TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ New Senate President Mike Haridopolos is friendly, polite and politically ambitious, along the lines of Charlie Crist, albeit distinctly more conservative than the former Republican governor.
And like Crist, the boyish, 40-year-old college history professor wants to be a U.S. senator and he's confident he won't make any of the missteps that befelled Crist.
“The big difference between the (former) governor and I is that no one is really questioning where I am coming from,'' the Merritt Island Republican said during an interview in his doorless, spacious fourth-floor Capitol office. “I know where the North Star is. The governor (Crist) always thought there was a new route.''
But Haridopolos has made enemies and been disciplined by the state ethics commission during his climb to the Senate president's office, and some have accused him of being hypocritical and unethical.
Haridopolos already has set his sights on Democrat Bill Nelson's U.S. Senate seat before presiding over his first session in the Legislature, but he's certain that those 2012 aspirations won't interfere with his new duties.
“I think I'll be judged on how I do my current job,'' said Haridopolos, a self-described delegator. “My job is to be the spokesman and keep the trains running on time.''
While he plans to leave a lot of the details his committee chairs, Haridopolos will also have to get along with Gov. Rick Scott, a fellow Republican and political newcomer with his own strong ideas for curing some of the state's budget ills.
“We're looking for ways to say yes to each other, not looking for ways to fight,'' Haridopolos said following Scott's victory in November. But, he added, “we don't want to see anything ramrodded through.''
And Scott, at least at first blush, looks like a ramrod kind of guy.
Both Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, say they agree with Scott's goals of repealing business regulations, cutting taxes and slashing the size of government, although maybe not on how they'll get there. Both have expressed skepticism whether taxes can be cut while Florida is facing a potential budget shortfall of $3.6 billion to $4.6 billion.
The legislative session that begins March 8 will give observers a better look at how well the three will be able to work together.
“We know that when we operate the government more like a business we create more jobs and more opportunities in this state,'' Haridopolos said after Scott defeated former Attorney General Bill McCollum to win the GOP nomination.
And with the 2012 election already beginning to focus, albeit still fuzzy, Haridopolos believes voters made it clear last November that they want tougher immigration laws and a say on the federal health care plan passed by Congress.
“The beauty of running for the U.S. Senate is that I don't have to change who I am,'' he said. “It's a time that calls for a conservative on financial issues.''
Some are already trying to derail his Senate bid. A Democratic group, “Progress Florida,'' has created a Website www.Dirtyhari.org that it claims exposes the lawmaker's “lack of judgment and apparent absence of scruples.''
He was reproached by the Florida Commission on Ethics last year when he admitted failing to disclose assets and clients who paid him tens of thousands of dollars between 2004 and 2008.
“It was very embarrassing,'' Haridopolos conceded. “By law, if you make a mistake, you're guilty. I made a mistake.''
He acknowledged omitting a $400,000 investment home in Mount Dora from his annual financial disclosure forms, as well as leaving out the names of the two clients of a consulting firm he owns. Syntax Communications of West Sayville, N.Y., paid Haridopolos about $25,000 from 2004 through 2006, while Melbourne-based Marketshare Systems, the advertising arm of Appliance Direct, paid him $72,000 in 2007 and 2008.
Haridopolos still owns the home that is now worth about half of what he paid for it in 2006. He has, however, moved into a $1.2 million beachfront home recently.
He's also been criticized for taking a part-time teaching job at the University of Florida that pays him $75,000. Haridopolos teaches a class in the fall and leads an internship program in Tallahassee in the spring. Just five years ago he was paid less than $4,000 a year at UF.
The son of a retired FBI agent, Haridopolos' dream growing up was to work for the Secret Service, but a hiring freeze by the federal government in the early 1990s changed his course.
“He was pretty down about that, pretty bummed,'' said Ben Wheeler, a former Haridopolos roommate at Stetson University, who drove him to that 1992 Orlando interview. “He wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps.''
That disappointment led Haridopolos to graduate school at the University of Arkansas and eventually academia as a history professor at Brevard Community College.
“He always had more interest in politics than anybody else at school,'' Wheeler recalled. “He was pretty into what was going on in politics and of course studying political science and history.''
And while he'd never sought any kind of office in either high school or college, Haridopolos was eager to give elective office a shot after church friends encouraged him to run for the state House of Representatives in 2000.
But not everyone shared his enthusiasm.
Former Brevard County Republican Party Chairman Ray Marino practically laughed the fuzzy-cheeked Haridopolos out of his office and told him to get a real job and come back later.
Haridopolos ignored that advice and hit the street corners at drive time with a sign, “what's a haridopolos?'' that created enough attention to energize his underdog effort. Some folks who saw the lower case 'h' and 's' wondered if he was homeless.
Haridopolos prevailed in a six-way GOP primary and that momentum carried him to an easy victory in the general election. The then unknown politician loaned himself $6,000 during that first campaign, the only time he's had to do that.
Last month he came away with $1 million at a fundraiser for his U.S. Senate bid, much of it from lobbyists needing his attention during a legislative session when money is tight.
Haridopolos is married to a family practice physician, Dr. Stephanie Bressan, and they are the parents to three young children.