Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran lives the high life. He’s raising big money for the state Republican Party and his political committee, and the cash is being spent on junkets to Napa Valley, charter planes and steak dinners. Lots of steak dinners. It’s revolting, and it reflects Tallahassee’s pay-to-play culture and the hypocrisy of a powerful lawmaker who portrays himself as a champion of the little guy.
A review of the Republican Party of Florida’s finances by Adam C. Smith and Eli Zhang of the Tampa Bay Times reveals how money largely raised from special interests fuels Corcoran’s high-priced political operation. There’s an $8,000 dinner tab at California’s French Laundry restaurant, more than $400,000 for charter planes, more than $26,000 at steakhouses such as Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris — and $1,000 for cufflinks. Corcoran’s primary political operative has been reimbursed more than $1.5 million for party expenses billed to his credit card. By any measure, the numbers reflect a breathtaking sense of entitlement.
Yet just as galling is Corcoran remains remarkably unrepentant. He argues this is the price of a successful fundraising machine, and he says it pays off in election results. The Republicans did not lose an incumbent House seat and picked up a Democratic seat in the 2016 elections the Land O’Lakes Republican oversaw.
That doesn’t excuse Corcoran’s duplicity. The consummate insider casts himself as the reformer, fighting government incentives to businesses that create jobs, railing against the state tourism agency’s costly promotion gimmicks, questioning the spending of nonprofit hospitals and cracking down on travel expenses by public employees. That fiscal conservatism clearly doesn’t extend to his own operations.
Corcoran would argue there is a difference between spending public money and private political contributions. But there is a public cost to so much private money underwriting such lavish spending. The donors expect and generally receive a significant return on their investment. The money flowing into the state Republican Party comes from utilities, insurance and health care companies, and other interests with plenty at stake in the Legislature. Since the end of June, Corcoran’s separate political committee has received more than $75,000 from advocates for charter schools and tuition vouchers — issues the House speaker champions. It received at least $75,000 from public utilities, which are rarely held accountable. And it received $100,000 from Walmart, which also gave $75,000 this year to the state Republican Party.
Why Walmart? Corcoran pushed hard for legislation this spring that would have allowed the sale of liquor by grocery stores and retailers without building a wall and separate entrance. The House passed the bill by just one vote after Corcoran took the rare step of confronting a Republican lawmaker on the House floor who was trying to kill it. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill, but Walmart still wrote big thank-you checks to Corcoran’s political operations.
Now Corcoran is positioning himself to run for governor, embracing President Donald Trump and casting himself as another outsider crusading for common folks and blowing up the status quo. His taste for steaks and chartered planes paid for by big donors reveal that facade is as phony in Tallahassee as it is in Washington.