Tallahassee, Florida — In 2003, the Tampa Tribune published an article about a 19-year-old man who was on a solo crusade to close down a strip club named Whispers. Namely, the strip club in Paso County opened up close to a Presbyterian church, which went against the principles of the 19-year-old. The Tribune quoted him, saying, “This is west Pasco; this is where we live.”
Fast forward to 2019, and that 19-year-old is now 35-year-old Representative Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. Sprowls is now on his way to becoming Florida’s next House speaker.
Back in 2003, a reported described Sprowls as a “smooth-cheeked youngster,” who managed to persuade a lawyer to draw up a county ordinance. Even before he could legally enter Whispers, Sprowls already had an ordinance that threatened to take away business licenses on account of violating obscenity laws.
Chris Sprowls comes from a family of an office manager and an NYC police detective. He started doing politics in his youth, and he thinks that part of his life was paramount to shaping his future. Namely, it helped him learn the best way to form coalitions with other politicians.
On Tuesday, Florida House Republicans chose Sprowls to be the House speaker for the 2012–22 term. This signified that Sprowls would be the first House speaker to come from the Pinellas County (his hometown being Palm Harbor) since Representative Peter Rudy Wallace achieved it in 1995. Jose Oliva, the present House speaker, comes from Miami Lakes.
Among his other duties, Sprowls will also be in charge of fundraising as well as developing a strategy for the Republican Party to try and get the largest possible number of the Old Party members voted into the House in 2020. Additionally, during his time as the speaker, both state and congressional legislative districts will undergo redistricting, which will be left to Sprowls to oversee and implement. Both these roles, if completed successfully, will give him a political pedigree that will help him greatly in the future.
Considering the fact that Senator Wilton Simpson (Trilby, Pasco County) will be the next Senate president, this signifies that Tampa Bay Area will have two representatives at such a high level. For the upcoming three years, the region will hold a considerable amount of power on both the state’s purse strings and policy.
35-year-old Sprowls spent his youth being politically active. However, at the same time, he had to face a much more important and a much more difficult battle than closing down a strip club because of its proximity to a church. Namely, Sprowls suffered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer that evolves in body’s lymphatic system. He was 18 years old when doctors discovered he had cancer cells in the immune system, which caused his start in college to be pushed back.
When talking about his experience of surviving the disease, Sprowls said that it taught him how life was precious, and it went by quicker than people thought. He said that it made him realize, perhaps sooner than most, that there was no time to waste.
Sprowls graduated from the University of South Florida after which he obtained a lawyer’s degree from Stetson University. After that, he started working for Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, as an assistant state attorney. The circuit covers both Pasco and Pinellas counties. Having this job taught Sprowls, in his own words, how to have an analytical approach to a problem, and he learned that he should always have a long-term goal on his mind.
As an attorney, Sprowls never hid away from challenging cases which could be a plot from true crime novels. For instance, he involved himself with a 30-year-old woman’s homicide, which lay unsolved. During a dramatic courtroom hearing in 2013, he questioned a forensic DNA examiner. As part of the interview, Sprowls took out a transparent plastic bag examining the woman’s femur. The case ended with the conviction of the woman’s husband. In Sprowls’ office, there’s a framed newspaper story about the case.
Sprowls’ fellow prosecutor, Chris LaBruzzo, presently a family court judge in Clearwater, recalled how the two of them often argued about who would deliver the closing argument. LaBruzzo and Sprowls often worked together, but LaBruzzo conceded the closing argument would often go to Sprowls, because, in LaBruzzo’s words, he was simply cut out for it.
LaBruzzo said that Sprowls had a gift for taking in all the facts and meaningfully presenting them to a jury. According to LaBruzzo, he had a great ability of always considering the bigger picture while still being persistent about tiny details.
However, as is always the case, not everyone is happy about Sprowls’ political rise. For instance, plenty of Republican legislators and other advocates have a history of pushing radical bills which would change the state’s criminal sentencing laws dramatically. Sprowls, on the other hand, has gone down a more circumspect route.
Representative Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, will be the co-leader of the minority party during Sprowls’ mandate as the speaker. Jenne commented that Sprowls would have the power to work with the Senate on which bills would reach them and what these bills would consist of. He added that the amount of discussion on criminal justice reform at the Senate the House was currently witnessing was almost unprecedented. And while Sprowls was unopposed to some changes, Jenne said he feared that the next speaker wasn’t quite up to speed with what both Republicans and Democrats wanted.
One proposal specifically has repeatedly failed to pass. The proposal concerned particular drug crimes in which a judge would have the power to grant a sentence lower than the minimum law requires. This would happen in instances where the judge concluded the circumstances didn’t merit a greater punishment. When asked about the proposal during an interview, Sprowls failed to give a proper answer clarifying his stance. He said that he was waiting for more data before a “real conversation” about the state’s jails and courts could take place.
In 2018, Sprowls sponsored a bill-turned-law which now requires of jails and local courts to submit data as public record. The data now has to be organized and analyzed in such a manner, and many praised the bill as a step in the right direction towards a better understanding of Florida’s criminal justice system. Sprowls said he sponsored the bill because he believed only “radical transparency” could successfully suppress opinions that people based on their feelings and hunches instead on facts. However, critics of the bill feel that some present data collection as a substitute for reform, which would be a wrong move.
Latterly, Sprowls has moved his operations to be more behind the scenes as he has cut down on making public comments. Jenne was supportive of Sprowls, claiming that he was an expert at whipping up people’s support for both his ideas and the ideas of the Republican leadership. Jenne added that the future speaker often sought support from Democrats even after securing the necessary number of votes.
Mike Fasano, a tax collector from Pasco County, said that he had full belief Sprowls would be more inclusive when it came to the decision-making process, particularly with people who didn’t belong inside the traditional leadership structure. Fasano has known Sprowls since his teenage days, when he volunteered in Fasano’s campaign for state Senate.
Fasano was critical of the power scheme in Florida House, claiming that one person had the rule over everyone and had the power to dictate what happened single-handedly. He finished by saying that he saw Sprowls as someone who would rectify that and would let everyone have their say.
Additionally, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran weighed in on Sprowls’ election as the speaker as well. Corcoran, a former House speaker himself and a Republican from Pasco County, was heavily involved in Sprowls’ selection. He said that the people were yet to get the full picture of Sprowls, who was lauded as a great listener and a collaborator. He said that, although many saw Chris as a measured, well-thought-out class act, they would be surprised when they found out how much of a fighter he was as well.