Richard Corcoran isn’t afraid to mess with fire.
There’s the fire pit in the backyard of his Land O’Lakes home. That’s where Corcoran holds court with friends and family. It’s where he talks about anything and everything, from America’s Founding Fathers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to home décor choices.
Then there’s the raging firestorm Corcoran, who ascended to the uniquely powerful Florida House speaker position, ignited in Tallahassee over Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
It has caused sides normally in the same camp to bicker over core philosophies on spending and the definition of corporate welfare. It also scrambled tourism marketing and economic development officials, who have jammed the Capitol with pleas not to slash their budgets.
And, it has engulfed fellow Republicans Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott in an unusually public and caustic riff.
The crux of Corcoran’s position is Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida — two of Scott’s prized programs — are unaccountable, secretive and the epitome of crony capitalism.
Enterprise Florida is a public-private partnership tasked with retaining businesses and wooing new ones to the state, while Visit Florida is the state’s tourism marketing arm.
Corcoran’s endgame: Eliminate the agencies outright, or at least significantly restrain the budgets, which combined were more than $150 million last fiscal year.
“There are cockroaches everywhere, and I think you’re seeing that,” Corcoran said in late January at an Associated Press meeting for reporters in Tallahassee. “You turn on the lights, and there’s Enterprise Florida and you say, ‘let’s take a closer look.’”
Corcoran, 51, backs up his brash sound bites.
The House voted this month to kill Enterprise Florida and other economic development programs, including the Office of Film & Entertainment and the Quick Action Closing Fund Program, and to revamp Visit Florida. There are no companion bills in the Senate.
What Corcoran calls crony capitalism Scott calls essential to fueling Florida’s recovery from the recession. His proof: 1.26 million jobs added in Florida since 2010, a large chunk coming from the record-breaking tourism sector.
Scott, who won two gubernatorial campaigns primarily as a run-it-like business, anti-establishment candidate, says Corcoran and his allies are misguided.
The governor, in a Feb. 20 op-ed piece, says the House has “decided to try to totally eliminate funding for the one area where we can easily show a major return on the investment of your tax dollars.”
Corcoran, in public statements and Twitter posts, retorts with his own data nuggets. Like this one: “Eight companies got $444 million in state incentives between 2006 and 2008. Only one met or surpassed its job promises.”
Scott has questioned Corcoran’s motives, saying the speaker might be angling more for a gubernatorial run of his own in 2018 than doing what’s right for Floridians. A Scott-backed political committee has run a Facebook video ad that labels Corcoran a “fake news” peddler.
Corcoran, in a wide-ranging interview, doesn’t rule out a run for governor. But he said his future is irrelevant to his current position.
He instead pits the battle as taxpayers versus the entrenched establishment. The fallout, he says, is the price for taking on the status quo.
“They teach you in law school that when you’re right, pound the facts and when you’re wrong, pound the table,” he said.
Time it right
Corcoran’s shock-and-awe strategy created a seismic stir in Tallahassee. Pre-session, says Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, is normally quiet, behind-the-scenes deal making.
“I’ve never seen session come out this way,” says Bennett, who spent more than a decade in Tallahassee, in both chambers of the Legislature, and was Senate president pro tempore from 2010-12. “I’ve seen lots of discontent. I’ve seen governors not agree with speakers and members not get along with governors, but never like this. They never come out firing.”
Adds Bennett: “I’m kind of shocked that Corcoran went to war like this in the front.”
The Corcoran-Scott spat has another dynamic. It forces newly elected House lawmakers to make a high-stakes difficult decision: Vote with Corcoran and you’re on Scott’s hit list. Vote against Corcoran and it could be worse.
Consider this: Bennett recalls the time when a rookie state representative voted against a House speaker.
That representative came to work in Tallahassee the next day and his parking spot was gone. His chair, with a phone on it, was sitting in the hallway.
Corcoran’s scorched-earth drive to victory isn’t an act, says Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.
“With Richard, it’s 100 miles an hour or he’s just not interested in it,” says Nocco, who is on the board of a charter school, Classical Prep in Spring Hill, founded by Corcoran’s wife, Anne, in 2011. “There’s no in between. There’s no, ‘Let’s just go shoot baskets.’”
Nocco has learned two big lessons from Corcoran. One is don’t be wishy-washy, never “stand on the yellow line.” Another is to bring big ideas, and “never settle, never settle.”
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano says Corcoran, going back to when they met when the speaker was barely out of high school, has always had a “let’s do this” edge.
“When Richard gets focused in on something, you will not tear him away from it,” says Fasano, a longtime Republican leader in the Florida House and Senate. “He will achieve what he set out to do. Some people don’t know that yet, but they are starting to know that.”
Yet Nocco and Fasano, who both consider Corcoran a good friend, say there’s a palpable downside to the speaker’s hyperfocus. It leaves little room for compromise — a potential train wreck in politics.
“He feels like he always wants to win in everything,” Fasano says, “but you have to be able to give a little bit, otherwise you will not be getting anything done in Tallahassee.”
Corcoran traces his competitive spirit to his parents, World War II veterans. His father was an American solider and his mother, daughter of a British tea planter, was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in London.
The couple met in Montreal, and Corcoran and his twin sister, Susan, were born in Toronto. They were two of five children.
The Corcorans moved to Pasco County when Richard was 11 and he began to crave all things America. He memorized the state capitals and the presidents. He asked his fifth-grade teacher to recommend books on America and American history.
One figure stood out: Davy Crockett and his underdog tale of against-all-odds bravery. “I love that story and how he told the governor of Texas to go to hell, I’m going in,” quips Corcoran regarding the Battle of the Alamo, where Crockett was killed.
Like many conservatives who came of age in the 1980s, Corcoran admires Ronald Reagan. And somewhere along the way he got hooked on another conservative icon, William F. Buckley.
He loved watching “Firing Line,” where he learned about philosopher-economists such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and Art Laffer.
Then he and Fasano connected at a Pasco County Republican Club meeting and later launched a Young Republicans Club.
“He was a rare find,” Fasano says. “He would have his shirts and his ties and his briefcase wherever he went. We kidded him about that all the time. We called him Alex P. Keaton.”
Corcoran worked on several Republican campaigns in the 1990s. He ran for the Florida House in 1998 and didn’t even get to 30 percent in a two-candidate race — a rare setback.
Around that time he also met a young, up-and-coming Florida House representative named Marco Rubio.
The two met for lunch at a Chili’s in Ocala. They chatted about families, principles and how to win elections.
Corcoran ultimately became Rubio’s chief of staff when the Miami Republican served as speaker of the Florida House.
Corcoran helped Rubio write the book “100 ideas for Florida’s Future” when Rubio was House speaker-designate. That book helped launch Rubio’s national political career.
While much of the chatter of late around Corcoran is about his competitiveness and confrontational side, several people who know him well say that only masks his other feature — his intelligence.
“Richard is one of the smartest people I know and I’ve ever been associated with,” Fasano says.
Corcoran was first elected to the House in 2010. One of his regular foes, at least by party affiliation, former House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, says Corcoran is playing a bit of 4-D chess.
“He’s a very calculated person. He’s going to know the outcome of the decision before he makes a move,” says Pafford. “He’s built and fashioned himself a Florida House to suit his ambitions very well. And it’s been years in the making.”
Corcoran chuckles at comments about his supposed calculated cunningness. His passion, he says, comes from the fight, not only the victory.
“I think being in the arena is where the joy is,” says Corcoran. “No one said it’s going to be easy. But I’m not afraid to lose.”