But Rubio's promise would soon devolve into partisan bickering, and his golden-boy image would take a pounding thanks to his choice of friends and some questionable financial moves.

Rage flashes through Marco Rubio's hazel eyes. His gavel echoes like a gunshot through the chamber. Legislators freeze. Rep. Franklin Sands, a Democrat from Weston, stops midstride on his way back to his desk.

"The clerk will stop reading until Rep. Sands takes his seat," Rubio intones icily.

Rubio gives blood as a high school senior.
Rubio gives blood as a high school senior.

Through months of partisan bickering, the speaker had never cracked. But that day, his caffeinated drive melted into anger and frustration. "He just exploded," recalls Dan Gelber, then the House minority leader and now a candidate for state attorney general. "He was angry, very angry, and it was worse because he knew he'd lost his cool."

The cause of Rubio's outburst on April 18, 2008, was a procedural trick by Democrats, who forced Republicans to read every word of every bill aloud before a vote. The speaker, in turn, locked the chamber doors and ordered security guards to force every representative into his or her seat. He forbade bathroom breaks and turned off the chamber's internet access.

There was just a month left in Rubio's last legislative session, and his anger was the culmination of two years that began with great promise but devolved — thanks in part to his mismanagement and refusal to compromise — into a tenure critics said fell short of expectations.

"I'm fond of Marco personally," Gelber says. "But throughout his term, he told the public what they wanted to hear instead of trying to actually address the complex challenges we faced as a state."

Rubio's questionable financial judgment re-emerged just two months after his September 2005 ceremony with Jeb Bush. Back then, he owned one home, a small ranch-style place in West Miami on SW 14th Street that he'd purchased in 2003 for $175,000.

In December 2005, he bought a new, larger house a few blocks away on SW 13th Street for $550,000; he took out a $495,000 mortgage.

The fishy part: A month after Rubio purchased the home, U.S. Century Bank reappraised the house at $735,000 and then offered him a new $135,000 home-equity loan that the speaker gladly accepted. U.S. Century's board of directors included Sergio Pino — a megadeveloper who allied with Rubio on a key vote against slot machines — as well as GOP lobbyist Rodney Barreto and consultant Jose Cancela. Essentially, a bank controlled by supporters printed Rubio $135K out of thin air.

"It's very unusual to get a new equity line so quickly," says Michael Cannon, managing director of Integra Realty Resources in Miami. "The average person would never get a deal like that. He got it, clearly, because of his connections."

Even worse, Rubio never disclosed the line of credit. Confronted about the error, he laughed and told a Herald reporter he couldn't understand why it was a story.

Weeks later, as Rubio prepared to take over the speaker's chair, he raised hackles by budgeting $2.5 million to redecorate the office and to gift supporters with 20 new jobs. His chief of staff received $175,212; his spokesman and deputy chief of staff each got $119,484. And Ken Sorensen, an ally who had been term-limited out of the House, landed $100,000 to show new lawmakers around the capital.

Despite that largesse, Rubio began a hard turn to the right on financial issues — a shift that planted the seed for his Tea Party campaign to come.

His marquee proposal as speaker, introduced early in 2007, was to all but eliminate property taxes, the largest source of revenue for every municipal government in the state. To replace that cash, Rubio wanted to hike sales taxes.

The change would not only hurt the poorest Floridians but also bankrupt cities, many experts warned. The proposal made it to the House floor in 2007 but could never find traction in the more moderate Senate.

Later in his first session as speaker, Rubio slammed Crist for trying to pass anti-global-warming regulations. He also backed Mike Huckabee — the evangelical Republican candidate — for president (even though Huckabee had called him "Mario Rubio" at a fundraiser and spent years agitating to end the Cuban embargo).

In the meantime, as he advocated slashing state spending, Rubio spent like mad on an American Express credit card issued to the Florida Republican Party and paid for by donors. Between 2007 and 2009, he charged about $100,000 on the card — including almost $16,000 in personal expenses such as a $135 haircut and $1,000 in repairs to his family's minivan, according to a Herald investigation. Rubio has repaid the party for some charges but refuses to assume other expenses he says were legitimate.

A St. Pete Times investigation later found that Rubio had also double-billed the state and the GOP credit card for eight flights. After the report, he admitted the error and repaid the party $3,000.

Then, in May 2007, Rubio finally found a cash buyer for his first house, the small ranch on SW 14th Street. Just as the market was cooling off, Nora Cereceda paid $380,000 up-front — a $105K windfall over Rubio's 2003 purchase price. Cereceda, it turns out, is the mother of Dr. Mark Cereceda, a prominent chiropractor who had just spent months lobbying Rubio for his critical support of an insurance law. Rubio voted for the bill a few months after Nora bought his house.

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