Florida Politics

From cigar czar to House speaker, Miami’s Jose Oliva chosen for powerful post

State Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, would become the second House speaker from Miami in 12 years, following Marco Rubio, who served as speaker from 2006-08.
State Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, would become the second House speaker from Miami in 12 years, following Marco Rubio, who served as speaker from 2006-08. Tampa Bay Times

Florida’s Republicans formally announced their support of Miami Lakes state Rep. Jose Oliva as the next House speaker Tuesday, selecting him as their designee if they hold the majority in the 2018 elections.

Oliva, a Republican who grew up in Hialeah and made a career building the family brand, Oliva Cigars, will ascend to the two-year post in November 2018 if Republicans retain control of the state House as expected.

He would become the second House speaker from Miami in 12 years, following Marco Rubio, who served as speaker from 2006-08 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

The 44-year-old Oliva first came to office in a special, off-year election in 2011 to replace Rep. Steve Bovo, R-Hialeah. He focused quickly on becoming speaker-designate for 2018, becoming an acolyte of Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who is speaker from 2016-18, and then distinguished himself as Corcoran’s powerful point man on several controversial issues.

“You’ve got someone who is conservative, who is principled, who is willing to tear down the top-down structure and is willing to share power with his colleagues,’’ said House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, as he nominated Oliva Tuesday at a meeting of the House Republican caucus in the basement of the Hotel Duval.

In accepting the position on Tuesday, Oliva made it clear he will not moderate the small-government, no-tax, anti-corporate welfare policies Corcoran has pursued.

His targets, he said, would be:

▪ The “hospital industrial complex” which operates as “government-granted monopolies” and depends on the explosion of Medicaid, which is increasingly consuming Florida’s budget.

▪ The state’s higher education establishment which he accused of “hiding behind prestige” to raise tuition while allowing for “tremendous waste” and the “special interests hiding behind children” in the K-8 system.

▪ City and county governments and “their overblown pensions.” He said he will fight “the ideological battle to prohibit services, products and behaviors that are not outlawed everywhere within their boundaries” — a suggestion that he will advocate for state laws that preempt local governments from being able to impose environmental, wage and other restrictions on local businesses.

“No one is completely a villain and no one is completely an innocent,” he said of his adversaries, but when tackling the issues, his told colleagues, “if we keep our ideology in line we will navigate them.”

Oliva’s brief speech made no mention of Hurricane Irma, or the cost of repairing roads and bridges, beaches and seawalls, houses and businesses and finding housing for the displaced who lost their homes. But he acknowledged the effect it will have on Florida’s $83 billion budget.

“Our budgets are going to be more restrained than they are today and I’m personally grateful for it,’’ Oliva told the House GOP, adding it will help “to prove that we need not spend all that money to begin with.”

Oliva underscored his willingness to break with the conventions of the office by conducting the designation ceremony away from the House chambers in the state Capitol — for the first time in decades — in the basement of Hotel Duval, blocks away from the Capitol complex and where Republicans frequently conduct caucus meetings.

Oliva said he chose to make this “super ceremony a meeting” because “in my six years in the Legislature, I never thought what we need more of is ceremonies.”

He told reporters later that he hopes to reduce “some of the pomp” of the Legislature and the move away from the Capitol “was returning that ceremony to what it originally was, part of a caucus meeting.’’

Unlike Corcoran, Oliva is more of a libertarian with a free-market focus. His favorite political philosopher is Thomas Sowell, the libertarian conservative economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Related: Miami Lakes legislator Jose Oliva rises swiftly, holds fast to ‘free market’ ideals

Also in attendance were two members of the other chamber: Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is the Senate’s designated president in 2018-20, when Oliva is serving, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is expected to succeed Galvano.

“I am very optimistic about our ability to work together,’’ said Galvano, who has sparred with Oliva on everything from redistricting to Medicaid. He said he expects “no political gamesmanship and more policy debates.”

Oliva’s battle with the state Senate includes leading Corcoran’s charge to oppose the expansion of Medicaid that would have covered more people under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also led the House Redistricting Committee after a court had thrown out the Senate map as partisan gerrymandering. And, this year, he was Corcoran’s chief ally in the feud with the Senate over budget negotiations, corporate subsidies, and Corcoran’s push to expand charter schools.

Oliva and Galvano will be in charge of steering their party to victory in the House and Senate. While the House’s Republican majority remains at 79-41, Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation is nearing parity. With the loss of a recent Senate seat held by Frank Artiles, R-Miami, to Democrat Annette Taddeo last month, the delegation now is comprised of 15 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

In addition to his firm political views, Oliva has also demonstrated abiding loyalty to his friends.

He stood by when Artiles was under fire for violating state Senate rules after he used racist slurs and derogatory remarks aimed at other senators during an alcohol-laced tirade in a Tallahassee bar in April.

Artiles grew up with Oliva in Hialeah, has known him since high school, and roomed in the Tallahassee home Oliva bought to live in during legislative sessions.

“I know what kind of person he is and I know what’s in his heart,’’ he said of his friend.

Oliva chastised Artiles’ racist remarks as “reprehensible,’’ but he also lashed out against Senate leaders because the same people whom Artiles criticized would be sitting in judgment of him.

“How can that be fair?” Oliva said. “It’s a kangaroo court.”

Oliva grew up the youngest of five children. His father Gilberto Oliva Sr., a tobacco grower, left Cuba in 1964 with his wife and young family. They moved to Spain and then Nicaragua, where Gilberto became a tobacco broker.

In 1995, Oliva and his brothers launched their company at the beginning of the cigar craze using a 30-day loan from the factory owner who worked with their father. Last year, the family sold the company to a Belgian cigar maker, J. Cortès, for an undisclosed price.

Related: Jose Oliva warns ‘conflicted’ senators a railroading Frank Artiles

The multimillion dollar deal left Oliva as co-CEO but he said it also gave him more time to focus on his upcoming duties as House speaker and GOP reelections in 2018.

Oliva and his wife, Jeanne, have three children, Celeste, 14, Sabrina, 11, and Benjamin, 7.

Related: Rising Florida GOP leader skips convention, laments presidential choices