The coup that wasn’t against Eric Eisnaugle

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At approximately 3 o’clock in the afternoon this past Wednesday, the Florida political Twitterverse exploded with news that an effort was underway — in real time — to dislodge state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle from a leadership post in the state House that few before this week had publicly acknowledged he had won and one he won’t hold until 2021.

A “coup” was how the effort was being described, although it was not clear who was leading such an uprising or why it was even happening.

However, by the end of the day, Eisnaugle reaffirmed his grip on the House speakership in 2021-2022, but deep fractures within the Republican House Caucus were revealed — divisions that may reemerge in coming years or even during the current legislative session.

Eisnaugle locked up the race to be speaker after two key developments in August 2014. First, his allies in House District 40 and 74, now state Reps. Colleen Burton and Julio Gonzalez, won their respective primaries. Second was the defection of two presumed supporters of Chris Sprowls, Eisnaugle’s rival for the speakership.

Since then, Eisnaugle has consolidated power within the rest of the GOP caucus and among his fellow freshmen by raising and spending money to defend and elect Republican House candidates.

Eisnaugle’s critics contend, however, that what made the Orlando Republican such a strong candidate for speaker — his experience and his status as a redshirt freshman — has made him a vulnerable speaker-to-be.

In 2012, after the legislative reapportionment, Eisnaugle decided to not run against fellow Republican Steve Precourt, who had been drawn into the same House district. However, after Precourt resigned to pursue a position with the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority, Eisnaugle won the special election to replace Precourt and returned to the House as a so-called redshirt freshman. This moniker is used to describe lawmakers who are elected to complete the remainder of a two-year term without the eight-year term limit clock starting. This often gives redshirt freshman like Eisnaugle a headstart over the rest of their class in leadership races.

Going into the race for speaker against Sprowls, Eisnaugle had two distinct advantages. He had previously served in the Legislature and he was already in the Legislature.

Sprowls’ best counter against these advantages was that he was, indirectly, supported by Speaker-Designate Richard Corcoran, who was determined to see another Tampa Bay lawmaker lead the House after his ally, state Rep. Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, serves his two-years as speaker.

Abiding by the unofficial rules that discourage designated leaders from interfering in the leadership races of other legislative classes, Corcoran never publicly touted Sprowls for speaker; however, his support was clear-cut. Not only is Sprowls from the same Mike Fasano political family tree as Corcoran, Sprowls received strategic advice from consultants aligned with Corcoran and direct financial support from Corcoran’s trial lawyer allies.

In the end, Eisnaugle’s proxies defeated Sprowls’ allies and, along with the above-mentioned defections, Eisnaugle was unofficially declared the winner of the race to be a legislative leader at the beginning of the next decade.

Since last year’s elections, Eisnaugle’s position has been affirmed among his colleagues in the House, including those who once supported Sprowls.

But just as there is only one speaker at a time, there can only be one speaker-designate at a time. Technically, even Speaker-to-be Jose Oliva is just that, a speaker-to-be, not an official speaker-designate, despite there being no doubt he will ascend to the rostrum.

Before last week, there had been little doubt, at least not publicly, that Eisnaugle would one day become speaker. However, according to senior legislative staff familiar with all of the players involved here, a rift has developed between Corcoran and Oliva and their likely successor, Eisnaugle.

Suddenly, there are questions about Eisnaugle’s future, even though he, on paper, has 30 of the 40 members of the sophomore and freshman classes (as well as the redshirt freshmen recently elected) committed to his speakership.

Hence, Wednesday’s talk of a “coup.”

Actually, the first mention of a “coup” against Eisnaugle was on Tuesday on a Central Florida political blog published by Jacob Engels.

Is Eric Eisnaugle’s Speakership In Trouble Over His Handling Over Gay Adoption,” blared the headline on the East Orlando Post.

Quoting an unnamed member of Eisnaugle’s class, Engels wrote that “Eisnaugle … has run into problems with his class over the handling over industry food fights, a perceived absence of concern with what the class thinks, and of his handling of the gay adoption debate currently taking in Tallahassee.”

As it would turn out, Engels was almost spot-on in his assessment, but because his blog is not widely read, word of a potential “coup” didn’t really spread until this blog, after being contacted by at least three legislators and a handful of consultants close to both sides of the issue, reported that something was “afoot.”

After first hearing that something was “afoot,” I asked Chip Case, a political adviser to Eisnaugle, that an attempted “coup” was underway. He would not confirm that a “coup” was in progress, but he did agree “something was going on.”

To quote Ella Fitzgerald…

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off…

That was at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, right before this blogger boarded a flight to Tallahassee. By the time I landed, the tanks had been stopped at the gates of the presidential palace and any “coup” attempt had been generally repulsed.

As the Orlando Sentinel would later report, those mentioned by Engels as possible coup participants publicly stated their support of Eisnaugle.

State Rep. Shawn Harrison took to Twitter to push back against Engels’ reporting.

“Honored but not sure where this came from. I support my friend @EricEisnaugle. My pledge is my bond,” Harrison posted.

Blaise Ingoglia, also mentioned as a possible rival to Eisnaugle, told reporter Gray Rohrer of the Orlando Sentinel, “I don’t know where they got their information from. I have no comment. I really don’t’ know where they got their information from.”

Ingoglia also told Rohrer that he didn’t put his name forward as a replacement for Eisnaugle.

One other possible challenger to Eisnagule, Jay Fant, told Rohrer that he hasn’t signed a formal pledge card for Eisnaugle but has voiced his support – and that hasn’t changed.

“I don’t sign pledge cards, I gave Eric my support early in this process and despite what some of the high talk is most every member of the class has, too. So I think this is a red herring of a story to be honest with you. Eric’s our leader,” Fant said.

Harrison, Ingoglia, and Fant’s protestations beg the question: Was there actually a coup attempt against Eisnaugle?

No and yes.

No, no other member of Eisnaugle’s class threw down the gauntlet and challenged Eisnaugle’s claim to the speakership in 2021-22.

But, yes, one of Eisnaugle’s chief political advisers confirmed an effort to dislodge Eisnaugle.

One might want to call it the coup that wasn’t, but that doesn’t fully explain the story.

Eisnaugle does have serious issues on his hands, according to at least three political consultants close to House leadership.

The first issue for Eisnaugle is, again, what made him such a strong candidate for speaker — his experience and redshirt freshman status. By definition, this gave him a head start over the rest of the members of his class, but it’s also made him less willing to be mentored by other legislative leaders ahead of him.

Compounding this problem is the fact that Eisnaugle has not been as grateful to Corcoran as Corcoran may have expected after he let things go after Eisnaugle bested Sprowls.

The second issue for Eisnaugle is, as Engels first mentioned, his handling of the vote on the gay adoption bill.

The Florida Senate on Wednesday gave tentative approval to HB 7013 that eliminates the ban on gay adoptions.

But after an outcry from conservative groups over the demise of the ban, House Republicans agreed to push forward a separate bill that would “shield” religious organizations if they refuse to place children with gay couples. The bill would bar the state from denying a license or government grant to agencies that follow “written religious or moral convictions.”

House Democratic legislators blasted the measure, saying it would allow discrimination. Led by state Rep. David Richardson, the chamber’s first openly gay member and a Miami Beach Democrat, they tried several times to amend the bill (HB 7111) but House Republicans voted them down.

It’s not specifically clear what happened behind closed doors, but Eisnaugle’s inability to deliver votes on the bill to strike the state’s ban on gay adoption left some members quietly questioning his leadership abilities.

Behind the scenes, according to multiple House sources, Eisnaugle attempted to play multiple sides.

Eisnaugle was “schizophrenic,” said one source directly familiar with the situation. “What we saw with that vote was 50 shades of Eric Eisnaugle.”

Eisnaugle lieutenant state Rep. Scott Plakon disputes this account.

“That vote is, if anything else — on whether or not homosexuals should adopt — is a vote of conscience. Rep. Eisnaugle would never whip a vote like that or deliver a bloc of votes on something like that. So that story is patently false and ridiculous,” Plakon said.

For his part, Plakon can’t understand why any of the “coup” talk has been given credence.

Plakon told both Rohrer and FloridaPolitics.com that Eisnaugle has more than 30 out of the 40 voting members for that class’s speaker race. He also said that Eisnaugle has pledges from 18 of 19 members of the freshman class.

“They made their commitment,” said Plakon.

Plakon, however, did confirm that their was a “lively meeting” of freshman Republican legislators on Wednesday night at the Tennyson Condominium he shares with two other lawmakers.

By the end of that meeting, Eisnaugle’s position was on firmer ground than at the start of the day. The GOP lawmakers who had attended were “outraged” at the idea of other members going back on their words.

However, there are still several House observers who suggest Eisnaugle is not out of the woods.

“Eric Eisnaugle is approaching Joe Negron territory,” said one Republican consultant. “Sure, he probably could win a vote, but why is that even being doubted? A vote has never been called for Oliva, yet no one doubts he will be speaker.”

And therein lies the third issue for Eisnaugle: State Rep. Jose Oliva, who is reportedly much more direct with his criticism than Corcoran.

Oliva and Eisnaugle have been cross-wired with each other for some time, but their differences spilled out into semi-public view recently over a legislative food fight pitting optometrists versus contact lens distributors, such as 1-800-Contacts. (This is one of the industry food fights Engels refers to in his blog.) Oliva and Eisnaugle reportedly entered into a heated debate about who better understood the ‘nature of the free market.’

The talk of a coup is just an attempt by Corcoran and Oliva to “punish” Eisnaugle, one of his supporters stated to me.

Punish him for what is not clear. For beating Sprowls? Perhaps. For not genuflecting appropriately? Maybe. Whatever the reason, Wednesday was one of the more interesting days of the 2015 legislative session as the man who will preside over the 2021 legislative session was left both strengthened and embarrassed.

In the end, the political coup turned out to be an embarrassment coup. The question is, who was actually most embarrassed by it all.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this post.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.