Richard Corcoran: "Hell, no" to property tax increase
Richard Corcoran puffed on his cigar, picked up a shotgun and blasted a clay pigeon out of the sky, and then another.
As the orange discs broke apart, the speaker of the Florida House reached for another favorite weapon — his iPhone. In the woods of Pasco County, he spoke in hushed tones about his ongoing battle with Gov. Rick Scott over Enterprise Florida’s use of taxpayer money.
Riding a golf cart with two of his six kids on a Friday afternoon, he was helping local Republicans raise money while sharpening his aim.
Corcoran is the most unpredictable force in Florida politics in decades. He’s a fearless political marksman who uses laws, rules, tweets, videos, lawsuits and sheer nerve to lay waste to what he calls “a culture of corruption” in Tallahassee.
Senators, judges, lobbyists, college presidents, teachers and business owners are all among his targets — with none bigger than Gov. Rick Scott.
Some can’t stand him, but they can’t ignore him. None should be surprised about his agenda.
I’m the most disruptive person.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran
Six years ago, Corcoran and his allies wrote it down in a plan called Blueprint Florida.
Years before Donald Trump crashed the scene with his anti-establishment rhetoric, Blueprint Florida promised to overhaul a system fixated on personal advancement.
That manifesto lives on with Corcoran, who is outraged by the system that shaped him and now wants to tear it down as he considers a populist campaign for governor.
The irony is not lost on his opponents. Ridiculed as a “career politician” by the governor of his own party, he forges ahead.
Corcoran finds his prey in his war room — the speaker’s office at the Capitol in Tallahassee. On a recent afternoon, he marked up a Senate proposal for flaws, shouting and underlining. He sipped a Diet Coke, popping an Andes mint in his mouth and tossed an F-bomb at an enemy.
“I’m the most disruptive person,” Corcoran said.
At least on this point, both his friends and enemies agree.
Early political interest
Richard Michael Corcoran was born in Toronto, where his father worked for the U.S. State Department.
Both of his parents were World War II veterans and U.S. citizens. His father was orphaned as a toddler and his mother, born to British parents, was raised in boarding schools, lived on a tea plantation in India, and drove a war ambulance during the London blitz.
Corcoran, who turns 52 later this month, is one of five children and has a twin sister, Susan, who lives in Washington. He and his younger brother Mike played doubles tennis at Hudson High in Pasco in the early 1980s.
Visiting the Capitol in those years, he spent a week as a messenger for Rep. Ron Richmond, of Holiday, a Pasco fixture who ran the House Republican office where Corcoran’s sister Jackie worked.
“A bright kid. Very bright,” Richmond recalled. “He was just so young. I had no idea he was interested in politics.”
After dropping out of the University of Florida, Corcoran got a degree at Saint Leo, and studied law at Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. There, he met his future wife, Anne, and they devoured books on history, religion and philosophy.
Married in 1994, the Corcorans and their six kids live in an upscale subdivision in Land O’Lakes in a two-story home that has every modern amenity except one: No TV.
They home-schooled the children until four years ago when Anne founded Classical Preparatory School, a charter school with a classic liberal arts curriculum.
“The liberal arts provide the roots for learning things that fuel the mind with the ability to grow, evolve and create,” Anne Corcoran said.
With a fresh law degree and eager to start a family, Corcoran went to work as a plaintiffs’ lawyer at his brother Robert’s firm in Crystal River, where he argued cases and sued nursing homes on behalf of patients.
He was 25 years old when he helped his friend Paul Hawkes, a Republican, win a Democratic-leaning House seat in Citrus County in 1990.
Corcoran set up town hall meetings and licked envelopes and paid attention to details. Everyone who called — often retirees worried about changing state bingo laws — got a personal reply on letterhead with a gold seal.
“He became a machine,” Hawkes said.
Throughout the 1990s, Corcoran toiled behind the scenes as a Republican operative and campaign strategist.
Yet as Republicans rose to power in the Capitol, he struggled to get into the arena himself.
When Jeb Bush was elected governor in 1998, Corcoran ran for a House seat in Citrus County. Nancy Argenziano easily defeated him.
“He was a carpetbagger,” recalled Gerry Mulligan, editor of the Citrus County Chronicle.
Inside the GOP, however, Corcoran rose quickly.
House Speaker Dan Webster gave him a lucrative contract that included rewriting lawmaking rules, and Speaker Tom Feeney made him a top consultant.
Marco Rubio, who is six years younger, especially shaped Corcoran. Over dinner at a Chili’s in Ocala, Rubio hired Corcoran to run his race for speaker. After Rubio won and in 2006 became one of the youngest speakers in Florida history, he made Corcoran his chief of staff and counsel at $175,000 a year. That’s more than what governors earn.
But the urge to hold office persisted.
When Argenziano left a Senate seat in 2007, Corcoran entered a special election to replace her, but polls gave him no shot of beating Republican Charlie Dean.
Victory came on the third try in 2010 when he set his sights on a Pasco House seat. In a three-way primary with no Democratic opponent, Corcoran won with less than a majority, 43 percent. A total of 5,319 voters put him on the path to power.
He had a plan
Winning a House seat in a summer primary gave Corcoran a head start and time to nurture relationships with other incoming freshmen, the ones who would help write the blueprint.
He raised money for them and received their pledges of support that he needed to win a crowded race for speaker. He got to know their spouses, kids, businesses.
He made numerous trips to Miami to bond with several Republican House candidates over Cuban food, wine and cigars.
They didn’t know him well yet, but he had instant credibility as an expert strategist and Rubio’s former chief of staff.
“He could ‘talk Miami-Dade,’ ” said Rep. Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz, R-Miami, an early Corcoran supporter. “It’s the way he carried himself, the experience he had.”
As Corcoran waited his turn to be speaker, he served as mentor to two men who were later chosen to succeed him — Rep. Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes in 2018 and Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor in 2020.
Both men fervently share Corcoran’s vision. That ensures that his legacy endures after he leaves office, such as his call for transparency in spending and lobbying.
“He obviously has a big wish list,” Anne Corcoran said in an email. “That’s why he spends so much time mentoring other members. He wants them to continue this fight.”
Two years before becoming speaker, Corcoran left a major mark in the House.
He led the crusade to prevent nearly 1 million Floridians from getting health insurance by opposing Medicaid expansion, calling it a monopoly, an inefficient subsidy to “the hospital-industrial complex.”
He’s earned a reputation as a bare-knuckled political brawler who uses words as weapons.
A teachers’ union is “evil” for opposing the expansion of school choice. Tourism leaders scatter like “cockroaches” when he exposes their spending. His colleagues are to blame for caving in to lobbyists.
“The enemy is us,” he told House members the day he secured the speaker’s post. “Left to our own devices, all too often, we’ll choose self-interest.”
Corcoran’s House allies see a principled and fearless conservative who wants to cut spending, replace Medicaid with a private system, expand school choice and restrain an activist judiciary.
His critics see a strategist laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run.
Corcoran laughs it off as “crazy talk,” asking how confronting powerful interest groups is a winning strategy to get elected.
The back-and-forth between Corcoran and Scott feels like the stretch run of a tight campaign. The House is producing slick videos that make Corcoran’s case of runaway spending. Scott’s political committee launched a counterattack video accusing Corcoran of “fake news.”
“It’s a very sad time in politics,” said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a leader in the fight against Corcoran’s proposed cut to tourism marketing. “This should not be a political game. This should be about the economic engine of Florida.”
Facing Corcoran on stage before several hundred people in Palm Beach in late February, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, jokingly handed him a pair of red boxing gloves.
“I’ve been up there 22 years, and he has flat picked more fights with more people than anybody I’ve ever seen before — some of them justified,” Latvala said.
Creating a legacy
In Florida, a House speaker serves two years. Few people remember who had the job three years ago (it was Republican Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel).
Corcoran talks often about his legacy and keeps tabs on the number of days he’s been in charge.
“Day 92,” he told reporters during an interview last month.
In the space of a few weeks, he forced the ouster of the state’s top tourism official after exposing a secret $1 million contract with the rapper Pitbull; demanded financial records from dozens of colleges and tourism boards; pressured a judge to step down over sexist and racist remarks; refused to pay $13 million in legal fees incurred by a state agency whose director soon quit, and sued the state lottery for allegedly spending money without legislative approval.
His boldest move is to abolish Scott’s sacred job-creation program, Enterprise Florida, and dramatically cut the budget of Visit Florida, which promotes tourism.
Their budgets amount to less than $200 million, a pittance. Far bigger examples of potential waste, fraud and abuse, such as the prison and child welfare systems, which spend $6 billion a year, have escaped Corcoran’s attention.
“Give me time,” he said.
He’s already won the enduring support of Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that could be a fund-raising force in the 2018 race for governor. Corcoran said he’s met Charles and David Koch on separate occasions.
Corcoran is a man of apparent contradictions.
He ushered in a new level of openness for budget projects and requires lobbyists to disclose public contracts. But he refused to allow a Herald/Times reporter to attend a recent caucus of dozens of House Republicans — not the historic transparency he promised.
He’s a critic of lawmakers who seek lucrative jobs who got one paying $172,000 a year in a Tampa law firm, Broad & Cassel, in 2011 — the same year he got elected speaker. Corcoran brought with him a client, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
He’s a conservative Republican with close ties to trial lawyers, a group often more closely aligned with Democrats.
Corcoran is friends with John Morgan, the flamboyant personal injury lawyer who championed the legalization of medical marijuana and who may run as a Democrat for governor next year.
Corcoran said Trump, flaws and all, makes Morgan a more potent candidate — even with political baggage.
“If you don’t think John Morgan is viable, you didn’t watch any of the last election,” said Corcoran.
Morgan showed up for a Capital Tiger Bay Club appearance in Tallahassee with a stogie sticking out of a breast pocket of his jacket, saying he hoped to find Corcoran there.
“Richard is doing a great job for Florida by shining a light on graft,” Morgan said.
Corcoran’s criticism of the influence of lobbyists is unusual because his old doubles partner, brother Mike, is a prominent lobbyist with clients that include Coca-Cola, the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Yet just four days after he denounced the power of special interests in a November speech to the House, Corcoran attended a Florida-Florida State football game and socialized in a Tallahassee stadium sky box with lobbyists for U.S. Sugar and others.
Corcoran said the skybox visit was a party fund-raiser and his job is to raise money to get conservatives elected, and that his criticism of lobbyists — including his own brother by inference — is proof he can’t be bought.
“The party part of fund-raising is not pretty,” Corcoran said.
At night, Corcoran lights a Melanio cigar, a gift from his protégé Jose Oliva, who runs a family cigar business, and talks politics and policy with a coterie of allies.
At cigar bars in Miami and Tallahassee or at The Capital Grille in Tampa, they smoke, drink, laugh and argue.
The clique includes Reps. Manny Diaz of Hialeah and Michael Bileca and Carlos Trujillo of Miami.
“He knows what he believes and he doesn’t care if he’s the last man standing. That’s unheard of in politics,” Trujillo said.
But across the Capitol in the Senate, some see hypocrisy in Corcoran’s zeal to slash spending.
As the House’s lead budget-writer, he signed off on a notorious 2015 spending spree when hundreds of millions of dollars for water projects, sports academies and festivals sprang to life in a late-night meeting, after a deal was cut in private.
“The biggest stuffing of the budget happened during the last two years,” Latvala recalled. “And who was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee when that happened?”
The 2012 document that formed the basis for Corcoran’s agenda, Blueprint Florida, includes a series of “brutal facts” about politics, including this: “Leadership is about service, not about advancing your own career.”
Corcoran is walking a precarious political line by seriously considering running for governor at the same time he’s speaker.
Scott has aggressively attacked Corcoran’s motives in their fight over jobs and tourism money, an unprecedented case of a governor waging bitter personal warfare against a legislative leader in his own party.
Corcoran said he’ll make a decision after his last legislative session ends in March 2018.
“I’m going to be the best darn speaker I can be,” he said in an interview with CBS4 Miami’s Jim DeFede. After that, “I’ll absolutely look at it.”
By then, he’ll be far behind his rivals in the most important measurement of a candidate’s strength: Money. But the billionaire Koch brothers can write big checks to candidates.
Corcoran won’t meaningfully change the Tallahassee culture if he doesn’t confront the power of money including the widespread practice of lawmakers who have political committees that accept unlimited donations.
“Trust me,” he said. “There will be a lot more reforms coming down the pike that will deal with campaign world.”
Corcoran does not compromise easily, not even with an old pal like Mike Fasano, the Pasco County tax collector and a popular ex-legislator.
Their relationship goes back decades to when they played pickup basketball in the Corcorans’ yard in New Port Richey.
They had a major rift when serving together in the House in 2013 when Fasano favored Medicaid expansion that would have extended coverage to about 800,000 uninsured Floridians.
Their friendship suffered for a time.
“If you don’t go along with leadership in Tallahassee, you’re doomed,” Fasano said.
Fasano was one of the few House Republicans who supported Medicaid expansion, and Senate Republicans passed a version of it.
But Corcoran and most House Republicans wouldn’t budge and it died in the House.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the House Democratic leader, likes Corcoran, but said he was wrong when he attacked the Florida Education Association, a teachers’ union, as “disgusting, repugnant and evil” on the day he became speaker last fall.
“It was more than aggressive,” Cruz said. “It was mean.”
Will he compromise?
The question that consumes Florida’s political world is how much Corcoran will compromise.
Some see a plan by him to risk a government shutdown to dramatize that he’s right and his opponents are wrong. Insiders fear there may be no budget by July 1.
If that happens, summer school could end and state parks could be padlocked on Fourth of July weekend.
“There’s not much Richard Corcoran is afraid of. He’s more likely to push it to the limits,” said Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa. “The place where he plants his flag, he doesn’t do it lightly, and he means what he says.”
Corcoran said he won’t compromise on his core principles, such as his demand for early disclosure of all line-item projects lawmakers put in the budget.
“Bad compromise is when you’re violating your principles that you know will lead to a worse environment. There’s nothing honorable about that,” Corcoran said.
Fasano worries that his friend is just too stubborn for his own good and that it could ruin his political future.
“You can’t fight everyone,” Fasano said.
Buried on Page 50 of the Blueprint Florida manifesto, is one answer to the question of who will prevail — Corcoran or his growing legion of adversaries.
It reads: “Ultimately, the people we serve will measure our success.”
Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird and photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com. Follow @SteveBousquet.