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State Rep. Richard Corcoran's uses clout to lock up House speaker promotion

TRINITY — Richard Corcoran likes to say he grew up in the state House of Representatives.

His first job out of school was as a research assistant for House Republicans. He worked as a GOP staffer and as an adviser to a number of House members. He was chief of staff to Marco Rubio when the U.S. Senator served as state House speaker.

So when Corcoran, the new House District 45 representative, arrived in Tallahassee with 33 other freshmen Republicans, he didn't have to bother learning his way around. Instead, last month, six weeks before the start of the regular session, Corcoran locked up a promotion for 2017 and 2018:

Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in state government.

With terms limited at eight years, new members angling for the speaker's job in their final two years are pressured to line up support among their freshmen colleagues. And that behind-the-scenes contest for the House's top post begins — and ends — earlier every session.

"The rest of us are learning the rule book and learning what's expected of us, how to move the ball," said Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, who was also vying for the speaker position. "Richard knows how the process works."

So if everything goes his way — namely, he gets re-elected and the Republican Party keeps control — Corcoran will be sworn in as speaker in 2016.

The 45-year-old lawyer would be the second Pasco County representative to serve in the powerful position in a short period.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is scheduled to take the job in 2012. His growing clout is currency for Pasco officials, who have been leaning on him to help lure major businesses, such as Raymond James, to the county.

Before Weatherford, the last Pasco County representative to take the House's top job was John B. Johnston — in 1893.

But how do you get named speaker before you've served a day in office? In Corcoran's case, it was a mix of political know-how, personality and a little help from his old rival for the House 45 seat.

The inside baseball game of who will be the class' speaker started after the Republican primary but began in earnest after the general election.

Corcoran, who let it be known early that he was interested, said the contest boiled down to retail politics. He met first with freshman legislators from the Tampa Bay delegation, as most contenders focus initially on their geographic bases. (Albritton, whose family is well-known in the citrus industry, had a lot of support from rural areas, while another top contender, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin, had wide support from the Panhandle.)

Then during last year's special session and new member training courses, he'd approach other freshmen and ask them to lunch.

Corcoran said when he met them, he talked about his role in helping Rubio put together the "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future," which promised everything from lowering property taxes and insurance rates to building a better website for the state budget.

Those ideas became the agenda of the Republican-led House in 2007 and 2008.

"I would point to a time when we had the opportunity to build an agenda, and we did,'" said Corcoran.

He also gave many of them copies of a book called Good to Great, which is about how company leaders can transform their businesses.

Corcoran said he outlined for the other legislators how he hopes to help put together a conservative ideas-based agenda, one that he says would be set by them and not by special interest groups.

He said that doesn't mean he won't continue taking special interest money, just that he and the other freshmen want them to know they aren't calling the shots.

"Every special interest comes in and meets with us and says, 'this is our agenda,' " he said. "We were in agreement that what we want is our agenda."

He now has pledges of support from the entire class. Some members just shake on it, others give him small cards promising their vote.

Corcoran's biggest competition was four other representatives, all of whom back him now and credit his institutional knowledge and his friendly and persuasive demeanor.

"With Richard, he could tell you how he could accomplish very specific objectives," said Gaetz.

Gaetz noted, for instance, that Corcoran has long been an advocate of eliminating local property taxes, something he expects would be a priority under a Speaker Corcoran.

"He could talk through all the phases of where that proposal had been. He could articulate how the rifle is shot," said Gaetz. "He also understands the political element of the campaign."

"There's a lot of factors that go into it, personalities, positioning," said Albritton, who compared it to a Republican primary. "But it all boils down to who we are and how we're perceived."

Gaetz said he also respected that Corcoran did not form a leadership committee as part of his speakership bid, which could have raised money from special interests and used it on expenses related to the speaker contest, such as travel, or doled it out to others.

"He won on his own merit," said Gaetz.

• • •

But does it all have to happen this soon? Corcoran said this new class had gotten to know each other through last year's special session and training classes.

"We had an opportunity to work together right out of the gate," he said. "I think there comes a point when you meet with someone and hear their vision and it's how much interaction do you need to have before you formulate an opinion?"

Gaetz said that Corcoran's experience likely sped up the decision, too.

"Richard wasn't anybody's impulse buy. He has enough of a record to evaluate," Gaetz said. "Picking somebody like Richard is easier to do in a shorter period of time than picking somebody like me in a short period of time."

Corcoran said he won over the Miami crowd with help from his House 45 rival in the Republican primary: Former Pasco School Board member Kathryn Starkey, who has close friends in that delegation, put in a good word for him.

"In the end, Kathryn and I cared about Pasco more than anything else," he said.

His victory last year was the first time he had won elected office. But it was not his first try.

He had run for state seats twice before, losing one race and dropping out of another. He said he had focused on winning the House 45 seat, and didn't think about the speaker's post until after he won.

"I was a 11/2 time loser," he said, "so I never thought beyond my primary."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran's uses clout to lock up House speaker promotion 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 10:55am]
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