By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Rubio began the move from local to state power when Republican Rep. Carlos Valdes left his House seat in early 1999 to run for Senate. The 28-year-old was untested, but he faced equally weak competitors in the GOP primary. Among them was Spanish-language radio host Angel Zayon and Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, a former legislator who had lost his House seat the prior year after he choked another legislator on the House floor.
Moreover, Rubio still had Lorenzo on his side. The veteran campaign manager helped him stockpile $70,000 for the race. Rubio lost in initial voting to Zayon but prevailed in a runoff by 64 votes.
Before the general election, Rubio amassed almost $100,000 in campaign funds, quadruple that of his Democratic opponent. He easily won that race and took his seat in the March 2000 session.
Back then, he was hardly the scorching conservative who would later woo Tea Partiers nationwide. Before the year's session, he told the Herald he'd focus on supporting early education and community policing. And he wasn't particularly passionate about cutting spending. In his first three years, he supported adding a $4 surcharge to cruise tickets to fund a Marlins stadium and a $1.2 million earmark to build new bike paths in his district.
"In his first years, Marco was not this red-meat, Tea Party, let's-abolish-the-government guy you're seeing on the trail now," Sen. Steve Geller says. "His politics didn't shift that way until he became the speaker-designate."
A turning point for Rubio came during his second year, in a conference room where he spent hours chugging Mountain Dew and poring over maps. Rubio had volunteered to study voting charts in preparation for the GOP's once-a-decade redistricting. The job was boring, but it meant hours of face time with senior leadership.
The incoming speaker, Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, was so taken with the young, caffeine-fueled Cuban-American that he appointed him majority leader. "If he drank two or three more Mountain Dews a day," Byrd told the Herald, "we'd never be able to control him."
Rubio used his sway as House majority leader to mount a run for speaker. Under the party's unusual system, potential speakers must win informal votes to secure their spots four or five years before they take the job.
Rubio cast himself a "pragmatic conservative" in a race that usually goes to a safe Anglo Republican from Orlando or North Florida.
But he also made the most of a loophole in state financial disclosure rules by creating a "committee of continuous existence," an Orwellian-sounding fund not subject to state Sunshine Laws. He poured almost $230,000 into the fund, which he then used to crisscross the state and lobby legislators.
The biggest donors to the group, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership, included a who's who of big businesses Rubio later supported as speaker, according to a recent review of the committee's records by the St. Petersburg Times, which reported on the leaked documents. There was U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and AT&T. There was also $50,000 from Alan Mendelsohn, a Broward ophthalmologist arrested last year by the FBI on corruption charges.
Even more troubling, according to the newspaper: Rubio failed to disclose $34,000 he spent out of the fund, including $7,000 he paid himself in 2003 and 2004. He also paid his wife $5,700, supposedly for working as treasurer, and spent more than $51,000 to reimburse credit card expenses for restaurants, hotels, and travel.
In all, the fund (which was chartered to support conservative candidates statewide) spent 99 percent of its cash — all but $4,000 — on Rubio himself, a clear contradiction of its charter. Asked by the St. Petersburg Times about the spending, Rubio blasted his opponent, Charlie Crist: "None of our donors has ever questioned how the money was spent. In fact, the only one raising this question is the Crist campaign."
In November 2003, thanks in part to his fund, Rubio defeated fellow Republican Jeff Kottkamp for speaker. It was a historic win — no descendent of Cubans had ever held the post, and Rubio, at 32 years old, was by far the youngest.
The big win didn't sate Rubio's ambition. In 2004, he set up another committee of continuous existence, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government, and raised nearly $400,000.
Again, his financial management was questionable. The St. Petersburg Times found that $14,000 from the fund went to Rubio's mother-in-law and two of his wife's cousins for "courier work." About one-fifth of the committee's expenses were never accounted for at all. Rubio says that's because the money went toward expenses under $500, which don't have to be detailed.
He used the second fund to thrust himself onto the national stage, thanks to a campaign called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.
The tour had Rubio and other Republicans traveling the state for so-called idearaiser town halls with voters. Rubio later published the ideas in a book and was hailed as a rising GOP star. Gingrich, for example, predicted Rubio would "emerge as a national leader" and called the project "a work of genius."
By 2005, Rubio's official election ceremony as speaker felt like a coronation. Supporters in Miami broadcast it live to Cuba on Radio Martí. And Bush presented his mystical sword of conservative power.