Marco Rubio’s meteoric rise in Florida politics is a story of unremitting ambition, natural talent and powerful connections that began 14 years ago in a Miami coffee shop.
In his final year of law school but looking like a teenager, Rubio sat down to interview with Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. He buzzed about a ticket that included former star quarterback Jack Kemp.
Al Cardenas, overseeing the Florida effort and not very optimistic about the outcome, took a sip of café con leche and hired Rubio on the spot.
“I said to myself, ‘This is what we need, someone so young that failure is not an option, who hasn’t gone through everything to have a more practical outlook,’” Cardenas recalled.
Rubio plunged into the job, forming relationships that would propel him to the West Miami City Commission and a history-making term as the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House.
Now Rubio, 39, leads the race for U.S. Senate and is the face of a national conservative revival. Admirers once predicted — and Rubio planned — he would be governor. Now, they gush, he could be president.
Rubio is a political jock: popular, good-looking, charismatic. His campaign speech about fulfilling the American dream for his Cuban exile parents is so steeped with emotion and pride, it brings audiences to tears.
His story is also one of contradictions and uneven results.
As charming as he is calculating, Rubio projects the freshness of an outsider but is a career insider. He preaches fiscal restraint, but as a legislator on the rise, he spent lavishly from political funds filled by special interest money and used a Republican Party credit card for personal items.
As speaker, he drove the debate on property taxes and property insurance but time and again was rejected by the more moderate Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist, losing on his own self-styled “battlefield of ideas.”
Against it all, Rubio continued his trajectory, defying critics who view him as more flash than substance and the doubts of even his most ardent supporters.
“There’s no destiny in politics,” Rubio said, denying the image that has followed him through politics. “I felt like we had something to say, and this race gave us a platform.”
Rubio burst onto the scene in 1998, two years after the Dole campaign, as a candidate for West Miami City Commission. Dismissed as a kid, he outworked the competition, going door-to-door in the small, working-class enclave where he grew up. (Today, he and his wife, Jeanette, live in West Miami with their four children.)
On election night, the phone rang at City Hall. “It was Jeb Bush himself, calling to congratulate Marco for winning our little race,” Vice Mayor Enrique Gonzalez recently told the Miami New Times.
“He was the anointed golden child, even then.”
Less than two years into the four-year term, Rubio was on the move. A House seat opened and after a close primary, Rubio, 28, was easily elected. Coverage of the race hardly conveys the firebrand conservative he would be as speaker. His issues were early childhood education, lack of affordable housing for the elderly and community crime. But he had a second, less public agenda: climbing the ranks.
“He had his eye on leadership from the very, very beginning, and he did all the things he needed to do,” said former Rep. Renier Diaz de la Portilla, who shared an apartment with him in Tallahassee.
“Our work here must be about solving problems, not winning debates. That means we will be open to all points of view, taking the best that everyone has to offer, without political gamesmanship.”
Speaking in his rapid-fire style, Rubio laid down a mandate on the day he was sworn in as speaker in November 2006. He pledged the House would become an inclusive “battlefield of ideas.”
But the battlefield was dominated by 100 ideas that served as a vehicle for Rubio’s self-branding.
In the leadup to his term, Rubio launched a series of “idea raisers” across Florida, a way of pulling together the concerns and needs of Floridians. The resulting 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future was to become the legislative agenda. Rubio was cast as a bold thinker, the next Jeb. In a 2005 ceremony, Bush presented his understudy with a sword to signify “a great conservative warrior.”
For all the hype around 100 Ideas, lawmakers of both parties complained it stifled other ideas. The book itself was copyrighted in Rubio’s name and as ideas became part of legislation, it was clear where credit was being directed.
“100 Ideas was pure political,” said former Democratic Rep. Jack Seiler, now mayor of Fort Lauderdale. “This was going to be the platform that took him to the next level. I like Marco, I just understood he was a political person.”
Rubio scores his tenure a success — many of the 100 Ideas became law — because it was about issues and ideas. “People used to view the political process as this competition between the House and Senate, who got more of what they wanted. I never viewed it that way.”
Becoming a player had a cost.
As he was running for speaker, Rubio formed a political committee that was ostensibly to support other candidates who shared his views. But only a fraction of the $600,000 in special interest money he collected for that and another committee went toward candidates. Rubio instead paid for extensive travel, meals and consultants, burnishing his image.
It adds to a portrait of a figure who has been sustained by public office, the very ideal Rubio is fighting as an antiestablishment candidate.
Earlier this year Rubio became snared in a growing scandal over the use of Republican Party credit cards by top lawmakers. Rubio had used his for party business but also for thousands of dollars in personal items, including food and a visit to a men’s grooming shop. He insists he paid American Express for the personal items.
Rubio spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating House offices and expanded the government payroll, giving big salaries to staffers who had worked for Bush.
But like today, the financial problems seem to bounce off him. Rubio sees those as distractions from his core beliefs and purpose.
Rubio left office in 2008 with no sign of letting up. He converted 100 Ideas into a political committee. His connections landed him a nonadvertised, paid teaching job at Florida International University, and he became a political commentator for Univision, which would keep him in the public eye.
That summer he began to quietly work out scenarios for his next office, a complicated mix that included a run for state Senate or a statewide office in 2010, a challenge to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012 or a run for governor in 2014.