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  1. Florida Politics

Feisty Senate candidate Carlos Beruff's journey from near-ruin to riches

TALLAHASSEE —Carlos Beruff was in ruins.

The tough-talking Republican U.S. Senate candidate boasts of his business success as a key selling point to voters. He turned a help-wanted ad into a home building business worth more than $150 million, his campaign touts.

But it's failure, he says, that ultimately put him in the position he is in today: a confident campaigner willing to put millions of his own money into his first-ever bid for political office.

His low point came in the early 1990s. After a decade of "pulling rabbits out of hats" to live another day in the land development business, Beruff had run out of magic.

"I almost went broke," said Beruff, one of five Republicans in the Senate race. "I didn't file bankruptcy, but I had some miserable times there for two or three years."

He was just 34 years old. But his fast ascent in the world of real estate was crumbling. A college drop-out, he was $20 million in debt and fending off more than a dozen subcontractors who were suing for more than $150,000 worth of unpaid bills. It wasn't just his business in shambles. After 14 years, he and his first wife divorced in 1996.

Steve Jonsson, a banker who had known Beruff for about 10 years, feared his client and friend was going under. But Jonsson said the fiery Beruff — though he had almost no leverage — passionately argued for more time to pay his debts. Jonsson said Beruff's confidence won him over.

"He said, 'I'm never going down this road again,'" Jonsson said.

His mistakes were clear, Beruff says. "It was youth and stupidity."

It's that blunt, in-your-face language that leads to comparisons between Beruff and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Beruff talks about "political crap" in ads, calls government appointees "morons" and "idiots," refuses to back away from labeling President Obama an "animal" and is quick to interject "hell no" when he disagrees with a question. Beruff acknowledges a similarity to Trump in that both are businessmen, but says he is not trying to emulate the New York billionaire.

For one, Beruff wasn't born rich like Trump. So he said he had to make some hard choices to recover from his near-bankruptcy, including moving out of his home to a cheaper rental. It took five years of working with creditors and bankers to recover.

"Everything I've learned, I've learned with the beatings I've gotten from all of the bad choices I made," said Beruff, now 58.

He and his allies point to that relentless attitude as critical to his success in business, which in turn led him into politics and even gave him a second chance at marriage.

"When he commits to do something, he is very focused and methodical," said Tramm Hudson, a Sarasota banker who became a friend and political mentor.

But critics say Beruff is driven not just to win but to destroy the careers of his enemies — from a community college president in Bradenton to a 22-year county commission incumbent in Manatee County.

"He's a political bully," said Joe McClash, who is an ex-Manatee County commissioner largely because of Beruff who spent $60,000 for campaign ads that helped defeat McClash.

Cuban connections

When Beruff launched his campaign for the Senate in February he did so in his birthplace, Miami, underscoring his parents' background as Cuban refugees.

In early 1957, Fidel Castro had not yet taken power. But Sylvia Vilarello and Marco Tulio Beruff were in hiding because they were involved in the failed attacks on the presidential palace in Havana. To avoid capture the couple fled to Miami. Nine months later, on New Year's Day in 1958, Carlos Miguel Beruff was born. The family returned to Cuba after Castro came to power, but Beruff's mother brought him back to Miami in 1961. His father, whom he would not see for decades, stayed behind.

In 1970, his mother remarried Carlos Tepedino, a Coral Gables jeweler who ran La Diadem Jewelers in the Havana Hilton prior to the Castro regime's takeover. In the 1950s, Tepedino, whom Beruff considers his father, worked with the CIA and tried to recruit an assassin to kill Castro, declassified CIA records show.

Beruff and his parents moved to New York when he was 12, but returned to Florida in 1973 to finish high school and attend college, though he never received a degree. Beruff turned to the jewelry business, first in Tampa then in New York City.

Beruff said New York wasn't working for his girlfriend, Christine DeSantis, whom he describes as a small town girl from Ohio who would become his first wife in 1982.

"New York was just overwhelming," Beruff said. "She was going to leave. So when you are in love you just, you know — we were going back to Tampa."

His career in jewelry ended in 1980 thanks to a newspaper ad. U.S. Home was looking for a salesman in Sarasota.

"I knew nothing about selling houses," Beruff said. "I couldn't even spell mortgage."

But Beruff said the ads promised $3,000 a month, plus commission. Given he was making $28,000 a year, Beruff said the path was clear.

Though a young guy selling homes in a retirement village, Beruff had a knack for it, said Pat Neal, a Manatee County developer who met Beruff in the early 1980s as a competitor.

"It was his directness," Neal said, adding that Beruff was selling homes where others failed.

Beruff created Medallion Home in 1984 and teamed with Neal on projects that "made me a lot of money," Neal said.

But Beruff's homebuilding career hasn't been without controversy. In 2010, Medallion was identified as having used defective Chinese-made drywall in some homes. More than 7,000 homes in the U.S. have been reported to have the drywall, which studies have shown emitted sulfur gas that can corrode electrical wiring and trigger respiratory irritation. Medallion was part of a national class action lawsuit resolved in 2012 that ordered Medallion and others to fix damaged homes.

After Beruff launched his campaign, a rival Republican in the Senate race, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis (no relation to Christine DeSantis) created a website accusing Beruff of "shady" business practices because of the issue.

Second chances

Beruff's rejuvenated career also brought him another chance at marriage. In 2010, after two years of dating, he re-married. When they first met, Janelle Knight was a civil engineer for a Medallion subcontractor. Beruff dismisses the 22-year age gap between the couple, saying, "She's so much more mature than I am."

The couple now has a two-year-old boy and they are expecting another child this summer. Beruff also has an 18-year-old son.

Business rebirth also led to politics. From 2001 to 2006, Beruff handed out more than $73,000 to politicians. The biggest recipient then was Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist. Though campaign laws barred people from giving more than $500, Beruff used 17 business entities he controls to give $36,000 to Crist and the Republican Party of Florida, which was under Crist's direction after he won the primary.

Beruff has put more than $1 million into political campaigns since 2001.

It's paid off in appointments. In 2008, Crist appointed him to the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Authority, a water management board and the State College of Florida board of trustees. Gov. Rick Scott re-appointed Beruff, who donated almost $100,000 to his campaigns and political action committee, to all three boards and put him in charge of one of his pet projects — a commission to ferret out waste in hospital spending.

In 2011, State College of Florida board member Beruff focused his attention on college president Lars Hafner. He questioned Hafner's salary and benefits and probed spending on the school's tennis center and a struggling charter school, both championed by Hafner, a Democrat and former state legislator.

Beruff even personally hired a handwriting expert to try to prove Hafner forged documents, that Hafner said he signed with permission. Hafner told the Times in 2013 that Beruff warned him in a private meeting to resign or he'd destroy his career — a threat Beruff denies making. Although a state law enforcement report cleared Hafner of wrongdoing, the board, with Beruff at the helm, pursued Hafner's ouster until he resigned.

Beruff bristles at accusations that he was on a witch hunt. "There was no personal vendetta," he said.

He has a similar response when asked about McClash. Beruff said the former Manatee County Commissioner, a Republican, had become like a Democrat in pushing to restrict development. Beruff put more than $61,000 into the campaign for Republican Betsy Benac and into a political action committee that ran ads against McClash, who lost in 2012 by 494 votes.

"He's a dangerous man," said McClash, who also compared Beruff to a dictator who refuses to ease up on anything until he gets his way.

Beruff said none of his political fights are personal. He called McClash a career politician who lost his way. It's not unlike a philosophy Beruff brings to his Senate race. In ads he rails against career politicians and says his outsider approach will clean up Washington. After decades of giving money to others to get the job done, he decided it was time for him to try.

It's very much patterned after Scott, whom Beruff praises for bringing an outsiders view to Tallahassee as governor. Scott frequently tells business leaders to follow his path and run for office. Beruff said Scott didn't directly tell him to run, but acknowledges Scott's success encouraged him.

Scott says he has no favorite in the race, but his actions hint at some partiality. At a Republican Party event in Sarasota last month, Scott, a former hospital executive, heaped praise on Beruff and detailed his work on the college board and water management district as evidence of him saving taxpayers' money.

"I want to wish Carlos Beruff unbelievable success," Scott said.

Days earlier in Pasco County, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who is also running for the Senate, was in the audience when Scott spoke, but received scant recognition from his boss. When it was time for Lopez-Cantera to speak, Scott was making his way to a back exit through the kitchen.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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