With that bizarre gesture, Rubio completed a remarkable transformation from moderate, fresh-faced West Miami kid with only a battered Toyota to his name into one of the most powerful men in Tallahassee. In a little more than five years, he had morphed into a "conservative warrior" with three homes and a $300,000-per-year law gig; he had become a potential heir to the Bush legacy.

But even in the runup to his coronation as speaker, critics began to snipe that his ambition blinded him to the norms of ethical behavior. "He's a conniving opportunist who used his friends to get what he wanted," says a fellow Republican legislator who asked not to be named because he's still in the GOP. "He screwed Miami-Dade on budget after budget, and he got rich off his connections."

Rubio began the move from local to state power when Republican Rep. Carlos Valdes left his House seat in early 1999 to run for the 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.

Rubio wears number 46 for the South Miami High Cobras.
Rubio wears number 46 for the South Miami High Cobras.

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 had 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.

It's worth noting that his timing played a big role. Term limits went into effect the same year Rubio joined the House, forcing out a host of more experienced legislators. And Rubio had seniority on many others — by winning a special election, he had joined the House 11 months before many colleagues.

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I found the following paragraph most interesting, especially the final sentence:  "On May 2, 2008, Rubio's last day as speaker, his voice cracked as he dedicated his time in the House to his parents. 'I've been distracted almost my entire life by this obsession to do all the things they couldn't do,' Rubio said. 'So if I look a little hyper or a little focused... I want you to know what's driving me. I want them to know that their lives mattered.'"  So, in effect, what he is saying is, "Mom, Dad, your lives are so inconsequential, that without my making a huge success of my life, your lives will really not have mattered much at all."  In psychology, this is known as a "messiah complex" - "you folks are lost without me."  The problem is, there was and is only one Messiah, and Marco Rubio ain't he.

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