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Romano: Some bullies survive beyond the schoolyard

By John Romano
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Sometime soon, members of the Florida House will be asked to consider a solution for bullying in public schools. Itís a dubious idea based on the premise that students should flee their tormenters, and use voucher funds to attend a private school of their choice.

And you can safely bet that a majority of the Republican caucus will vote in favor of this suspicious bill should it reach the House floor.

Why is that?

Because a bully will make them.

Call it irony or call it dysfunction, it is the reality of the current Florida House. While House Speaker Richard Corcoran is the one pushing this supposed anti-bullying bill, you could make a pretty strong argument that he is the biggest bully in Tallahassee.

This isnít necessarily uncommon, or even frowned-upon, in the state Capitol. House speakers and Senate presidents have considerable sway in their chambers, and good leaders take advantage of that.

The variable is in the style. Do they merely encourage direction, or do they actually stifle disagreement? Do they rally support, or do they threaten retribution? Do they give members the freedom to vote their conscience, or do they insist on blind adherence?

You can get a pretty good idea of Corcoranís style while reading William Marchís recent Tampa Bay Times story about numerous Republican legislators voluntarily giving up their seats in the past year.

Corcoran is, no doubt, passionate about his beliefs. He also is hellbent on creating a legacy.

(And it hasnít gone unnoticed that a lot of his passion projects are, in the grand scheme of things, minor issues that will simply provide nifty slogans for next yearís governorís race.)

Usually, a speakerís arm-twisting occurs out of sight and is often carried out by faithful minions. In Corcoranís case, it took a very public turn earlier this year toward the end of the session.

Unhappy that Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, was introducing a bunch of amendments that would have effectively killed a heavily lobbied bill Corcoran supported, the speaker angrily confronted him on the House floor. It took only a few seconds, but the message was sent. More importantly, it was received.

Do not get in Corcoranís way on this one.

When it was time to vote on the bill ó which would have allowed major retailers such as Walmart and Target to sell hard liquor in their stores ó a handful of representatives had disappeared.

The bill passed 58-57.

Later, the five missing representatives entered nay votes. Another representative changed his vote from yea to nay. That means House members opposed the bill 63-57. But after-the-fact votes do not count, and so the bill passed. And Corcoran got his way.

(Temporarily, as it turned out, because Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the legislation.)

Now itís not uncommon for legislators to miss votes. But itís a little suspicious for five members to miss a highly contentious bill. And itís even more suspicious that they all voted nay when they returned.

If you like, you could blame the representatives for not being there to vote their conscience. But you also could argue that the power wielded by the speaker sometimes leaves them without much choice.

For instance, if you have a bill that is important to your constituents, you donít want to risk having the speaker torpedo that legislation because you did not offer absolute loyalty on another occasion.

And make no mistake, Corcoran decides what bills will pass or fail or even be heard.

Several legislators I spoke to recently said Corcoran does not often retaliate. But they also said he does not need to. Like putting a head on a spike in medieval days, it only takes one to get a point across.

In this scenario, Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, looks like an unfortunate example.

Peters apparently fell into disfavor when she chaired the energy and utilities subcommittee. Peters told a reporter that a fracking bill that would have raised customersí electric rates was placed on her subcommitteeís agenda without her knowledge.

The logical assumption was that the highly unpopular legislation (which didnít survive) was being pushed by House leadership.

Now Peters, who plans to leave the House for a run at the Pinellas County Commission, has found herself shunned in Tallahassee in her final session.

When it came time to hand out 2018 committee assignments, 66 of the 76 House Republicans were named chair, vice-chair or had some other leadership role. Of those without spots, seven are freshmen, one is running for attorney general and one resigned his chairmanship after a DUI arrest.

That leaves Peters as the lone veteran legislator to be snubbed.

You can call that petty politics, but it has an effect. If you have fallen into disfavor, it means you have little chance of getting legislation heard. You are essentially neutered as a public servant.

Corcoran is certainly not the first to flex his officeís muscles, but there is a clear perception that he is more ruthless and unforgiving than recent occupants.

So, does that make Corcoran a leader or a bully?

According to Merriam-Webster, a leader is someone who has commanding authority or influence, and a bully is someone who threatens others who are weaker or more vulnerable.

I suppose they donít have to be mutually exclusive.