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Rubio off to poor start

Marco Rubio, the new speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, is smart, young and ambitious. He also has a lot to learn. The first impression the 35-year-old Miami Republican carefully cultivated as a new style of inclusive leader is quickly morphing into an unflattering caricature of an old-style power broker.

Rubio the reformer organized brainstorming meetings around the state and created a Web site and a book of 100 ideas that could improve Florida. He pledged to include Democrats, who have gained six seats in the House, in public policy debates instead of ignoring them. The three days of meetings he organized this week to educate all House members about property insurance and brainstorm a bit in anticipation of next month's special session were refreshingly open and inclusive.

Rubio the imperial speaker is a throwback who already is indulging in the excesses of money, cronyism and secrecy. He scheduled meetings of House Republicans at the pricey WaterColor resort in Santa Rosa Beach, conveniently distant from the capital press corps and any scrutiny. Lobbyists were solicited to write checks to the state Republican Party to underwrite the cost, a transparent end run around the gift ban law.

Back in the Capitol, Rubio has demonstrated a similar hubris that raises red flags about his judgment. He has gone on a wild spending spree on renovating offices, throwing around six-figure salaries and creating new jobs. His new spokesman will earn more than $119,000, some $23,000 more than the governor's communications director. The governor's former budget director will be paid $60,000 as a six-month consultant, even though the House has its own experienced budget staffers. Rubio's spokesman says it costs money to bring in top talent, but the search in many cases led no further than departing Gov. Jeb Bush's staff. A House speaker who so publicly solicited new ideas isn't going to get many by surrounding himself with Bush believers who couldn't find more lucrative work in the private sector.

But Rubio apparently isn't so concerned about public perception and access now that he's in charge. Among the changes in the Capitol is a new dining room for House members only that will be off-limits to reporters and the rest of the public. No need to mingle with the masses in the Capitol cafeteria or the restaurants down the street. The private retreat is billed as a way to save time and work harder, but it easily will become a hideaway to conduct public business. This clubby sense of privilege is part of Washington that should not be imitated by part-time legislators in Tallahassee.

It isn't unusual for incoming House speakers to spend a little public money to move around a few walls and hire a few political allies. But the smarter ones manage some self-restraint. Rubio failed to learn that lesson or notice how the abuse of power by Republicans in Congress led to a regime change by the voters.

The regular session of the Legislature is still three months away. There will be plenty of opportunities for the new House speaker to demonstrate he has the political acumen to help lead this state now and to position himself for a possible run for higher office in the future. But he has not handled himself well in the early going, and he needs to lose the sense of entitlement before he does permanent damage to his reputation.

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