Election 2016: House District 65 Candidate Chris Sprowls
In a campaign video, Rep. Chris Sprowls walks down a busy street. He helps a young boy who sits on a countertop. He shakes hands with a retail worker, then discusses a piece of art with an older couple.
Then he looks directly into the camera and smiles.
Age: 32 Education: University of South Florida, bachelor’s degree; Stetson University College of Law, J.D. Occupation: Lawyer, state legislator Political Experience: Florida House of Representatives, 2014-present
“If you want more of the same, I’m not your guy,” says the baby-faced Republican, 32. “But if you believe we can do better, then I’m asking for your vote.”
When he was elected to office in 2014, Sprowls was a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office. In July, he resigned to join the Tampa office of a large law firm that counts Rhea Law, one of the region’s most prominent attorneys, as its Florida chairwoman.
Sprowls, whose wife recently gave birth to their second child, was not available for an interview. His campaign manager – the only person from his campaign who responded to numerous requests for comment – wrote in an email that Sprowls’ schedule “has been hectic of late juggling the newborn with campaign schedule.”
If the Republican Party could construct an ideal candidate, he might look a lot like Sprowls. So far, his voting record has been the embodiment of a Gap Inc. sweater – comfortably conservative.
He’s for fracking, a much-debated chemical drilling technique. He opposes the proposed constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. And he helped push along a bill in the Florida Legislature that would allow people with concealed carry permits to bring guns on college campuses. The bill ultimately died.
With only a single two-year term in the House, Sprowls is already an influential player in the state Capitol. And in this campaign, special interests have helped him raise $343,465 in contributions. The donors include corporations such as the Walt Disney Co., Anheuser-Busch and AT&T Inc.
The young representative also seemed destined to become the 2021-22 speaker of the House, one of the highest positions in state government, according to people watching state politics. The speakership now doesn’t seem so certain, said S. Curtis Kiser, who represented Pinellas County in the Legislature from 1972 to 1994.
“This year it’s been a little bit strange,” Kiser said. “The (2016) session has been over for four or five months, and they still haven’t picked who’s going to be the representative from their class to be speaker.”
Each freshman class pledges votes to the colleague they favor as the eventual speaker (the Republican Party currently holds majority in the House). The process is the result of eight-year term limits on elected state positions. The rest of the Republican caucus usually goes along with the class’s choice, and that person gets the job.
Then, everybody waits.
“It’s going to be six more years before they’re going to be speaker,” said Kiser, “so they have lots of time to get well-versed in issues and become well-known.”
Kiser said delegation size – the number of representatives from a county – can help determine who gets picked. Sprowls’ biggest competition comes from fellow Republican Rep. Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando. As the year wore on, some representatives flip-flopped on their pledges, so the nomination remains undecided.
“The moment they (get elected), it’s a lot of person-to-person contact,” said Kiser. “It’s good ol’ politickin’.”
There’s still a chance Sprowls will secure the speakership, but first he has to win re-election in District 65. At one point, his seat looked guaranteed. He was running unopposed.
But a surprise candidate entered the race.
“The thing that drove me is that somebody who has served less than three years in the Legislature doesn’t deserve a pass,” said his opponent, Bernard “Bernie” Fensterwald, the opponent in the District 65 race. “And he was given a pass.”
The Democratic candidate said advisers warned him it would be a “fool’s errand” to run against Sprowls in the Republican-leaning district. But, he said, he analyzed the number of potential voters in the area and decided he stood a chance.
He said his goal in running is solely to help the community. He criticized Sprowls’ move from the State Attorney’s Office to a large law firm with what Fensterwald called potential lobbying opportunities. He described Sprowls as someone with “tremendous ambition.”
“He’s on the Marco Rubio track – certainly (thinking) beyond being a state representative,” said Fensterwald. “We know how that turned out.”
Rubio was a state representative from South Florida and became Florida House Speaker at age 35. He became a U.S. Senator four years later, and led an eventual unsuccessful presidential candidate before running this year for re-election.
Sprowls has kept a relatively low profile in recent weeks, Festerwald said.
“He’s staying on message from a political perspective,” said Fensterwald, “and he will spend as much as necessary.”
Sprowls recently attended a breakfast with Habitat for Humanity and played bingo with senior citizens at Mease Manor in Dunedin. He also knocked on doors in Dunedin, where Fensterwald said the two crossed paths on a Saturday.
“One of my constituents referred to him as a whippersnapper,” said Fensterwald. “He does have an image, and he is half my age.”
Tyler Gillespie is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department. This story was produced as part of the Media and the Elections class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Robert Hooker.