Richard Corcoran takes center stage leading Florida House

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes spent years building relationships before running for his own spot in the Legislature.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes spent years building relationships before running for his own spot in the Legislature.
Published April 5, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — By 2007, Richard Corcoran was a well-paid and deeply entrenched Florida political operative tied to several House speakers and Gov. Jeb Bush.

But, ambitious and restless, he quit his job as chief of staff to House Speaker Marco Rubio to run for office himself.

"I'd get moments of frustration," Corcoran said. "Someone finally told me, 'You have to decide if you want to be the man behind the man or try to be the man.' "

These days, there's no doubt that Corcoran has arrived at the apex of power in Florida's Capitol.

The Land O'Lakes Republican's official title is appropriations chair in the Florida House. But he's become the chamber's de facto leader, eclipsing House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, whose job he'll assume in 2016.

Case in point: Corcoran holding court Thursday, moments before he and 85 other representatives approved a $76.2 billion budget that he put together as appropriations chair.

For nearly 15 minutes, Corcoran sounded like Robert De Niro as he explained that the House was flat-out rejecting the Senate's $2 billion plan to expand Medicaid and provide health care for 800,000 uninsured Floridians.

"They want us to come dance?" Corcoran said. "We're not dancing. We're not dancing this session, we're not dancing next session, we're not dancing next summer. We're not dancing."

The remarks — bombastic, personal, confrontational — overshadowed anything that Speaker Crisafulli had to add.

"We've got a long ways to go," Crisafulli said minutes later, seemingly walking back Corcoran's declaration. "Negotiations will still take place and we intend to continue to have those conversations."

For observers like Minority Leader Mark Pafford, the message was clear. Corcoran is calling the shots in the House's rejection of Medicaid expansion, a gambit that could force a budget stalemate and trigger a special session.

"He threw down the gauntlet and it seems he won't budge," said Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It did seem like, today, he's definitely making the decision for the House."

Corcoran won't concede he's the true power in the House.

But in many ways he is.

It's Corcoran — not Crisafulli — who's in charge of the campaign money for Republican House races during the next election cycle. So Corcoran decides which House members will get financing and how much — a critical source of leverage.

It's Corcoran, not Crisafulli, who has a major voting bloc. Elected in 2010 on a tea party tsunami of Obamacare discontent, Corcoran came in with 32 Republican House newcomers, making it one of the largest classes in recent history.

Class size matters because a speaker's strength depends on the bloc of votes he can rely on regardless of the issue. Blocs invariably are comprised of members from a speaker's class. The bigger the class, the bigger the voting bloc.

While Crisafulli has 12 from his 2008 class, Corcoran has 28, which is the most of any in the House. The loyalists in his class are such a force that they've been dubbed by Democrats as "Corc-roaches."

"He's probably got 30 to 40 built-in votes," Pafford said. "That's more than anyone. That's huge. He might be able to leverage some surprises with that."

"There's no question, Richard Corcoran, if he wanted to be for the next two years, is the most powerful person in the Florida House," said Mike Fasano, a longtime friend, former state legislator and current Pasco tax collector.

"There may be times he won't agree with the speaker," Fasano said. "Well, he has the votes anytime he wants them."

In an era where term limits have limited lawmakers to eight years, Corcoran stands out for his experience, skill and close links to multiple past House speakers, including now-Sen. Rubio, as well as Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Bush.

Even enemies acknowledge his mastery.

"The GOP is a corporation," said former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, who won a bitter state race against Corcoran in 1998. "If you're chosen, you have influence. If you're not stupid, then you move up further and you make a lot of money. Corcoran is the chosen one. Whether you like him or not, that's the way it is."

Becoming captain

A 50-year-old trial lawyer who promotes consumer rights, Corcoran in some ways makes for an unlikely Republican leader. Only five years ago he was a two-time loser at the polls.

Yet his biography doubles as a history of the Republican Party of Florida's ascension to one-party rule during the past 25 years. He has a knack for being near the epicenter as the GOP has moved Florida sharply to the right. His own career, navigating between lucrative private consulting gigs and public positions of wider influence on policy, epitomizes the explosion of big money in politics.

Raised in Toronto until age 11, Corcoran moved to Pasco when his parents tried to capitalize on the latest Florida construction boom. His father, a U.S. Army World War II veteran, bought a concrete block plant off State Road 52 with some buddies. When the plant went bankrupt, his father started an immigration naturalization business and the Corcorans remained in Land O'Lakes.

One of five siblings, including a twin sister, Corcoran thrived in the athletic fields of Pasco and excelled at tennis, golf and basketball. His mother, a British expatriate, ruled out football because he was too small.

A middling student drawn to the writings of the conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley, Corcoran gravitated toward Pasco Republican clubs by the mid 1980s, where he met Fasano.

"We'd call him Alex P. Keaton," said Fasano, referring to the Michael J. Fox character in the NBC sitcom Family Ties. "He'd walk around with a briefcase and jacket and tie."

Corcoran was a rising 20-something party operative in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before graduating law school at Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia Beach founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, Corcoran guided the campaigns of several representatives, including Fasano, future House Speaker Tom Feeney and Rep. Paul Hawkes, a future appellate court chief judge, as he helped transform Republicans to a majority party.

In 1996, when Daniel Webster became Florida's first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction, he hired Hawkes and Corcoran as legal counsel to write transition policy and rules. Webster paid their consulting firm about $154,000 a year, at the same time that Corcoran's Creative Mail Services locked up the House's printing contract, which paid out at least $140,000 in contracts during Webster's first year.

With Feeney set to become speaker in 2000, Corcoran decided to run for the House. He set his sights on Argenziano's district, which covered all of Citrus County and parts of Hernando.

During the campaign, Corcoran sent a letter to local clergy alleging that Argenziano didn't support Christian legislation. In another piece, he portrayed himself as "conservative and pro-family" while calling her "liberal and anti-family."

"That was the moment that the Republican Party was starting to mutate," said Argenziano, who is now an independent. "Corcoran, in his campaign, pandered to the religious vote. Richard will say he's a religious person, but he's a hypocrite who will screw you in whatever way he can."

Corcoran lost the election and was later censured by the Citrus County Republican Executive Committee for the ads. Seventeen years later, Corcoran says his only regret is that the ads left a negative first impression on voters. But he stands by the content.

Thwarted from holding office himself, he served as outside counsel to Feeney when he was speaker in 2001. The following year, he was on the legal team that was paid at least $2 million to defend the GOP's redistricting maps. He was making $192,000 job as an RPOF consultant before leaving in 2006 to take a job as chief of staff and special counsel to Rubio, who had become House speaker.

Working for Rubio, Corcoran made $175,212 — more than the governor at the time, Charlie Crist — and he was critical in helping draft Rubio's "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future," which was compiled as the two traveled the state with other Republican leaders. Among the ideas championed by Corcoran: eliminating the state property tax.

Not satisfied as a staff aide, Corcoran resigned in 2007 to run for a state Senate seat that covered parts of 13 counties from Citrus to the Panhandle being vacated by Argenziano. Like in 1998, this bid was unsuccessful and he dropped out.

But his campaign paid off in other ways. One of the donors he met was future Gov. Scott, then an obscure executive with Solantic, a chain of urgent care clinics. Scott hired Corcoran in late 2007 to represent the company on legal matters and product development.

"I got to know him well," said Corcoran, who represented Solantic for three years. "We had a good relationship that predated him being governor and me being representative."

He ran again for state House in Pasco in 2010, and this time he won after picking up key endorsements from Fasano and Sheriff Bob White, whose office had been a client since 2006.

He had no Democratic opposition, so Corcoran won after the primary. That allowed him to pursue his real goal — becoming speaker.

"I'd rather be captain of a row boat than a first mate on a cruise line," Corcoran said. "My career was always geared around getting to a position where I could have the greatest impact for the state."

Despite the large class, he clinched the leadership race quickly. His connections and resume helped, he said.

Now what?

Corcoran is coy about his priorities as a present and future House leader, talking generically about education and health care. And how he wants to be more transparent.

Not that he's always been known for transparency. According to state Sen. Charlie Dean, a fellow Republican, Corcoran worked behind the scenes in 2007 to get funding for the controversial 1st District Court of Appeal's $48 million courthouse, later dubbed the "Taj Mahal."

Corcoran denies he played a role in helping secure the financing for his friend, Paul Hawkes, who was chief judge at the time, but Dean is adamant.

"He and Paul became more involved along the way," said Dean, who chaired the House's criminal justice appropriations committee.

Since getting elected to a part-time lawmaker job that pays $29,300, the father of six has done well financially. Corcoran's reported net worth grew from $350,000 in 2010 to $506,394 in 2014. He makes $172,000 at the Broad & Cassel law firm, which also employed Rubio when he was speaker. The firm lobbies the Legislature on a number of issues, including health care.

Lobbyist ties aside, Corcoran says he's not influenced by big money in politics. In fact, he promises to usher in an era driven by pure policy that's free of special interests. That's a bold claim considering that his brother, Michael, is regarded as one of the capital's most influential lobbyists.

"It's much ado about nothing that he's my brother," said Michael Corcoran. "Just because he has my last name doesn't mean anything. He's a principled person who can't be manipulated."

Another Corcoran promise: He will share power in the House.

Members of both parties say he's already amassed more control than any incoming speaker in recent memory — and some say has the skillset to wield it better than anyone else.

"It's like he's playing 3-D chess," said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity. "You can play 3-D chess with him, but you will lose. He plays on multiple angles and levels that only he can see."

Politicians outside the Republican majority are equally impressed. Incoming Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, predicted Corcoran will become "the strongest and smartest speaker we've had in the last 10 years." Tapping his wealth of experience, "he's light years ahead of everyone else," she said.

Yet for all his polish and aptitude for behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Corcoran can't mask an ambition that doesn't mesh with being No. 2 in the House. In his speech Thursday to House members about his opposition to Medicaid expansion, he cast his argument in a bravado that clashed with Crisafulli's business-like approach.

"I will proudly declare war on all the special interests … all the Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interests, powers-that-be, who are standing in that hallway (outside)," Corcoran said. "Come to war with us. I'll fight. And if it costs me my political career or yours, so be it."

Most noteworthy about Corcoran's comments, Pafford said, was the pronoun he chose.

"When he's saying, 'I'm declaring war,' or 'I'm going to fight, come join me,' then it seems like this has become really personal," Pafford said. "And it also signifies that he's pretty much the one leading this."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at Follow @mikevansickler.