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Marco Rubio's meteoric rise in Florida politics

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.

Last year as the Senate campaign was getting started, Rubio got a call from his mentor, upset he was gambling his future away. Cardenas, former head of the Republican Party in Florida, urged him to run for attorney general. Rubio moved in that direction, then reversed.

In the coming months, the bottom fell out for Crist, heir apparent to the Senate seat, and the tea party grasped Rubio's less government, anti-Obama message.

"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.

Rubio became majority whip, then majority leader. By 2003, he was in the running for speaker — an intense, behind-the-scenes battle for pledges from fellow lawmakers. Rubio got a boost when the race before his was decided in favor of Allan Bense, a gregarious legislator from the Panhandle, over Miami's Gaston Cantens.

Some say Rubio's powerful backers worked furtively against Cantens, knowing that Miami would not field back-to-back speakers, and to ensure Rubio would become the first Cuban-American speaker. "They undermined Gaston's base," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, a Crist supporter.

Cantens, who is backing Rubio, does not see it that way. "I was the fullback that had to carry the ball on third and one all the way down the field and then he got to score the touchdown and get on the cover of Sports Illustrated," he said.

"It's just the way it worked out."

• • •

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."

Buried in the book, idea No. 96, was a proposal to eliminate property taxes. The timing was impeccable.

A soaring real estate market resulted in big bills for many and giant inequities with those who had long enjoyed a constitutional assessment cap. At the start of the 2007 legislative session, Rubio proposed eliminating property taxes on primary homes in favor of a 2.5 cent sales tax increase.

The Republican-led Senate blasted it as the biggest tax increase in Florida's history, Democrats blasted it as a regressive blow to the poor. Rubio muscled it through the House on a mostly party-line vote, but that was as far as it would go.

"Marco's idea was a solid one that would have jump-started the economy," Bush said in an interview. "Back in the day, a lot of good ideas died in the Florida Senate. Believe me, I know. In addition, Gov. Crist wasn't very helpful as well."

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."

In fact, Rubio won even by losing. The property tax proposal put him on the national map, gaining media exposure and attention from conservative lions like Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich. He shrewdly used the issue to travel the state, exposing himself to GOP activists and a growing antigovernment mood that later became the tea party.

When he launched his Senate campaign, Rubio turned first to those connections.

• • •

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.

"From the very beginning, we all sensed a destiny," said former Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "He's not a placeholder, he doesn't just need a political job. He wants to affect policy."

• • •

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.

Then came the unexpected.

Long shot turned front-runner, Rubio sat the other day at a Starbucks in Tampa, a tall mocha before him, eyes darting around the room.

He put a leg on the rung of a chair then down, then back up, and down — the same boyish bundle of energy he was in 1996. At the end of an hourlong interview, he assessed his remarkable climb.

"I don't view it really as a rise," he replied.

You could see Rubio's mind working as he spoke, cautious. He went on about how the country is headed in the wrong direction and he believed he had something to offer, to give voice to growing public dissatisfaction.

But then the politician faded. "We all get opportunities in life to do things," he said. "Some of these things you can't plan, they just happen. You're put in a position where you have a chance to do something and you do it."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

The early years

Marco Rubio was born in Miami. His parents, Mario and Oria, worked as a bartender and a maid. They were not very political. "I knew that Fidel Castro was bad, the United States was awesome," Rubio said.

In 1979, as cocaine cowboys were transforming South Florida, the family moved to Las Vegas where his father worked at Sam's Town. When the culinary union went on strike, Rubio joined his father in the picket line.

The Rubios returned to Miami in 1985.

Small but tough, he made the football team at South Miami High. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Dolphins and used to write plays in a notebook. He liked history but not math, and carried a C+ average.

On afternoons, Rubio could be seen on the front porch with his grandfather. Dressed neatly, puffing a Padron from an aluminum folding chair, Victor Garcia filled the boy with stories of war and politics, and the differences between communist Cuba and the United States.

The emotional heart of Rubio's stump speech — the promise of America — was cultivated on that porch. "I think he walked away with a sense of ethic, a sense of fighting for what you believe in," said his older brother, Mario.

Rubio said he did not fully appreciate what his parents did for their children until he graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 1996 and saw the pride on their faces. "It was kind of a validation of what they'd done," he said.

Alex Leary, Times staff writer

Marco Rubio's meteoric rise in Florida politics 10/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 4:41pm]

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