At first, the turnoff to the office for Florida’s next Speaker of the House looks like a mistake. Did Google Maps really direct me to an empty office building?
Keep rounding the corner though, and the office of Rep. Chris Sprowls comes into view. A few minutes later, so does the lawmaker, wearing jeans that looked almost pressed and carrying fancier clothes on a hanger. Wall decor includes photos of school children he has visited and their subsequent thank-you notes; the effect is both spare and inviting.
These are busy times for Sprowls, who will take over as Speaker of the House after the November 2020 elections — assuming, as expected, Republicans maintain control of the chamber. He’ll be 36 then, therefore not the youngest to assume the office. Sprowls’ ascension, long in place and confirmed recently by a voice vote, does make Sprowls, who represents District 65, the second Speaker from Pinellas County in the state’s history. Peter Rudy Wallace of St. Petersburg was elected in 1994.
His acceptance speech to colleagues had covered the ground, with a mix of passion and restraint that evoked why colleagues back Sprowls for the job. He opened with a wakeup call, a description of a dystopian world populated by social media entities and people relating through them, “the world of political news junkies and social media addicts, a world filled with people maintaining apocalyptic rage.”
Becoming Speaker, he says, will give him a chance to participate in a system that’s working, “one of the last great places in America to be engaged in public service at this level.”
Asked about that reference to “the last,” Sprowls replied, “Look at Washington. It’s riddled with dysfunction right now, and things that are important to Americans aren’t being addressed. And so much of it is about the noise as opposed to the substance.”
Colleagues see him as a unifier, a coalition builder.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former House Speaker who played a role in Sprowl’s getting the job, told the Miami Herald, “He’s a class act, measured, well thought-out, but he’s a [mixed martial arts] fighter.”
He can espouse bedrock conservative principles such as strengthening the state’s capital reserves and an anti-abortion position that has only strengthened as fetal viability becomes possible earlier than ever before.
“Here in the state of Florida, we don’t kill babies,” Sprowls told colleagues in his September acceptance speech, a response to positions taken by Democratic presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg.
But there is something about his style and word choices that trends away from the confrontational and toward the cerebral. He’s for school choice, too, but thinks charter schools ought to be vetted to make sure they measure up. Sprowls also advocates greater attention to high-quality caseworkers to intervene in troubled homes, something even the best schools cannot fix.
His environmentalism includes preparing for climate change and rising sea levels, terms he encouraged fellow conservatives to embrace.
“Floridians aren’t interested in the utter nonsense of the Green New Deal,” Sprowls said in September. “But they do want good jobs, clean water and ample, sandy beaches. They want to know we are working on practical ways to mitigate the risk of flooding in our coastal communities.”
He values his seven years as a prosecutor not only because he was fighting crime, but because the training helped him learn to ask the right questions, to sift through cases and try to determine what justice would look like in each.
“Look, I believe in facts,” Sprowls said. “And I believe that when truth exists you should find it and seek it out. I think too often we don’t ask questions because we are afraid of the answer. And I think that’s wrong. We ask the questions, we get the answers, we evaluate the information and we try to make the best decision we can.”
He was born in Newburgh, N.Y., just north of New York City, but grew up in the Tampa Bay area. His father drove him to school, often telling stories on the way from his days as a New York homicide detective.
“I grew up on cop stories,” Sprowls said. “Certainly there was a sense of duty and responsibility, and sometimes that means jumping into the fray. And he taught me that.”
He was in high school when doctors diagnosed him with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He delayed the start of college while undergoing chemotherapy, an experience that taught him that life is both precious and short.
After graduating from the University of South Florida, Sprowls entered Stetson University’s law school, where he spearheaded a program to connect veterans in need of legal services with lawyers working pro bono. After graduation he became an assistant state attorney in the 6th Judicial Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties.
His work there included prosecuting William Hurst, who was convicted of murdering his wife more than 30 years after her remains were found.
Along the way, Sprowls struck up an acquaintance with Shannon Long, an employee of the YMCA where he was working out. Her name is Shannon Long Sprowls now and she is the executive director of North Pinellas YMCA. They live in Palm Harbor with their sons, ages 4 and 3.
His current trajectory began in 2014 when he defeated incumbent Democrat Carl Zimmerman in the Republican-leaning District 65, which covers north Pinellas County. In his first year, he sponsored bills that the House passed last year, supporting telehealth medical technology for a variety of patient services and striking down the need for new medical facilities to first acquire a certificate of need.
In his last Legislative Session before he becomes Speaker, Sprowls chairs the House rules committee and sits on its appropriations committee. Priorities include his proposed bill to consolidate accreditations for the University of South Florida’s campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee; and reduce Interstate 275 traffic congestion in and around Tampa.
The day we spoke, he had just proposed a DNA privacy bill, which would prevent life insurance companies from obtaining a customer’s DNA profile without consent, a tactic often used to estimate premiums.
“Insurance is about spreading risk,” he said. “If somebody was spinning the roulette wheel and they know where the ball is going to land, that’s not gambling. That’s knowing the answer.”
Current House Speaker Jose Oliva has also asked Sprowls to chair a select committee to protect intellectual property from theft by foreign governments. In December, the Chief Executive Officer and President of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute resigned, as did a vice president and four researchers, after a federal investigation over possible exploitation of American-backed medical research by China. Sprowls’ committee will look at other similar cases across the country as well.
The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fired three scientists in April, alleging that they were funneling U.S.-funded research materials to China. Then in December, a Chinese medical student who had been studying at Harvard University was charged with trying to smuggle vials of cancer research specimens to China.
“It’s a huge threat to our national security,” Sprowls said. “And it’s a huge risk for us, inadvertently having the Florida taxpayer subsidize intellectual property theft by a foreign government.”
He will take the reins as Speaker at the same time as Wilton Simpson of Pasco County assumes the presidency of the Senate, giving the Tampa Bay area some representation it has lacked. And Sprowls has plenty to keep him busy between now and November.
But his grandest vision, the one that got him nominated in the first place, has no legalistic language or dollar figures attached. It’s a vision of people in a community living and working with each other face to face.
“The ties that bind us in our communities are things like going to church on Sunday and spending time together and worshiping,” Sprowls said. “And being in a bowling league together. And going to your Rotary Club, your Kiwanis Club, your Red Hat Society or your Junior League.
“Or your T-ball on a Saturday morning, and you realize how much you like these people and you enjoy hanging out with them and you also realize, ‘I have no idea what their political beliefs are.’ And yet you really enjoy hanging out with them at the ballfield on Saturday.
“And you really like the fact that every Sunday, when you walk in to the two seats where you like to sit, there’s that couple standing next to you — and you still don’t really know what their political beliefs are — that they’re there and that you get to share that moment with them.”