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Richard Corcoran leaves the Capitol behind as he campaigns around the state

PENSACOLA — As most Florida lawmakers headed home over the weekend, House Speaker Richard Corcoran hit the road and continued to build a statewide profile.

Corcoran delivered what sounded like a stump speech Friday to 200 people at the monthly meeting of the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club in Pensacola, in a solidly-Republican city that twice supported Gov. Rick Scott, his top enemy in the current furor over jobs and tourism.

Corcoran said a special session of the Legislature will likely be needed to get rid of the "absolute cesspool" headed by Scott known as Enterprise Florida, the state's job recruitment program.

"We're ready, because we're right," Corcoran said.

Corcoran keeps a busy travel schedule.

In recent weeks, he has given presession speeches in Palm Beach and Sarasota and appeared on a CBS4's Sunday public affairs show in Miami. The itinerary stokes talk that he's mounting a run for governor or other statewide office next year as a populist voice in a major assault on the status quo.

But when asked about how he spends his off hours, the Republican from Land O'Lakes told the Times/Herald: "I would rather be home or doing something else."

Corcoran uses 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.

Republican strategist Rick Wilson 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 a vocal but unsuccessful anti-Donald 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 the two 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 struggle for the soul of the GOP.

Corcoran, a former Republican Party operative, is battling Scott not only on policy but on spin, too.

Today, as House members return for Week 3 of the session, they will be pummeled by 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, recipient of a high-profile incentive deal that Scott has repeatedly cited 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 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. Economic development and EFI projects bring good, high-paying jobs to Florida communities, and are responsible for the creation of tens of thousands of jobs and nearly a billion dollars in capital investment since 2011 alone."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 the rap artist that cost Visit Florida's top executive his job.

Corcoran blasted Visit Florida for waste, singling out its sponsorship of "a B-league soccer team" owned by Shad Khan, owner of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, a GOP donor.

"It's all the insiders," Corcoran said.

A week after the House voted with bipartisan support 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 fundraising 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."

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

Richard Corcoran leaves the Capitol behind as he campaigns around the state 03/20/17 [Last modified: Monday, March 20, 2017 11:04am]
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