By Michael E. Miller
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In 1959, the young family immigrated to the United States and briefly moved to New York before settling in Miami, where both parents found work in a factory stitching nylon beach chairs together. Mario Sr. soon found a better job as a bar back and bartender in the newly flourishing hotels along the sand in Miami Beach. This allowed Oria some time to raise Mario and his sister Barbara, who was born in 1960. Later, she went back to work as a stock clerk and swept floors at Kmart.
Marco was born May 28, 1971. His dad was 44 years old and his mom 40. Another sister, Veronica, followed the next year. By then, the family had moved to West Miami. The boy would spend long summer afternoons on the patio talking politics with Pedro Victor Garcia, his grandfather. "He asked a lot of questions you wouldn't expect from a kid that age," his brother Mario says. "He spent a lot of time with my grandfather, just sitting there and talking."
The family returned to South Florida in 1985, when Marco was 14 years old, in time for him to attend South Miami High. By his junior year, in 1987, he had made the varsity football team.
"He was always smiling," says Kelsey Toomer, one of the team's quarterbacks. "He was one of those positive influences at practice."
"He wasn't a vocal leader," adds Joe Toomer, Kelsey's brother, who started at cornerback, "but guys did look up to him because he worked hard."
Still, Rubio showed enough talent to earn a scholarship to Tarkio College, a tiny school in northwest Missouri, where he played for one season. In 1992, the school closed after going into bankruptcy, so Rubio transferred to a junior college and then the University of Florida. He graduated in 1993 and then earned a law degree from the University of Miami.
His political career began during his last term in law school when he ran Dade County's efforts for Bob Dole's presidential campaign. The job brought him into contact with men who would shape his political career: Al Cardenas, a prominent lawyer and later the state GOP chairman; Al Lorenzo, a campaign manager who was becoming Dade County's kingmaker; and Jeb Bush, the ex-president's son and future Florida governor.
After Dole lost, Rubio went to work for Cardenas' law firm, Tew Cardenas. At that time, he met a former Dolphins cheerleader named Jeanette Dousdebes, a gorgeous Colombian-American with long blond hair. They married in 1998. That same year, he decided to run for City Commission in West Miami, a hamlet of 5,800 people tucked south of Tamiami Trail and west of Red Road.
The next week, Rubio began knocking on doors in West Miami. His opponent, incumbent Tania Rozio, was a community activist. She couldn't believe this 26-year-old kid had the backing of Sosa and a big-league manager like Lorenzo. "I'm not a politician, and I never have been," Rozio says. "He was 20-something, and he was already a professional politician. It was no contest."
On election night, Rubio and the other commissioners gathered at West Miami's small city hall, a squat building tucked behind Tropical Supermarket on Calle Ocho. A half-hour after Rubio won by a convincing 744 to 244, the phone rang.
"It was Jeb Bush himself, calling to congratulate Marco for winning our little race," recalls Enrique Gonzalez, who also won a seat that year. "He was the anointed golden child even then."
It's 2005, and Jeb Bush stands behind the dais of the Florida House of Representatives, staring at a standing-room crowd gathered to fete the first Cuban-American to take the speaker's gavel.
The youthful governor clears his throat and launches into one of the strangest speeches ever given in Tallahassee. "Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society," he intones. "I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side, and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down."
Bush turns to Marco Rubio and, with a flourish, unsheaths a gleaming golden sword. "I'm going to bestow upon you the sword of a great conservative warrior," Bush says, gently placing the weapon in Rubio's outstretched arms. (Bush never did explain who Chang was, though some believe he was referring to Chinese warlord Chiang Kai-shek.)
With that bizarre gesture, Rubio completed a remarkable transformation from moderate, fresh-faced West Miami kid with only a battered Toyota to his name into one of the most powerful men in Tallahassee. In a little more than five years, he had morphed into a "conservative warrior" with three homes and a $300,000-per-year law gig; he had become a potential heir to the Bush legacy.
But even in the run-up to his coronation as speaker, critics began to snipe that his ambition blinded him to the norms of ethical behavior. "He's a conniving opportunist who used his friends to get what he wanted," says a fellow Republican legislator who asked not to be named because he's still in the GOP. "He screwed Miami-Dade on budget after budget, and he got rich off his connections."