In the aftermath of last legislative session’s bloodbath that was the 2020 speakers race between Rep. Chris Sprowls and Rep. Eric Eisenaugle – or perhaps to wash his hands after the fact – Speaker-Designate Richard Corcoran has decreed his first-annual “Legislative Hunger Games.” This grand plan will culminate in a Republican caucus rule designed to starve new legislators of pledge cards, effectively banning them from the traditional speaker’s race process until after they spend a session working together.
Much has already been made of the fact that Corcoran is asking incoming legislators to do exactly the opposite of what he himself did in becoming Speaker. His dogged campaign for the powerful post during his first election cycle enabled him to consolidate power well before his first 60-day session ever began.
But Corcoran’s diktat may not be enough to deter those familiar with the wisdom of Winston Churchill, that “history is written by the victors.”
Even if Corcoran has the gall to implement such a rule, it serves no real purpose other than to drive all the campaigning and jockeying underground, making it even more secretive and less transparent than ever before. In the end, only one legislator is going to emerge victorious in the process, regardless of how many pledge cards get signed.
“Pledge cards are worthless now anyway,” says one Republican strategist with several House candidate clients. “I know for a fact that several legislators have signed more than one card already.”
But beyond banning pledge cards, Corcoran’s plan runs counter to his demand that former legislators not wield influence in Tallahassee after the end of their terms, even as he, Corcoran, attempts to influence a leadership choice that will happen four years after the end of his own final term in the House.
Corcoran may have the purest of intentions with respect to cleaning up the leadership selection process in Tallahassee. But his detractors are quick to question whether there are other motivations at play.
Some suggest he already has a favorite. But others say that with a class as large as the one about to enter the legislature this fall, Corcoran simply wants to ensure that this crop of Republicans does not have the same level of influence that he enjoys as the expected speaker of his own class, which is similarly large. By keeping these freshmen legislators disorganized and divided, the theory goes that it will be easier for Corcoran to manage individual new members, thus boosting his own power. Anyone who has watched the Hunger Games films (or books, if you’re into young adult dystopian literature) will recognize this as the same tactic implemented by the antagonist, President Snow, to keep unruly political districts in check.
But there are other similarities to the Hunger Games plot, too.
“Corcoran wants to influence the outcome of the race,” says one Tallahassee political observer who declined to speak on the record. “But he doesn’t have a strong hand to play. That’s why he’s planning to implement his Hunger Games rule, to starve out those stupid enough follow it.”
Like the Hunger Games on the big screen, only one person is going make it out this race alive. And it’ll almost certainly be the legislator who feels free enough to operate in spite of Corcoran’s rule.
So far, three candidates have been bold enough to “volunteer as tribute” in Richard Corcoran’s First Annual Hunger Games. They are:
While Grant positions himself as part of the 2016 class, he, in fact, was first elected in 2010, the same year as Corcoran. If it were not for a judge forcing a do-over of Grant’s 2014 election, Grant would already be a key member of Corcoran’s leadership team.
Instead, Grant had to sit out for several months while things were sorted out, and has taken the controversial position that this short sabbatical “restarted the term-limits clock,” making him the equivalent of a brand-new member.
Of course, Grant’s liberal interpretation of Florida’s term limits law has not been tested in court. At least, not yet. But given Grant’s plan to serve in the House for 14 consecutive years, an argument could be made that he’s violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
Take it to the bank that Grant will face a vigorous court challenge on this point, and that his prospects to become Speaker in 2022 hinge largely on how a judge interprets the law.
Despite the legal risk, Grant’s close relationship with Corcoran still makes him an obvious choice for the speaker designate.
“Jamie Grant doesn’t brush his teeth without Richard Corcoran’s blessing,” says one operative familiar with the matter. “And he’s trading on the perception, if not the reality, that he’s Corcoran’s choice.”
So far, Grant has been able to work in the legislature without being dogged by certain baggage. But as a leadership contest makes him more visible, Grant may have to deal with more scrutiny than he would like, and he won’t have an easy path to victory, especially given the other contestants he faces.
Like Jamie Grant, Representative Paul Renner won a special election in 2015 and thus was able to serve out the balance of that term without it counting towards the eight year term limit. Renner, too, has an interesting electoral history, having attempted to become a member of the 2014 class from a Jacksonville district, losing to now Representative Jay Fant by a heartbreaking two votes. That is not a typo.
But when a vacancy unexpectedly opened a short time later, Renner moved to a district outside his home base in Jacksonville and secured the seat for himself.
Renner’s campaign for speaker began immediately after, and according to Tallahassee insiders, is aided by group of Jacksonville business leaders and consultants that Renner trusts. A review of Renner’s leadership committee, which is financing his speakers run, shows hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to a stable of political operatives, but most of those dollars came during the last legislative session, and though some believe his coffers could soon run dry, recent fundraising reports show Renner still collecting several five-figure checks as recently as last month.
Another source of Renner’s perceived strength lies in the fact that six open House seats in the 2016 cycle are within the Jacksonville orbit.
This made a more compelling argument a year ago, when it appeared there might only be 18 open seats, meaning Renner might have influence with as much as a third of his class. But the ratio has since been diluted considerably, with 28 open seats now expected to be won by Republicans.
But does Renner even have his own region locked up?
“It’s a valid question. There are solid candidates whom I know are pledged outside the area,” says one operative.
Still, if Renner has the ability to turn on the spigot and raise significant financial resources, he cannot be counted out.
Having briefly considered a run for U.S. Senate, Randy Fine ultimately decided not to push all his chips into the middle of that table, opting instead to start his political career with a run for the Florida House.
Fine’s campaign is self-funded and self-directed, fueled by his considerable personal fortune acquired across a twenty-plus year business career, earning much of that fortune working in the casino business. While Fine tells anyone who will listen that he is running due to anger over his son’s public education (Fine’s “9 + 6” story has been told ad nauseum to anyone who will listen), some say Fine’s real motivation for running is to advance a gambling agenda, suggesting Fine is nothing more than a Trojan horse for a casino industry takeover of the legislature.
Fine’s quixotic candidacy is unlike Grant’s or Renner’s, in that Fine appears to be a “lone ranger” without institutional support. On the outside, his strategy appears to be built around an attempt to build one-on-one relationships with candidates.
He may learn too late that the only person you can trust in politics – and especially leadership contests – is the person who tells you they aren’t voting for you.
But Fine does have two advantages that neither Grant nor Renner possess – time and money. Fine is semi-retired and has the time to crisscross the state in support of candidates, an obvious attempt to curry favor in every corner he can.
Some suggest he’s trying to buy the the speakership. Others suggest his personal anecdotes of success maybe offputting to colleagues. Either way, Randy Fine has the least to fear from Richard Corcoran.
At least, that is, until he gets to Tallahassee.
“Every new candidate thinks they understand and appreciate the power that Richard Corcoran can bring to bear, and they aren’t worried about it,” says the political operative, “right up until the moment they’re finally in the legislature, get stuck on lousy committees, and all their priorities get tanked at the whim of the Speaker.”
This is certainly true, but if there is one guy who might be able to withstand a temporary loss of influence, it could be Randy Fine.
The most pressing question at this point is whether or not this incoming class will heed the directive of Speaker designate Corcoran, or will they instead opt to exercise their right to assemble? Each candidate will have to determine what is best for them in both the short term and long term.
Of course, if they follow Corcoran’s directive, they may be boxed out before there is a long term play to make.