Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is emerging as the champion of activists fed up with Republicans who don't stay true to conservative principles.
But if those turning against Gov. Charlie Crist are looking for a pure, uncompromising conservative, Rubio's legislative record might give them pause.
"He was a big disappointment to us when he was the speaker,'' said NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, who saw Rubio do little to help pass a bill allowing employees to bring guns to work. "He talked the talk, but he didn't walk the walk."
As speaker of the House, Rubio consistently presented smaller budgets than the governor and the Senate. But he also spent eight years casting votes and cutting deals that reflect the reality of the legislative process: Hard-line ideology rarely triumphs over compromise.
The 38-year-old campaigning as an authentic, from-the-gut conservative is the same person who spent tens of thousands of dollars to test political messages on focus groups, gave out big staff salaries and, like Crist, favored a $60 million subsidy for a new Florida Marlins stadium.
Rubio says he knew nothing about it, but his hand-picked budget chief, Ray Sansom, was able to funnel $35 million to a Panhandle college — actions that led to a grand jury indictment against Sansom.
The candidate Rubio rails against big-government spending and assures voters that as a senator he won't slip earmarks into the federal budget. As speaker, however, he didn't mind a state budget with $800,000 tucked away for artificial turf on Miami-Dade fields where he played flag football.
The turf (listed as a juvenile crime prevention initiative) was among $50 million in pork targeted to the speaker's home county and more than $400 million in projects and initiatives that Crist vetoed in 2007.
"He may be a conservative in his rhetoric, but when you look at his record in what he has supported and what he has voted on in the past, he is definitely not the conservative he portrays himself to be,'' said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a Crist supporter.
In a 2002 speech on the House floor, Fasano thundered against a measure introduced by Rubio that asked voters to allow a panel of legislators to review every sales tax exemption with an eye toward repealing them.
That bill was part of a horse-trading deal that ensured then-Senate President John McKay would see sales tax reviews and then-House Speaker Tom Feeney would have a congressional seat carved out for him. A legal challenge ultimately stripped the proposal from the ballot, and Rubio said it merely asked voters to give legislators authority they already had.
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Rubio, who was speaker during the 2007 and 2008 sessions, said he understands people will probably find things to attack among thousands of votes he has cast but stands proudly behind the overall record.
"In life, as in policy, things don't always fit into neat little boxes, but overwhelmingly I have a record that testifies to a commitment to limited government,'' he said. "And certainly someone you can rely on to go to Washington and stand up to the Obama agenda — unlike my opponent."
Still, Rubio voted for some of the same measures for which he now criticizes Crist.
• He criticizes the governor for expanding Citizens Property Insurance Corp., Florida's government-run property insurer, though he voted to do just that. "The bill had a lot of other things in it that were good for Florida,'' Rubio said.
• He bashes Crist for pushing a cap-and-trade program to lower greenhouse emissions, but Rubio voted for the bill that specifically declared that the Legislature wants the state to pursue market-based strategies such as cap-and-trade.
Rubio notes the bill placed legislative controls on the governor's environmental agenda, but Jerry Karnas of the Environmental Defense Fund called Rubio's recent cap-and-trade rhetoric a "total reversal" from his position as House speaker.
"He seemed much more moderate, more forward-thinking,'' agreed Susan Glickman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There's definitely some posturing going on now."
• Rubio has criticized Crist for seeking a gambling accord with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. But a House speaker can kill any legislation he wishes, and Rubio stood by as his chamber pursued the largest expansion of gambling in more than 15 years. (And he took some industry contributions, though he said it had no influence.)
"I voted against the bills that ultimately passed. . . . There are limits to what a speaker can and should do," said Rubio, whose top deputy and close friend Rep. David Rivera went on to run a campaign to expand gambling in Miami-Dade County.
• As a candidate, Rubio talks about securing the nation's borders and says he does not support amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
But as the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, he came across as more moderate and understanding of the nuances of the issue. During Rubio's final year as speaker, at least six bills intended to crack down on illegal immigrants. Not one made it to a vote.
"He's all of a sudden saying, 'I've seen the light and I had nothing to do with those bills,' " said Bill Landes, director of the Florida Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. "But the real truth is it was him (and other South Florida lawmakers) who helped keep those bills in committee. He's saying what the people want to hear to get elected."
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Rubio's fiscal conservatism was called into question as soon as he assumed the role of speaker. He spent hundreds of thousands on renovations, including a private dining room for lawmakers, hired the highest-paid spokesman in state government (one with no state government experience) and added more than 20 jobs, including a parliamentarian earning nearly $134,000.
"Our goal is to make the Florida House the host for the most vibrant competition of ideas in the entire nation," Rubio said at the time, noting the renovations were less than some past speakers made. "In order to accomplish this, we felt we had to provide our members with the most talented and experienced staff possible."
Nobody who served with Rubio in the Legislature would call him a squishy moderate, and he consistently brandished the conservative label even as he espoused a more inclusive House — a promise Democrats say he did not entirely live up to.
"You can't be popular and lead," Rubio said early in his term as speaker.
It sounds like something Jeb Bush would say. Indeed, Bush anointed Rubio as his ideological heir in 2005 by giving him an ancient Chinese sword in a ceremony in the House chamber. Rubio kept the sword in his office, a reminder to stay true to conservative values.
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Rubio's biggest test as speaker would come as the soaring Florida housing market caused property taxes to increase sharply, swelling local government coffers. Rubio played the issue masterfully, offering a "tax swap" proposal that cast him as a bold thinker and using speaking engagements across the state to cultivate name recognition and generate news coverage.
The tax swap called for increasing the sales tax rate by 2.5 percent while eliminating property taxes on primary homes.
The hot-button issue afforded Rubio his first and strongest platform to draw a distinction with Crist, who pushed more populist ideas such as doubling the homestead exemption.
Yet, in the end, Rubio acquiesced to Crist and the more cautious Senate, which rejected his plan as a $9 billion tax increase, despite greater property tax savings.
"The poor are going to get poorer and the rich are going to get richer," former Sen. Dan Webster, a conservative icon, said at the time. He flatly refused the idea. "I'm not into raising taxes. They are."
By "they," he meant Rubio, who hammered away at the idea to the private discomfort of some House Republicans.
Time and again, Rubio's big ideas lost out to the Senate, showing the limits of his influence even as he got credit for pushing the debate.
"We always let them take the role of the 'upper house,' " said former Rep. Don Brown, among the most conservative members of the Legislature who opposed Rubio by voting against the bill to expand Citizens insurance. As a result, Brown and another dissenter were forced from their leadership positions.
But Brown does not fault Rubio (he supports him over Crist) and says the young speaker merely met the reality of the process.
"To get some piece of the pie you have to give in or else you get absolutely nothing and you're accused of being an obstructionist," Brown said. "There's a lot of pressure on those in that leadership position."
Miami Herald reporter Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]