A liberal leader from Tallahassee's past praises Corcoran's call for change

Richard Pettigrew
Richard Pettigrew
Published Nov. 23, 2016

BLOWING ROCK, N.C. — Richard Pettigrew knows a thing or two about shaking things up in the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

He did it — 45 years ago.

Like Rep. Richard Corcoran now, Pettigrew was speaker of the Florida House in 1971-72, a time of enormous change and upheaval.

Florida was a very different place. Pettigrew was a Democrat who helped pull Florida out of the era when a rural and conservative bloc of legislators known as pork choppers had disproportionate control.

They clung to power for as long as they could until the courts broke up the most malapportioned Legislature in the country and demanded that residents in Miami, Tampa and other urban areas have equal representation.

As a result, the Legislature changed dramatically almost overnight, with dozens of new members from the urban centers of Miami, Tampa and Orlando who didn't directly depend on lobbyists and their clients to get elected.

"Reapportionment had changed representation so dramatically that most people were elected based on local efforts and participation and assistance, not by the major powers that be," Pettigrew said.

"Today, it's all reversed. It's a new pork chop era. The pork choppers are all the interests who are trying to get goodies out of Tallahassee."

Pettigrew's era became known as the "golden age" of the Florida Legislature.

As speaker, he worked side by side with newly elected Gov. Reubin Askew on issues ranging from land preservation to modernization of the courts.

None was more significant, and more politically difficult, than enacting the state's first tax on corporate profits.

Pettigrew, 86, divides his time between Coral Gables and a home in the mountains of North Carolina, where many Floridians retreat every summer to escape the heat and humidity.

He watches today's Legislature with a mixture of fascination and disgust, and returns every couple of years for reunions of former House members.

Despite their obvious philosophical and political differences, Pettigrew the Democrat is rooting for Corcoran the Republican to succeed in enacting long-overdue changes to curb the power of lobbyists and their well-heeled clients.

"I am very impressed with his lobbying reforms," Pettigrew said.

Corcoran, 51, has declared war on the status quo and called out his fellow lawmakers for being too cozy with lobbyists.

He has ordered an end to texting between House members and lobbyists during meetings; banned House members from flying on planes owned or chartered by lobbyists; and demanded that House members wait six years after leaving office before they can lobby the House.

Pettigrew wishes Corcoran could do more.

The former speaker, himself a lawyer, deplores the practice that allows a lawyer-legislator's law partners to lobby the Legislature. He calls those lawmakers "inside lobbyists, manipulating the system from the inside and hiding your tracks."

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It goes on in Tallahassee, and it's legal.

That change occurred in 1999 when the Florida Bar Board of Governors voted to rescind a policy that prevented a legislator's law partner from lobbying the Legislature.

The board concluded that the state Constitution, state laws and legislative rules were adequate to address any conflict of interest questions, and Pettigrew, a lawyer, considered the change a seismic shift and a serious mistake.

Since the 1970s, the amount of money in politics has grown exponentially with no change in sight.

The first time Pettigrew ran for the House in Miami in 1963, he said, he raised about $8,000, and that was enough to win.

"I had a bunch of union guys who were really good about putting up signs," Pettigrew said, "and I had the (Miami) Herald endorsement, which at that time was very important."

Newspaper endorsements don't matter as much as they once did, partly because of declining readership.

Some Florida papers no longer recommend candidates for office. Corcoran, who lives in Land O' Lakes, proudly displays in his legislative office the many editorials in the Tampa Bay Times critical of his policies.

In the Tallahassee of today, $8,000 might not cover the cost of a poll.

Corcoran raised and spent $305,000 in the latest campaign cycle, even though he had no opponent.

He also controlled a political committee, the Florida Roundtable, which raised nearly $2.4 million over a two-year period, much of it from special interests with a stake in the outcome of his decisions, including hospitals, utilities, banks and gambling casinos.

Pettigrew is shocked that part-time officeholders raise millions of dollars with no limits on contributions.

Corcoran likes to emphasize the many times he has opposed the political goals of those who contribute to his campaign.

He considers himself no less than a revolutionary, committed to making fundamental reforms to a broken system.

"That's the part about Donald Trump that I've always praised," Corcoran said in an interview in his Capitol office. "You can like him or dislike him, but the status quo needed to be turned upside down, and the one person that everyone was convinced was most likely to go in there and turn it upside down was Donald Trump. And I would say the same thing about Tallahassee."

Because Corcoran has higher ambitions in 2018, such as attorney general or governor, his motivations will be questioned in a thousand whispered conversations in the Capitol.

It goes with the territory.

Like Corcoran, Pettigrew is appalled at the influence that lobbyists command in the Legislature. They had a lot of clout in Pettigrew's day, too, but there were only a few dozen of them.

Today there are nearly 2,000.

In Pettigrew's day, it was common for lobbyists and lawmakers to fish, hunt, drink bourbon and break bread together — with lobbyists picking up bar and dinner tabs.

Under a decade-old gift ban, that's no longer legal in Tallahassee.

As a public official, Pettigrew said, he lived by the rule best expressed by Jess "Big Daddy" Unruh, the former speaker of the House in California.

It was Unruh who famously said: "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them, you've got no business being up here."

What did lobbyists get from Pettigrew for their money?

"An ear," he said.

But Pettigrew said it's appalling the way vested interests hire teams of lobbyists who are paid in some cases for their personal relationships with a single influential lawmaker.

"That lobbyist is hired only because of his relationship with that legislator, and it's replicated over and over," Pettigrew said.

Pettigrew, who had numerous battles with the Senate during his term as speaker, predicts big problems in the Capitol in 2017 if the two chambers can't agree on a common set of operating principles.

"It will be a very great embarrassment if the House adopts all these new rules and the Senate does not," Pettigrew said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at Follow @SteveBousquet