As most Florida lawmakers headed home for the weekend, House Speaker Richard Corcoran hit the road and continued to build his statewide profile.
Corcoran delivered Friday what sounded like a stump speech to 200 people at the monthly gathering of the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club in a solidly Republican city that twice strongly supported Gov. Rick Scott, his No. 1 enemy in the current furor over jobs and tourism.
Corcoran told them that a special session of the Legislature will be required to get rid of the “absolute cesspool” headed by Scott known as Enterprise Florida, the state’s corporate recruitment agency.
“We’re ready because we’re right,” Corcoran said.
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When asked about how he’s spending his off hours, the Republican from Land O’Lakes told the Herald/Times: “I would rather be home or doing something else.”
In recent weeks, he has given pre-session speeches in Palm Beach and Sarasota and appeared on a CBS4 Sunday public affairs show in Miami. It’s an itinerary that stokes talk that Corcoran is mounting a run for governor or other statewide office next year as a populist voice in a major assault on the status quo.
Corcoran is using Twitter more aggressively than any previous Florida legislative leader to promote his agenda and to criticize his opponents, especially Enterprise Florida, the public-private partnership that Democrats created two decades ago to lure jobs to the Sunshine State.
Thousands of “Friends of Richard Corcoran” get email updates on a regular basis, paid for with private money, highlighting his political agenda.
“Draining the swamp,” blared an email last week after the House passed his priority to force House members to wait six years before they can become lobbyists.
Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist, said Corcoran may be on to something.
“Pushing for reform is an answer to the deep political alienation that a lot of Americans feel and that a lot of Floridians feel,” said Wilson, a leader of the vocal but unsuccessful anti-Trump movement in 2016.
“They are not being listened to,” Wilson said of Corcoran’s target audience. “They see a system that exists for the wealthy, powerful and well-connected.”
Wilson said those competing strains in the Republican Party could be represented in 2018 by Scott, running for U.S. Senate, and Corcoran for governor, setting up a fascinating struggle for the soul of the Grand Old Party.
Corcoran, a former Republican Party operative, is battling Scott not only on policy but on spin, too.
Ready for House members’ return Monday for Week 3 of the session are TV ads featuring Scott, a likely 2018 U.S. Senate candidate, saying on camera: “Politicians in Tallahassee don’t get it. They don’t understand how jobs are created.”
The ads are paid for by Let’s Get to Work, the political committee funded by special interests that was crucial to both of Scott’s election victories.
In a roomful of business leaders Friday, Corcoran avoided naming Scott.
But he called Enterprise Florida, which Scott chairs, an abject failure that relies on “extortion money” as bait to keep companies already based in Florida or which would have relocated to the state even without incentive money.
As an example, he cited Hertz, a high-profile incentive deal that Scott has repeatedly held up as a shining example of why incentives succeed.
The rental car giant moved its corporate headquarters from New Jersey to Lee County after getting state incentives worth $20 million.
But Corcoran said that it was a total waste of money because Hertz’s top executive owned a vacation home in Naples and that the notion of moving to Oklahoma instead was a ruse simply to get money from Florida.
“Pack your bags, buddy. Go,” Corcoran said. “We’re going to invest in what matters.”
As it has for the past several weeks, this line of attack riled Scott’s administration. Shortly after Corcoran’s comments, an Enterprise Florida spokesman emailed an objection.
“These claims are incorrect,” said Nathan Edwards. “Enterprise Florida exists to diversify and expand Florida’s economy. Large projects like Lockheed Martin and Johnson & Johnson bring good, high-paying jobs to Florida communities, and projects like these are responsible for the creation of tens of thousands of jobs and nearly a billion dollars in capital investment.”
But Corcoran doubts incentives lure corporations. He says that money is better spent on things like charter schools that will give parents and children an alternative to the “failure factories” in the public school system.
“But, God knows, we’ve got to give Pitbull a million dollars,” he said, a reference to a once-secret contract with a rap artist that cost Visit Florida’s top executive his job.
Corcoran blasted Visit Florida for waste, singling out “a B-league soccer team” owned by Shad Khan, owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, a Republican Party donor.
“It’s all the insiders,” Corcoran said.
One week after the House voted overwhelmingly and in bipartisan fashion to abolish Enterprise Florida, Corcoran singled out Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, who voted for the bill even though it posed a threat to his job at the local Chamber of Commerce.
One questioner asked Corcoran to play devil’s advocate and explain Scott’s defense of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
“I can’t,” he said, as the crowd roared with laughter.
Criticized for self-promotion and for killing jobs, Corcoran plunged ahead. He ripped into state colleges and universities, promising to cut their budgets in response to them “stealing” tax dollars to subsidize fund-raising foundation work while spending less than 10 percent of foundation money on student financial aid.
“Hell, yes, we’re going to cut colleges and universities,” Corcoran said, facing an audience that included Martha Saunders, the president of the University of West Florida.
Corcoran called Democratic trial lawyer John Morgan “a good friend” and said he would be shocked if Morgan is not the Democratic nominee for governor next year.
“He’s going to be hard to beat if he really gets into that race,” Corcoran said.
That’s what concerns Jack Lane, a prison guard at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, who said he’s worried that Democrats would win the next race for governor.
Lane, wearing a polo shirt with the logo of McGuire’s Pub, a local institution, thanked Corcoran for saying corrections officers need a pay raise.
“No state employee likes Rick Scott,” Lane said, shaking Corcoran’s hand. “Thanks for looking out for us.”