TALLAHASSEE — When the man who is slated to become the next Florida House Speaker was just 19, he was already on a crusade — to shutter a strip club called Whispers in Pasco County. It had popped up near a Presbyterian church, and Chris Sprowls objected to it on principle.
“This is west Pasco,” Sprowls told the Tampa Tribune in 2003. “This is where we live.”
The columnist noted that this “smooth-cheeked youngster” wouldn’t even be able to get past Whispers’ front door, yet he had convinced a lawyer to draft a proposed county ordinance that would threaten the business licenses of establishments that violated obscenity laws.
Sprowls, the son of a New York City police detective and an office manager, found his way to politics at an early age, and he looks back on that phase as crucial in teaching him how to form coalitions.
At 2 p.m. today, the Republicans of the Florida House are scheduled to elect Sprowls to serve as speaker for the 2021 - 2022 term. His district in northern Pinellas — with his home city of Palm Harbor — makes him only the second House speaker from Pinellas in state history after Rep. Peter Rudy Wallace in 1995.
Part of his duties will include leading the fundraising and Republican strategy to get as many members of the GOP elected to the House as possible in 2020. He’ll also oversee the next redistricting of both congressional and state legislative districts — and both roles grant him a great deal of political clout.
And the fact that the next Senate President, Sen. Wilton Simpson of Trilby, is also from Tampa Bay, means the region will have a concentrated amount of power for the next three years when it comes to both policy and the state’s purse-strings.
Sprowls, 35, may have been politically active since his youth. But during that same period, Sprowls also waged a much more personal fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. He was diagnosed with the disease at 18, and it delayed his start in college.
"I very much learned, perhaps quicker than some people do, the fact that life is precious," Sprowls said. "There isn't time to waste."
After graduating from the University of South Florida and getting a law degree from Stetson University, he became an assistant state attorney for the state’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties. It’s a job he said dramatically shaped the way he approaches problems: analytically, with an eye toward the long-term.
Sprowls pursued cases straight out of true crime novels, including a murder of a New Port Richey woman that had been unsolved for 30 years. In a dramatic 2013 courtroom moment, Sprowls held up the deceased woman’s femur in a clear plastic bag as he interviewed a forensic DNA examiner.
The victim’s husband was convicted in that case, which is memorialized by the newspaper stories framed in his legislative office.
Chris LaBruzzo, who worked as a prosecutor with Sprowls and is now a family court judge in Clearwater, said they would jockey over who got to deliver the closing argument in the major cases they worked on together. But Sprowls often prevailed, because he had a knack for them.
“He would just come in and be able to take all the facts and convey that to people in such a meaningful way,” LaBruzzo said. “Chris always just had this ability to see the big picture and still be ... diligent about the small things.”
But not everyone is as pleased at Sprowls’ imminent ascension. As advocates and even some other Republican lawmakers have pushed bills in the past that would dramatically change Florida’s criminal sentencing laws, Sprowls has taken a more cautious approach.
Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat is slated to serve as co-leader of the minority party while Sprowls is speaker. Jenne noted that Sprowls has the power to negotiate with the Senate which bills will be heard and what some will ultimately include.
“We (the House) haven’t seen the same kind of movement or discussion as the Senate on criminal justice reform,” Jenne said. “I think (Sprowls) is up for some changes but by far is not with the program as far as what a lot of Democrats and Republicans want.”
One proposal that has repeatedly failed to pass in recent years, for example, would allow judges to grant sentences below the minimum required by law for certain drug crimes if the judge feels that the particulars of a case merit a lesser punishment. Sprowls declined to weigh in on that proposal during a Times/Herald interview, saying he is awaiting more criminal justice data so that lawmakers can have a “real conversation” about Florida’s courts, jails and prisons.
He sponsored a bill in 2018, which became law, that requires local courts and jails to submit huge amounts of data to be organized and analyzed as a public record — hailed as a major resource to better understanding Florida’s criminal justice system. He said that “radical transparency” is the best way to counter opinions in this sphere based on “feelings” rather than facts. But critics have said that data collection shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for reform.
In the past few years, Sprowls has operated increasingly behind-the-scenes, and doesn't comment much publicly. Jenne said that Sprowls is "bordering on masterful" when it comes to whipping support for his ideas or those of Republican leadership, and frequently seeks the support of Democrats even when he already has enough votes.
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who’s known Sprowls since he was a teen volunteering on Fasano’s state Senate campaign, said he has faith that Sprowls will bring more people outside the traditional leadership structure into the decision-making process.
“The pyramid of power in the Florida House is as sharp as it’s ever been. That means one person dictates pretty much what happens in Florida House and that’s wrong,” Fasano said. “I believe (Sprowls) will be the one that will flatten that pyramid down, allowing everyone to have input.”
Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, also a Pasco County Republican who’s a former House Speaker, played a major role in Sprowls’ selection. Corcoran said for all of Sprowls’ credentials as a collaborator and a good listener, that’s not the full picture.
“If there’s something that would surprise people about Chris: He’s a class act, measured, well thought-out, but he’s a (mixed martial arts) fighter,” Corcoran said. “He’s fair... but he’s a fighter.”