Daytona Beach, February 2007: 30 people gather at a medical billing office to hear a young Miami politician.
All they know about him is that he's about to become the speaker of the Florida House, and he supposedly shares their growing anger over property taxes and government spending.
"I loved him. I absolutely loved him," recalled Margie Patchett, leader of a local antitax group. "I thought, 'This is not your standard politician. This is a man of vision.' "
The scene played across Florida — from Panama City to Spring Hill to Sarasota. Marco Rubio shaped anger over soaring property taxes into the defining mark of his two years as speaker.
Today, the issue has been overlooked as Rubio stands atop the race for U.S. Senate. But that period was the foundation of his success, and it spawned another angst-ridden movement that has fueled his campaign: the tea party.
The 35-year-old standing before the small crowd in Daytona Beach seized the populist cause of property tax relief and used it to confront the governor and satisfy the antiestablishment rage on the ground.
When that rage turned on the federal government, Rubio was right there, with a repertoire of speaking skills honed to the cause. While he was blasting President Barack Obama's stimulus plan and declaring government spending out of control, Gov. Charlie Crist was giving the president a hug.
"What Florida was experiencing was just beginning to dawn on the country," said Brett Doster, a political strategist in Tallahassee. "His willingness to stand up put him on the leading cusp of what is now a strong antigovernment, anti-incumbency movement out there. He's developed a really loyal base."
The base was built in conference rooms and community halls, in airport hangars and on the steps of City Hall. Rubio's extensive travel introduced him to grass-roots leaders like Patchett, who now travels the state herself to talk about property taxes — and Marco Rubio.
Some of the first calls Rubio made after declaring his candidacy for Senate were to contacts he made in 2007. Partly with their help, he won a series of straw polls that represented the beginning of the end of Crist's run as a Republican.
And while most House speakers don't get much attention beyond Tallahassee, Rubio enjoyed widespread exposure because of property taxes. National TV networks visited him in Miami and conservative leaders in Washington talked him up.
"He's the most pro-taxpayer legislative leader in the country," Grover Norquist said at the time. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, invited Rubio to speak at his influential weekly Wednesday meeting and then endorsed him for Senate.
The base has gotten Rubio far, but his strength will be tested as the campaign moves to the general election. While he has raised the money to compete on TV — the ultimate battleground in Florida politics — he still has to show he can appeal to more than hard-line conservatives and tea partiers.
Already, momentum has cooled with Crist dropping out of the GOP primary to run as an independent. The conflict and contrast that riled up Rubio's supporters and drove a media story line has been sapped.
And Rubio's record on property taxes invites questions about his effectiveness. His ideas were big but mostly failed, even though his party controlled the Legislature. In the end, Crist prevailed with a simpler (and less substantial) property tax relief plan.
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Rubio said the idea for the property tax plan — eliminating the tax on homesteads in favor of a higher sales tax — grew out of his "100 Ideas'' concept. In the run-up to becoming speaker, he traveled the state holding so-called idea raisers with Floridians. Those suggestions were to be the basis for legislation.
As the "tax swap" (idea No. 96) emerged, Rubio got speaking invites from antitax groups around the state. He also made inroads with influential Realtors and home builders. As legislative colleagues returned home on weekends during the session, Rubio hit the road.
"I don't think there was a part of the state we didn't get to at least once," he said. The trips, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, put him in front of groups small and large.
"He took it to the street," said Lee Sullivan, chairman of the Bay Tax Foundation in Panama City, where Rubio spoke on several occasions. "You could tell that he wasn't just speaking about something, he was speaking about something he believed in."
The campaign-style tour reached a high pitch in April 2007 when antitax groups sent busloads of people to Tallahassee for a rally. They carried antigovernment signs and wore yellow T-shirts with picture of a man pulling out his hair. Crist made an appearance, but Rubio was the star.
"In Florida, we don't tax food. We don't tax medicine," Rubio said outside the Capitol. "How can we tax the American dream?"
Anger over soaring property taxes, the product of a hot real estate market, was something not seen in a long time in the Sunshine State. Hundreds of people started showing up at city council, county commission and school board hearings, pleading for relief. Local government was demonized as a relentless tax hog, and politicians in Tallahassee responded with a spending cap.
"Our fears were that local governments would be forced to cut back essential public service, and in fact that's what happened," said Sarah Bleakley, a local government lobbyist heavily involved in a showdown with Rubio and others pushing for more drastic cuts than what passed.
"I think he was really concerned about what he saw as a huge problem," she said. "But it could be a movement he capitalized on for his own political future."
The tea party as it's known today has been traced to a laid-off autoworker who moved to Florida and staged a small protest at Obama's rally in Fort Myers for the stimulus on Feb. 10, 2009. This was nine days before a lively discourse by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli that invoked the historic term and became a YouTube hit, with more than a million views.
But the property tax revolt shows the seeds were already planted.
"We did tea parties before they were cool," said Patchett, the activist from Volusia County.
The day after the Tallahassee rally, the House passed Rubio's tax swap on a mostly party-line vote. That was as far as it would go.
Senate Republicans mocked the plan as a massive tax increase, even though it would have cut a corresponding level of property tax. Some of the richest Florida homeowners would have gotten huge breaks while critics said the poor would be disproportionately hurt by a higher sales tax.
The Legislature struggled through two special sessions before achieving a plan, Amendment 1, that would provide an additional $25,000 homestead exemption, allow the transfer of Save Our Homes benefits and give businesses an assessment cap. Rubio gave it a backhanded endorsement.
Then, snubbing Crist, he got behind a plan to restrict taxes to 1.35 percent of the taxable value of any parcel of property. Rubio began to promote it even as Crist embarked on his own tour for Amendment 1, which in January 2008 gained the required 60 percent voter approval.
At a well-attended rally at City Hall in St. Petersburg, Rubio likened Crist's plan to "giving an aspirin to a cancer patient." The next day he was off to speak in Hernando County.
The tax issue still burned in the 2008 legislative session and it kept term-limited Rubio in demand with antitax groups across the state, and in the media. When he left office, his new fans sought him out on Facebook.
"I still run into original property tax activists who will talk about the day Marco came and stood with them," said David McKalip, a conservative activist who organized the rally in St. Petersburg.
"They'll say, 'Because of the way he stood up at that point, I'm supporting him now.' "
McKalip, a neurosurgeon, is doing his part. Last year, he held a fundraiser for Rubio that raised $20,000, and he continues to do grass-roots work.
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Rubio's tax tour, like the statewide travel for "100 Ideas,'' gave way to criticism that he was ultimately promoting himself.
"Speakers come and go," Rubio told the St. Petersburg Times in June 2007. "I'm not sure five years from now that someone is going to remember that I was at their town hall meeting in Hernando County."
"Marco took the time to come here back then and that has stead well. We paid attention," said Ana Trinque, a real estate agent and Republican leader in Hernando.
She cited the results of a local straw poll in September 2009: 46 votes for Rubio, 0 for Crist. "It has helped him tremendously."
Rubio, in an interview last week, acknowledged the political benefits he gained but insisted the only purpose was to push for real tax reform.
"In terms of sitting there saying, 'We're going to be famous,' certainly that wasn't the thought process. Most people were like, 'If this doesn't go our way, we're going to get blamed for this.' I think there were a lot more pitfalls."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.