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Rubio duels with Crist
The House speaker has different ideas on gambling, property taxes and more.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 3, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist has a lot to be happy about: a high public approval rating, low unemployment, another hurricane-free season.
But one person keeps chipping away at the governor's image - and he belongs to Crist's party.
House Speaker Marco Rubio is the only powerful politician in Florida consistently challenging Crist's middle-of-the-road, let's-all-get-along agenda.
Rubio wrote an op-ed piece calling Crist's ideas on climate change hurtful to Florida's economy. He wrote another one saying Crist was expanding gambling. Then, last month, he sued his fellow Republican over a casino deal struck with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Rubio has pushed for deeper property tax cuts, scoffing at the size of the Crist-backed plan passed by the Legislature.
By his words and actions, Rubio, 36, makes it clear that he believes that he - not Crist - is the true Republican. That is stirring talk about the Miami lawmaker's political motivations beyond 2008, when term limits force him from the Legislature.
"It sounds like he's trying to stick his toe in the gubernatorial waters," said former state Republican Party chairman Tom Slade.
Rubio and Crist are two very different people. One is ideological, and one is not. Crist is moving Florida to the center, putting pragmatism ahead of partisanship as his approval rating hovers around 65 percent.
Rubio sees himself as carrying the conservative torch that Jeb Bush held for eight years. As a show of loyalty, he has surrounded himself with former Bush staffers. All as Crist has dismantled the house Rubio so admired, starting with the recall of dozens of Bush nominations to various state boards and commissions.
"Gov. Crist is governing as a moderate and there's a fair number of Republican conservatives who are becoming disillusioned with him," said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. "Marco Rubio is the face of that movement."
The response by the conflict-averse Crist, at least in public, is to endlessly heap praise on Rubio as a great leader. But on one revealing occasion, Crist appeared to patronize Rubio, who is 15 years Crist's junior.
It was mid September and the Legislature's first attempt at property tax legislation was over. Sensing widespread disappointment with the proposal, Rubio gathered top business lobbyists to discuss plans. "My goal," Rubio said, looking into a wall of TV cameras, "is to fix the property tax crisis in Florida."
Suddenly, there was a commotion at the door behind Rubio. Crist walked in, stood over Rubio, put his hand on his shoulder and thanked him for his "passion." At once the governor seemed to acknowledge the threat Rubio presents and also assert his dominance. Crist's body language said it all: I'm the boss.
Rubio seemed unfazed.
Two months later, the power struggle has taken on sharper tones as Crist's poll numbers have dropped among his conservative base they remain remarkably high among Democrats and the public grows restless over property taxes and insurance.
The lawsuit over the 25-year gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe claims the governor usurped the Legislature's ability to review a deal. On Friday, the Senate filed a motion supporting the suit. Arguments before the state Supreme Court begin Dec. 12.
Rubio has also joined forces with a citizen petition drive seeking to limit property tax bills to 1.35 percent of the taxable value of any property. To help gather signatures, Rubio may travel the state this month - about the same time Crist will begin campaigning for the property tax plan on the Jan. 29 ballot.
Rubio has hired, at $6,000 a month for six months, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help shape energy policy for the 2008 legislative session. Rubio thinks the issue needs to be approached through business-driven solutions. The governor, meanwhile, has signed executive orders to force change.
Few doubt Rubio has statewide appeal. The first Cuban-American to hold the post of House speaker and one of the youngest speakers in modern history, Rubio has the air of a political star. He is a commanding public speaker with a hopeful, energetic persona.
Some observers see the competition between Rubio and Crist as healthy for the Republican Party.
"These internal conflicts are welcome, provided the parties can maintain decorum," said former Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who clashed with Gov. Bush over growth management and medical malpractice policy.
Publicly, neither side acknowledges the friction.
Asked recently how the governor was doing, Rubio said "very good," considering the worsening economy "that's not his doing."
Crist's chief of staff, George LeMieux, who accused Rubio of showing a lack of leadership by filing the lawsuit, said, "It's not something we think about. Ninety-nine percent of the time the governor and the speaker see eye to eye."
The Crist-Rubio conflict raises a tantalizing prospect of a 2010 Republican primary for governor. It is the talk of Tallahassee, but few seriously believe anything will materialize.
"Republicans believe in waiting your turn," said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University and a friend of Rubio's. "I think it would be a terrible mistake to run against Crist. Marco would be viewed as disloyal to the party."
So what is available to Rubio? He could run for Miami-Dade mayor next year. Several state Senate seats from Miami will open up soon. U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez has faced a rocky first term and could be vulnerable to challenge.
"The one great thing about politics is you never know when the next opportunity will present itself," said former GOP chairman Al Cardenas. "Marco Rubio is one of our handful of rising stars and has a statewide future. The question is where."
Times capital bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.