if they think they can.”
His goal, he says, is to dismantle the lobbyist-influenced hierarchy of legislative leadership by delegating and sharing power with members in a way that “gives all legislators equal footing,” empowers committee chairs to set the agenda, and tasks legislators with the responsibility of pushing their initiatives.
Corcoran was a deputy staffer in the office of former Speaker Dan Webster the last time the House process was reformed to increase the role of members and reduce the clout of outside interests. But Webster, now a congressman from Winter Garden, warns “it’s very difficult,” and when he did it Republicans were not used to being in power as they are today.
Like Webster, Corcoran is ideologically conservative, but he was elected to office in a tea party wave that has divided his party and the GOP-controlled Legislature. Whether he can succeed in reforming the process while adhering to his principles is an open question.
“With the vector that he’s on, Richard Corcoran is going to be the most powerful speaker in Florida’s modern day history,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach. “But his success will be judged by how well he works with his [more moderate] counterparts in the Senate, and right now it’s gridlock — Washington-style gridlock.”
Corcoran, 50, has been preparing for this job for nearly three decades. He graduated from St. Leo University in Pasco County in 1989 and went to work for former Rep. John Renke, a Republican from New Port Richey who was destined to be minority leader of the House when he was defeated.
He returned as a legislative aide for his long-time friend, Paul Hawkes, and spent time running Mike Fasano’s 1994 House campaign. He earned his law degree at Pat Robertson’s Regent University and in 1996 started working for Webster.
In 1998, Corcoran ran and lost his first House race to Nancy Argenziano, then served as outside counsel for former House Speaker Tom Feeney in 2002, and returned as chief of staff to former House Speaker Marco Rubio in 2006.
Rather than stay in that job, however, Corcoran took a risk. Counting on Argenziano, then a state senator, to be appointed to the Public Service Commission, he left his $175,000 a year job as Rubio’s chief of staff to prepare for a state Senate campaign. He ultimately dropped out rather than face Rep. Charlie Dean, a former Citrus County sheriff.
Corcoran kept his hand in politics, consulting and running a Crystal River mail service company, when he was hired by Scott to do legal work for Solantic, Scott’s chain of health care clinics.
In 2010, while campaigning for his House race, Corcoran won enough pledges to become designated as House speaker by defeating Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula.
In his speech to the Republican caucus Wednesday, Corcoran will outline his plans to “flatten” the power pyramid.
“That process is pushing the consulting class and the lobbying class to the bench,” he said. The reforms will serve “as the runway to land great public policy.”
In an affront to the insiders who capitalize on access to the appropriations suite, Corcoran’s manifesto calls for bringing transparency to the shadowy budget process. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he began requiring all members to put their name on every project they requested this year, but the process fell apart in the final budget negotiations with the Senate.
Corcoran also wants to end the process that allows each class of freshmen representatives to pledge support for a House speaker years before they have been tested — the very same process he used to win his title.
And, buoyed by his close friendship with Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who is designed to succeed him in 2018 as House speaker, Corcoran is determined to have his reforms remain in place after he leaves and to shame Republicans in the Senate to follow suit.
“When you lead by example and you have your facts in order, people tend to be willing to follow,” Oliva said.
Corcoran says he will not tell fellow Republicans what to believe but “there is an absolute litmus test.”
“If you’re going to run as a Republican, be true to Republican ideals. Don’t lie to voters,” he said last week. “You ought to research your issues and vote for what is best for your community and your state regardless of the consequences.”
Presiding officers in the Florida Legislature are elected by a democratic vote but they operate with autocratic authority, executing control over nearly all aspects of legislative life — from parking places and staff salaries, to which bills get heard and when. Different presiding officers have different styles but the process allows them to completely control the agenda, and the outcome — if they choose.
“The pyramid of power is so sharp that the rank and file members can’t even get close to it. They are ignored. They are threatened — not directly but indirectly,” said Fasano, who spent 19 years in the Legislature, most recently in the House, before being appointed Pasco County Tax Collector by Scott.
Fasano. who was in the House in 1996 when Webster was elected as the first Republican speaker in 100 years, recalled how Webster “empowered every member.” He allowed committee chairs to set the agenda and everyone — even low-ranking Democrats — to get a bill up for a floor vote, Fasano said.
“If Richard Corcoran is able to do what Dan Webster did by flattening the pyramid of power, then God bless him because he’ll be successful,” he said.
Webster banned night meetings and last-minute amendments, required the most important bills be heard first, and ended the final day of session by 6 p.m. to put a halt to the “intentional train wreck” that was used “to control the power.”
“It worked,” Webster recalled last week. “Nobody in the Capitol could believe it” when he and then-Senate President Toni Jennings adjourned at 6 p.m. with all the important work done. Lobbyists applauded and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles greeted them “with napkins over his arm” as they drank orange juice in the Capitol rotunda.
The reforms Webster ushered into the House have been whittled away but Corcoran can succeed, he said. Corcoran will have to understand that “power and principle cannot co-exist,” that ideas must advance based on merit and principle, and both Republicans and Democrats have to abandon the notion “that the leader can never lose.”
Fasano warned that declaring war on special interest turf battles in the era of big money politics will also be challenging for Corcoran, whose brother Michael is among the top lobbyists in Tallahassee.
“What is Richard doing right now?” Fasano asked last week. “He’s raising money, millions of dollars” from corporations and their lobbyists.
As head of the election effort for House Republicans in 2016, Corcoran acknowledged that he is raising millions, mostly through the Republican Party of Florida. But he and his team of loyalists deny campaign cash will play a role in the House’s agenda.
“Add up all the healthcare money I’ve raised, all the gaming money and look at my voting record,” said Corcoran, a vocal opponent of gambling and using federal money for Medicaid expansion. “Not one single penny will make a difference in how I vote.”
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, one of Corcoran’s early supporters, argues that “one of the biggest fallacies in this process is, if you commit, [special interests] will raise money for you,” he said. “If you commit to doing what you should do, the money will come either way.”
Not everyone is as optimistic.
Latvala who accused House members of following leaders “like lemmings” when they ended session three days early in disagreement over health care funding, also warns of Corcoran’s “rigid ideology” and refusal to compromise.
Oliva responds that he and Corcoran believe not all compromise is good, especially when it leads to “a further erosion of what you’re trying to resolve.”
Pafford, the Democratic leader, said that while Corcoran has “shown a spirit of leadership and independence,” the test will come when he does more than “throw his critics a bone.”
“We are all struggling to have a real seat at the table and have a fair shot,” Pafford said. “True power for Richard will be permitting not only the open dialogue but the open vote.”
Mary Ellen Klas is Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief. She can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas