Marco Rubio Has Risen With Lightning Speed, but Conservatives Alone Can't Carry Him to the White House
Four days after his 39th birthday, Marco Rubio flashes a toothy grin in a sunlit conference hall. Crow's-feet wrinkle around his eyes as 60 supporters, mostly gray-haired and clad in pastel polos, stand and clap. More than one hand reaches for a hearing aid before the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate speaks to the group gathered in the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
Rubio, who is handsome in a boyish, Young Republican way, launches into his stump speech with a jarringly weak voice. His tone is nasal, and his rhythm is marred by a slight lisp.
His message, though, resonates: His parents migrated from Cuba to Miami to give him a better life; the Obama administration is dangerous; the federal debt will crush the next generation.
"We are at a real crossroads," he gravely tells the gathering. "There are only two ways we can go. Either my children, your children, and your grandchildren can grow up to be the freest, most prosperous Americans ever... or else they will be the first generation to inherit from their parents and grandparents a diminished nation."
After the 15-minute speech, each voter sees just what he or she wants to see in Rubio. To Dick Dietz, a retired manufacturing vice president, he promises a return to Reagan Republicanism.
To Bryan Tupper, a snaggletoothed, unemployed 27-year-old from Bradenton, he's a fire-breathing reformer.
To two elderly precinct captains covered in Rubio buttons, he's the kind of pragmatic dealmaker who can get things done in Washington.
None of these views is quite accurate. Though Rubio declined multiple invitations for an interview over the past year, New Times trailed him for a month across 1,300 miles of rallies, from Tampa Bay to Orlando. We also spoke to family, friends, former football teammates, and present-day adversaries.
Rubio, we found, is a world-class opportunist with an uncanny habit of being in the right place at the right time. He's driven, ambitious, and relentless. And he's a hypocrite: a "fiscally conservative" Republican who has let his own home lapse into foreclosure, likely abused state party credit cards, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in political donations on personal expenses. He's a supposed outsider who's been a party-line politician since he was 26 years old.
It's possible the Glenn Beck-inspired masses who propelled Rubio to become the "First Senator From the Tea Party" — as the New York Times famously dubbed him in January — will detect his flaws before it's too late. Voters in the general election might decide they prefer Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent, or Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Although Crist has held a narrow lead in the polls, Rubio's remarkable fundraising makes him a likely favorite to win the Senate seat. And that will position him for an infinitely bigger prize. Republican sages, from Rudy Giuliani to Grover Norquist to Newt Gingrich, have touted Rubio for the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2012.
"It's no secret that Marco wants to be the first Cuban-American president," says Sen. Steve Geller, the top Democrat in the Florida Senate when Rubio was House Speaker. "He's smart, he's ambitious, and, candidly, I wouldn't want to be the guy that gets in his way. Because you'll regret it."
On a sweltering Friday in September 1988, the South Miami High Cobras team bus trundled down Bird Road toward Tamiami Park. Not only were the football players on their way to face rival Coral Gables but they were also hustling to reach the stadium for a scheduled 3 p.m. kickoff. Several days before, wannabe gangs connected to the schools had clashed at a concert, leaving two kids with gunshot wounds and 20 others hurt. Administrators were worried. Stern-faced cops lined the gridiron.
When Octavio Matamoros, a bulky sophomore offensive lineman, saw his teammates become confused before the big game, he says they turned to an undersized senior cornerback wearing number 46. "Marco Rubio was like Tom Brady, characterwise," Matamoros says. "You could always tell he understood the game from an intellectual standpoint even if he wasn't the fastest guy or the biggest guy out there."
Indeed, young Marco was a five-foot-nine, 170-pound kid with a skinny neck and neatly parted Alex P. Keaton hair. But what he lacked in size and stature he made up for with smarts, fearlessness, and aggression. "He pushes himself to the limit," says his older brother, Mario, who starred as a quarterback at South Miami. "He just does not stop."
In front of fewer than 100 fans — and a squadron of police officers — Marco and the rest of the defense held Coral Gables to minus-34 rushing yards. The Cobras cruised to a 35-7 beatdown.
"You had to be a tough kid to play on that defense," says Sam Miller, the coach.
On the campaign trail, Rubio credits that tenacity to his parents, Mario and Oria. Both were born in Havana and grew up desperately poor, Rubio says. Oria, as a girl, dressed old Coke bottles in scraps of cloth for dolls. His dad often slept behind factories, using wooden pallets for beds.
They met after Mario had found work guarding a small grocery store in exchange for room and board. The couple married and in 1950 had their first child, also named Mario.
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."
When Marco was 8 years old, the family moved to Las Vegas, where Mario Sr. tended bar at the legendary Sam's Town Hotel and Oria worked as a housekeeper at the Imperial Palace.
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."
Rubio began the move from local to state power when Republican Rep. Carlos Valdes left his House seat in early 1999 to run for Senate. The 28-year-old was untested, but he faced equally weak competitors in the GOP primary. Among them was Spanish-language radio host Angel Zayon and Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, a former legislator who had lost his House seat the prior year after he choked another legislator on the House floor.
Moreover, Rubio still had Lorenzo on his side. The veteran campaign manager helped him stockpile $70,000 for the race. Rubio lost in initial voting to Zayon but prevailed in a runoff by 64 votes.
Before the general election, Rubio amassed almost $100,000 in campaign funds, quadruple that of his Democratic opponent. He easily won that race and took his seat in the March 2000 session.
Back then, he was hardly the scorching conservative who would later woo Tea Partiers nationwide. Before the year's session, he told the Herald he'd focus on supporting early education and community policing. And he wasn't particularly passionate about cutting spending. In his first three years, he supported adding a $4 surcharge to cruise tickets to fund a Marlins stadium and a $1.2 million earmark to build new bike paths in his district.
"In his first years, Marco was not this red-meat, Tea Party, let's-abolish-the-government guy you're seeing on the trail now," Sen. Steve Geller says. "His politics didn't shift that way until he became the speaker-designate."
A turning point for Rubio came during his second year, in a conference room where he spent hours chugging Mountain Dew and poring over maps. Rubio had volunteered to study voting charts in preparation for the GOP's once-a-decade redistricting. The job was boring, but it meant hours of face time with senior leadership.
The incoming speaker, Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, was so taken with the young, caffeine-fueled Cuban-American that he appointed him majority leader. "If he drank two or three more Mountain Dews a day," Byrd told the Herald, "we'd never be able to control him."
Rubio used his sway as House majority leader to mount a run for speaker. Under the party's unusual system, potential speakers must win informal votes to secure their spots four or five years before they take the job.
Rubio cast himself a "pragmatic conservative" in a race that usually goes to a safe Anglo Republican from Orlando or North Florida.
But he also made the most of a loophole in state financial disclosure rules by creating a "committee of continuous existence," an Orwellian-sounding fund not subject to state Sunshine Laws. He poured almost $230,000 into the fund, which he then used to crisscross the state and lobby legislators.
The biggest donors to the group, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership, included a who's who of big businesses Rubio later supported as speaker, according to a recent review of the committee's records by the St. Petersburg Times, which reported on the leaked documents. There was U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and AT&T. There was also $50,000 from Alan Mendelsohn, a Broward ophthalmologist arrested last year by the FBI on corruption charges.
Even more troubling, according to the newspaper: Rubio failed to disclose $34,000 he spent out of the fund, including $7,000 he paid himself in 2003 and 2004. He also paid his wife $5,700, supposedly for working as treasurer, and spent more than $51,000 to reimburse credit card expenses for restaurants, hotels, and travel.
In all, the fund (which was chartered to support conservative candidates statewide) spent 99 percent of its cash — all but $4,000 — on Rubio himself, a clear contradiction of its charter. Asked by the St. Petersburg Times about the spending, Rubio blasted his opponent, Charlie Crist: "None of our donors has ever questioned how the money was spent. In fact, the only one raising this question is the Crist campaign."
In November 2003, thanks in part to his fund, Rubio defeated fellow Republican Jeff Kottkamp for speaker. It was a historic win — no descendent of Cubans had ever held the post, and Rubio, at 32 years old, was by far the youngest.
The big win didn't sate Rubio's ambition. In 2004, he set up another committee of continuous existence, called Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government, and raised nearly $400,000.
Again, his financial management was questionable. The St. Petersburg Times found that $14,000 from the fund went to Rubio's mother-in-law and two of his wife's cousins for "courier work." About one-fifth of the committee's expenses were never accounted for at all. Rubio says that's because the money went toward expenses under $500, which don't have to be detailed.
He used the second fund to thrust himself onto the national stage, thanks to a campaign called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.
The tour had Rubio and other Republicans traveling the state for so-called idearaiser town halls with voters. Rubio later published the ideas in a book and was hailed as a rising GOP star. Gingrich, for example, predicted Rubio would "emerge as a national leader" and called the project "a work of genius."
By 2005, Rubio's official election ceremony as speaker felt like a coronation. Supporters in Miami broadcast it live to Cuba on Radio Martí. And Bush presented his mystical sword of conservative power.
But Rubio's promise would soon devolve into partisan bickering, and his golden-boy image would take a pounding thanks to his choice of friends and some questionable financial moves.
Rage flashes through Marco Rubio's hazel eyes. His gavel echoes like a gunshot through the chamber. Legislators freeze. Rep. Franklin Sands, a Democrat from Weston, stops midstride on his way back to his desk.
"The clerk will stop reading until Rep. Sands takes his seat," Rubio intones icily.
Through months of partisan bickering, the speaker had never cracked. But that day, his caffeinated drive melted into anger and frustration. "He just exploded," recalls Dan Gelber, then the House minority leader and now a candidate for state attorney general. "He was angry, very angry, and it was worse because he knew he'd lost his cool."
The cause of Rubio's outburst on April 18, 2008, was a procedural trick by Democrats, who forced Republicans to read every word of every bill aloud before a vote. The speaker, in turn, locked the chamber doors and ordered security guards to force every representative into his or her seat. He forbade bathroom breaks and turned off the chamber's internet access.
There was just a month left in Rubio's last legislative session, and his anger was the culmination of two years that began with great promise but devolved — thanks in part to his mismanagement and refusal to compromise — into a tenure critics said fell short of expectations.
"I'm fond of Marco personally," Gelber says. "But throughout his term, he told the public what they wanted to hear instead of trying to actually address the complex challenges we faced as a state."
Rubio's questionable financial judgment re-emerged just two months after his September 2005 ceremony with Jeb Bush. Back then, he owned one home, a small ranch-style place in West Miami on SW 14th Street that he'd purchased in 2003 for $175,000.
In December 2005, he bought a new, larger house a few blocks away on SW 13th Street for $550,000; he took out a $495,000 mortgage.
The fishy part: A month after Rubio purchased the home, U.S. Century Bank reappraised the house at $735,000 and then offered him a new $135,000 home-equity loan that the speaker gladly accepted. U.S. Century's board of directors included Sergio Pino — a megadeveloper who allied with Rubio on a key vote against slot machines — as well as GOP lobbyist Rodney Barreto and consultant Jose Cancela. Essentially, a bank controlled by supporters printed Rubio $135K out of thin air.
"It's very unusual to get a new equity line so quickly," says Michael Cannon, managing director of Integra Realty Resources in Miami. "The average person would never get a deal like that. He got it, clearly, because of his connections."
Even worse, Rubio never disclosed the line of credit. Confronted about the error, he laughed and told a Herald reporter he couldn't understand why it was a story.
Weeks later, as Rubio prepared to take over the speaker's chair, he raised hackles by budgeting $2.5 million to redecorate the office and to gift supporters with 20 new jobs. His chief of staff received $175,212; his spokesman and deputy chief of staff each got $119,484. And Ken Sorensen, an ally who had been term-limited out of the House, landed $100,000 to show new lawmakers around the capital.
Despite that largesse, Rubio began a hard turn to the right on financial issues — a shift that planted the seed for his Tea Party campaign to come.
His marquee proposal as speaker, introduced early in 2007, was to all but eliminate property taxes, the largest source of revenue for every municipal government in the state. To replace that cash, Rubio wanted to hike sales taxes.
The change would not only hurt the poorest Floridians but also bankrupt cities, many experts warned. The proposal made it to the House floor in 2007 but could never find traction in the more moderate Senate.
Later in his first session as speaker, Rubio slammed Crist for trying to pass anti-global-warming regulations. He also backed Mike Huckabee — the evangelical Republican candidate — for president (even though Huckabee had called him "Mario Rubio" at a fundraiser and spent years agitating to end the Cuban embargo).
In the meantime, as he advocated slashing state spending, Rubio spent like mad on an American Express credit card issued to the Florida Republican Party and paid for by donors. Between 2007 and 2009, he charged about $100,000 on the card — including almost $16,000 in personal expenses such as a $135 haircut and $1,000 in repairs to his family's minivan, according to a Herald investigation. Rubio has repaid the party for some charges but refuses to assume other expenses he says were legitimate.
A St. Pete Times investigation later found that Rubio had also double-billed the state and the GOP credit card for eight flights. After the report, he admitted the error and repaid the party $3,000.
Then, in May 2007, Rubio finally found a cash buyer for his first house, the small ranch on SW 14th Street. Just as the market was cooling off, Nora Cereceda paid $380,000 up-front — a $105K windfall over Rubio's 2003 purchase price. Cereceda, it turns out, is the mother of Dr. Mark Cereceda, a prominent chiropractor who had just spent months lobbying Rubio for his critical support of an insurance law. Rubio voted for the bill a few months after Nora bought his house.
Did the home sale buy his vote? Rubio says no. "My understanding was that her husband had passed away," he told CBS4. "She had some life insurance proceeds that she was using to buy it, and she was willing to close on it quickly."
As Rubio's final session began in March 2008, his top priorities again looked custom-built to win over the antitax zealots who would later form the Tea Party's base. He advocated a flat property tax cap and a constitutional amendment imposing a strict spending cap.
His ambition, though, again proved greater than his ability to find consensus. Both his tax plan and spending cap made it out of committee, but as the House was forced to make the deepest budget cuts in state history, the Senate refused to even take up the plans.
In the end, Rubio's two terms as speaker had yielded no flashy tax overhaul, but the House did pass 57 of his "100 Innovative Ideas."
On May 2, 2008, Rubio's last day as speaker, his voice cracked as he dedicated his time in the House to his parents. "I've been distracted almost my entire life by this obsession to do all the things they couldn't do," Rubio said. "So if I look a little hyper or a little focused... I want you to know what's driving me. I want them to know that their lives mattered."
It was a heartfelt speech. But Rubio couldn't avoid one last bit of shady business on his way out of Tally. Weeks after the session, Florida International University offered him a $69,000-a-year gig teaching a few political science classes. The offer came as FIU slashed 38 faculty jobs, shut six labs, and axed 23 degrees because of a $32 million shortfall. Then it was disclosed that as speaker, Rubio had helped green-light a $15 million hurricane research center as well as $11 million for a medical school.
On a recent summer day, about 100 Rubio supporters crowd into a chic Tampa deli with sharply angled wine racks along exposed brick walls. They turn their heads toward a denim-clad, middle-aged woman whose eyes narrow suspiciously as she grills Rubio about the Gulf oil spill: "The Obama administration is intentionally dragging their feet on this disaster," she insists loudly, "for its own political agenda."
Rubio tugs at his ring finger and shakes his head. "I don't think the president is intentionally prolonging this disaster. I do think there's a lack of competence in how they're addressing it."
In the two months since Rubio achieved his greatest political victory — forcing Crist to drop out of the GOP primary to run as an independent — the former speaker has moved rapidly toward the middle on issues such as the oil spill.
It's just the beginning of the struggle Rubio faces before November's unprecedented three-way vote for U.S. Senate, when he'll have to reinvent himself again by convincing the whole electorate — not just Tea Party-fueled primary voters — he's the right man to send to Washington.
Rubio's Senate race began May 5, 2009, when he declared a bid to replace Sen. Mel Martinez, the first Cuban-American elected to that body. In challenging Crist, Rubio touted his own, more conservative values. "The more Republicans become less distinguishable from Democrats, the less people will vote for Republicans," he told the Herald.
His timing was impeccable. He drew interest from a movement he had helped foment as speaker: the rapidly forming Tea Party, which exploded later that summer as protesters ambushed town hall meetings on Obama's health-care plan. And before announcing his Senate bid, Rubio had spent months meeting with any dissatisfied conservative group that would host him.
"Back in April 2009, when he was still relatively unknown, Marco came to talk to our club and totally won us over," says Bradley Gerber, head of the Miami Young Republicans. "Charlie Crist wouldn't even return our calls, much less come to a meeting."
Rubio's profile soon soared as he became a regular guest with the Tea Party's patron saint, Fox News' Glenn Beck. The New York Times Magazine January cover cemented Rubio as the face of the movement.
In his bid to unseat Crist, Rubio has also raised more than $11 million and counting. About $100,000 of that cash has come from political action committees, including the antitax Club for Growth, his largest individual donor. Then there are the big businesses he helped as speaker: Florida Crystals, State Farm, and a host of developers.
With the money and national exposure, Rubio's poll numbers soared throughout early 2010. By April, he'd sunk Crist into an almost 30-point hole among primary voters. On April 29, at a hastily called news conference in a St. Petersburg park, the governor abandoned the Republican Party.
It was another remarkable coup for Rubio. But in the months since, his star has dimmed.
The week before Crist's announcement, the IRS had opened a "preliminary" investigation into Rubio's use of the GOP-funded credit card — the same one he used to buy that $135 haircut and to fix the family van. Then Jim Greer, GOP chairman during Rubio's time in Tallahassee, was arrested and charged with six felonies for allegedly diverting party money into a shell business. As Greer testifies to the feds and as Rubio's own records are scrutinized, it's likely more information will emerge about Rubio's questionable spending.
On June 14, another embarrassing lapse tainted Rubio's credentials as a financial reformer. Deutsche Bank filed a suit in Leon County to foreclose on a house he owned just outside Tallahassee with David Rivera — his loyal lieutenant in the House and now a candidate for U.S. Congress. The pair had missed five months of payments on the home, which they had bought for $135,000 in 2005.
The foreclosure was dropped a week later when Rubio and Rivera repaid $9,525 to the bank. Rubio says they had stopped paying over a dispute in interest rates.
For the past month, Rubio has traveled the state every week trying to reharness the energy that helped him topple Crist. He has turned again to the same themes that define his political life: escape from Cuba and belief in small government.
And he has raised even more money. He recently attended a massive New York fundraiser hosted by hedge fund manager Paul Singer the same night Congress passed new financial reforms. Plus he pulled in more than $4.5 million in the last quarter, four times Meek's fundraising.
It's a roasting June afternoon in suburban Orlando, and Rubio stops at a sprawling new Italian restaurant, where flat screens alternate a World Cup match and a Fox News report. He strides confidently to the front of the room, stopping to pose for photos with supporters in anti-IRS T-shirts and "Abolish the Tax Code" hats. He isn't fazed by polls that show Crist has surged ahead five points.
"I was born a citizen of the single greatest nation in all of human history," he says. "It doesn't matter that your dad was a bartender and your mom was a stock clerk — you can still run for U.S. Senate." Then he pauses as if daunted by the possibilities: a Senate seat, an IRS indictment, a presidential nomination. "There's one question we all have to ask: Are we exceptional, or do we want to be like everyone else?"
Francisco Alvarado and Danielle Alvarez contributed reporting to this article.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.