Early in the legislative session, Rep. Carlos Trujillo made an aggressive attempt to derail the Miami Dolphins’ push for taxpayer-supported stadium renovations.
It was a curious move for a little-known state representative from West Kendall. Working against the so-called Dolphins bill meant bucking Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, senior members of the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation and powerful lobbyist Ron Book.
“Carlos didn’t come to Tallahassee to be a shrinking violet,” Book later said. “He came here to compete.”
That intensity, observers say, has propelled Trujillo from relative obscurity into the exclusive ranks of rising House leaders. This year alone, Trujillo has shepherded two high-profile proposals to a favorable vote on the House floor — one a sweeping proposal that outlaws Internet cafes and the gaming machines known as maquinitas — all while proving his conservative bona fides and building important relationships for South Florida’s team of lawmakers.
Trujillo was born in 1983 on Long Island in New York, and moved to Miami as a kid with his family. He graduated from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School and Spring Hill College, a Jesuit liberal arts college in Alabama, before enrolling at the Florida State University College of Law.
Trujillo’s first job out of law school was as a prosecutor for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. He later became a founding partner at Trujillo Vargas LLP, a private Miami law firm.
Trujillo said he never gave much thought to politics, until another young Belen graduate — former state Rep. Marcelo Llorente — was term limited out of his state House seat in 2010. Three years later, Trujillo has made an impression.
“People in Tallahassee are talking about what a great session he’s having,” said Dario Moreno, a pollster and political science professor at Florida International University.
But establishing credibility in Tallahassee has cost him some support at home. Parent groups and the teachers’ union have blasted Trujillo for sponsoring the controversial parent trigger bill, a proposal they say benefits for-profit education companies at the expense of struggling public schools. He’s also come under the microscope for his sometimes abrasive style.
“He’s really misrepresented how parents feel about the issue,” said Joe Gebara, vice president of advocacy and legislation for the Miami-Dade Counsel of PTAs/PTSAs. “Instead of listening to real moms and dads, he listened to the Foundation for Florida’s Future and other groups that want to privatize public education.”
As a lawmaker, Trujillo resembles the Miami-Dade prosecutor he used to be. He’s quick to respond with pointed arguments, and not always worried about whom he might offend.
“He’s not to be trifled with lightly,” said future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, with whom Trujillo has become close. “You’re going to have to come with your A-game or he’s going to politely let you know you’re wrong on the policy.”
Trujillo said it’s all in the training.
“Working as a prosecutor gives you the confidence to put yourself out there and to advocate zealously for an issue,” he said. “You have to put it all out there and convince six random people that your side is the right side.”
It helps that he takes the job seriously. Rather than stay in a bachelor pad with other young lawmakers, Trujillo spends the session in the Tallahassee suburbs with his wife Carmen and their two young children. He bought the house while attending law school.
Trujillo has been steadfast in his opinions, including his opposition to the Dolphins bill.
“None of my constituents said, ‘Make sure the Dolphins get that roof,’ ” he said. “It’s very poor policy and it would have been dangerous as a politician to not take a stand.”
Book, who represents the team, conceded that some of the changes made to the House proposal were attempts to win Trujillo’s support. The legislation has stalled in the lower chamber, and has morphed into a dramatically different proposal in the Senate.
Trujillo’s biggest test, however, came after a sweeping Internet gaming scandal forced the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Trujillo had been working on legislation to outlaw online slot machines for nearly five months. But headlines about Carroll’s resignation put Trujillo’s bill on a fast track.
“Everything happened at once,” Trujillo recalled. “It was like, your bill is coming up. Be prepared.”
With a packed gallery looking on, Trujillo carried the bill to a 108-7 vote on the House floor. Later, House Speaker Will Weatherford praised Trujillo’s efforts to a gaggle of reporters.
Trujillo followed up by convincing the lower chamber to approve the parent trigger bill — one of the session’s most controversial issues. The proposal would enable parents to demand sweeping changes at struggling public schools, including having the school transformed into a charter school.
The parent trigger is a priority for former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose foundation has had a hand in Florida education policy for more than a decade.
But as much as Bush wants to see the proposal become law, parents, teachers’ unions and school district officials want to see it die. The groups hurled sharp criticism at Trujillo at each of the bill’s three committee stops.
Trujillo made some gaffes. In the House Education Committee, he said children at struggling public schools were headed to prison or the welfare line. Rep. Cynthia Stafford said she was “insulted.”
“He did apologize and that speaks to his character, too,” said Stafford, a Miami Democrat who attended struggling schools as a kid. “But I would hope the next time when he chooses to debate that he might choose his words a little more carefully.”
PTA members were equally as outraged when Trujillo said parents are “in charge of the bake sales” when the bill was read on the House floor. They hammered him on Twitter and Facebook for the next week.
But Patricia Levesque, a longtime lobbyist and executive director of Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, said Trujillo was “very articulate in his defense of the bill.”
“He has a future ahead of himself in leadership,” she added. “It takes smart and articulate individuals who are courageous enough to carry the more controversial pieces of legislation.”
In retrospect, Trujillo said he might have phrased some of his debating points differently. He apologized to the parents, too, he said.
But Trujillo said he refuses to be swayed by the politics.
“There’s a fear in Tallahassee — a fear that you won’t get reelected, that you won’t be a senator,” Trujillo said. “I’m not worried about that. My firm has been in business for two years. I know I can always go back to a nice setup in Miami. I feel free. I can speak my mind.”