WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio nearly quit politics.
He was so broke in 2001 that just as he began his ascent in the Florida House, he and his wife had to move in with her mother. Rubio decided to leave Tallahassee and practice law full time.
He got in his car to think and wound up at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, where he had gotten married three years earlier. He knelt to pray. "Why had God allowed me to come so far only to let me fail?" he recounted in a 2012 memoir.
"I imagined telling my children someday that I had once been the majority whip of the Florida House but had lost my job and had to leave politics to make a living. … I left the church still worried, but resigned to accept whatever happened. On my way back to my mother-in-law's house, my cellphone rang."
A headhunter had a lead on a job at a Broward County law firm. The $93,000 salary allowed Rubio to move his family into their own home. And race ahead with his political career.
As a Republican presidential candidate, 43-year-old Rubio is portraying himself as someone who shares the struggles and aspirations of many Americans. It's not just a line when he talks about crushing college loans; he has lived it. He has felt the squeeze of a mortgage and providing for four children.
Yet Rubio's story also raises old criticisms that he has lacked personal fiscal discipline, got special financial favors and abused campaign funds. It reveals a career politician's income growing in step with his rising clout in Tallahassee, including a $300,000-a-year job at a law firm that arrived as he locked in the position as House speaker.
Rubio today is not a millionaire like many of his colleagues in the Senate or some rivals on the campaign trail, and his profile is vastly different than the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. But that divine luck 14 years ago — "Was it a miracle?" Rubio wrote — has put him on a comfortable path.
Indeed, the book in which Rubio reveals he almost gave up politics has netted him more than $1 million, allowing him to finally pay off more than $100,000 in college debt.
"He can represent both sides of the paradox. We want people who are up from nothing, all the better if it's immigrant roots. And then if they do well, we tend not to begrudge them because that's the American dream that all people have for themselves and their children," said Barbara Perry, senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program.
"He needs to develop a compelling story about making good on the American dream without making it look like he's separated himself from the common person," she added.
For Rubio, that comes with his oft-mentioned student loans and his signature story about his Cuban immigrant parents, who worked as a hotel maid and a bartender.
"They never made it big," he said in his presidential announcement speech April 13 in Miami. "But they were successful. Two immigrants with little money or education found stable jobs, owned a home, retired with security and gave all four of their children a life far better than their own. …
"But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible. Hard working families living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster."
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Rubio, who attended the University of Miami School of Law, wanted to be a prosecutor but knew the pay wasn't good. In 1996, Al Cardenas, a benefactor Rubio had met on the Bob Dole campaign, gave him a job at his law firm in Miami. Land use and zoning law was of little interest to Rubio, but the job paid $57,000, and he had student loans to repay, a desire to get married and to help his father retire.
There was another upside to working for the influential Cardenas: Rubio knew he could dabble in politics.
When Rubio arrived in Tallahassee in 2000, he did not own a home, had few possessions and was making $72,000 after moving to Ruden McClosky, another law firm. His financial disclosure form listed $30,000 in "assorted credit and retail debt" and the college loans.
A relentless focus on politics strained Rubio's relationship with the law partners, and he reached out to the headhunter to find him a job with a firm that "wouldn't mind if I was absent half the year."
That led to the $93,000-a-year position with Becker and Poliakoff, a firm with a heavy lobbying presence in Tallahassee. Rubio said in his book the firm wanted to expand a land-use practice in Miami-Dade.
By 2005, when Rubio had secured his role as future House speaker, he was holding a $300,000 job with another politically connected firm, Broad and Cassel. The firm had done millions in legal work for the state and represented numerous business interests.
Rubio said his salary would have grown anyway as his law career advanced.
"I can't tell you what I'd be doing had I not run for office. I could have started a business or I could be a managing partner at a law firm," he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010, when he was running for U.S. Senate.
Rubio's campaign declined to make him available for an interview for this article, noting he addressed the issues in his book. A representative for Broad and Cassel said the firm could only confirm dates of Rubio's employment as "of counsel," which lasted four years.
The Senate campaign subjected Rubio to intense scrutiny from reporters and rival Charlie Crist, who saw Rubio's shaky finances as an opportunity to discredit his image as a hard-line fiscal conservative.
There was plenty to look into.
While he campaigned for speaker, Rubio created a political committee to fund his travel and help other Republicans and earn their support. Records show the bulk of the money went to office and administrative costs. His wife managed the books from home in West Miami.
In an 18-month period Rubio spent nearly $90,000 on political consultants, $51,000 for credit card payments. He contributed only $4,000 to candidates. Reporting by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald revealed Rubio failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses.
He formed another committee and more big spending on consultants came. Then Rubio got access to another cash source: a credit card issued by the Republican Party of Florida. He charged more than $100,000 from November 2006 to November 2008, mainly for travel and meals. At one point he charged $1,000 for repairs to his family minivan that he said was damaged by parking attendants at a political function.
Rubio insists he did not personally gain. He blames mistakes on being unprepared for all the paperwork, and on sloppiness. "For example, I pulled the wrong card from my wallet to pay for pavers," he wrote. Another time, "my travel agent mistakenly used the card to pay for a family reunion in Georgia."
"Each time, I identified the charges and paid the costs myself, directly to American Express. The Republican Party of Florida didn't pay a single one of them. Nevertheless, in hindsight, I wish that none of them had ever been charged."
In 2012, the Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed a citizen complaint, based on news reports, that Rubio misused Republican and campaign money "to subsidize his lifestyle."
A full accounting of Rubio's use of the American Express card is not known because he never released statements from 2005 and 2006. (The others were leaked to reporters.)
By 2005, Rubio was swimming in debt — more than $1 million due to mortgages on three homes, student loans and other obligations.
The job at Broad and Cassel allowed him to build a larger home in West Miami. He kept the older home for a rental income and purchased a third home in Tallahassee with friend David Rivera. That home briefly went into foreclosure proceedings in 2010; it recently went on the market for $10,000 less than the lawmakers paid. (Rivera has been engulfed in ethics investigations for several years, and Rubio has distanced himself.)
A few years later the Miami Herald reported that Rubio did not disclose a $135,000 home equity loan. He called it an "oversight." The loan came from a bank controlled by some of Rubio's political supporters and it was based on a reappraisal that was far higher than when Rubio closed on the home 37 days earlier. In his book, he explained that he paid cash for several upgrades and the value shot up because of the "overheated real estate boom."
Rubio arrived in Tallahassee basically broke and left in 2008, due to term limits, barely better off, reporting a net worth of $8,332.
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His connections helped him with the transition. Rubio got an unadvertised job teaching politics at Florida International University, drawing complaints as the school was cutting staff amid budget cuts even though his salary came from privately raised funds. Rubio began a consulting business introducing clients to potential business partners.
Another business allowed him to land big consulting contracts with Miami Children's and Jackson Memorial hospitals. For additional income, Rubio worked as a political analyst for Univision.
In all, he reported earning about $318,000 in 2009, down from nearly $400,000 the year earlier.
"I was grateful to have more time to spend with my family," he wrote. "But I still missed the excitement of politics and the fulfillment of public service."
His next job came with a pay cut: Senators earn $174,000.
Rubio's net worth today is not easily knowable because senators are required to report only ranges. The Center for Responsive Politics calculated Rubio's net worth in 2013 to be as low as $57,000 and as high as $830,000 for an average of $443,000.
That put Rubio at 83 out of 100 senators in terms of wealth. It stands out, however, compared with the median worth of the average American, which was just under $69,000, according to 2011 census data.
Rubio has to file a new financial disclosure with the Federal Election Commission in a few weeks.
A campaign spokesman said Rubio also plans to release his tax return (he filed for an extension), which might reveal more about the income his wife earns working for a charity in Miami.
It is financed by Norman Braman, a billionaire businessman who is propping up a super political action committee supporting Rubio's presidential bid. Braman in an interview declined to say how much Jeanette Rubio earns but praised her as a hard worker and dedicated to the charity's mission.
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Rubio's past did not slow him in the U.S. Senate race, even as his fiscal disarray clashed with his public condemnation of government spending and debt. But as he enters the presidential arena with fresh polls showing him leading the Republican field, he's in for an unprecedented level of scrutiny.
A dossier complied by a rival campaign begins with a quote from Rubio from an interview that aired April 14 on MSNBC. Asked if he had any concern about his past financial dealings, Rubio replied, "I have no past financial dealings."
Rubio went on to say: "I mean, by and large I've been a W-2 employee. I don't have any investments overseas or anything like that. There'll come a time for that in my life, at some point. I've decided to dedicate myself to public service. And (while) I will admit that my finances are a lot more, they resemble the people I work for a lot more than the people I work with."
In one regard Rubio is trying to save his children from the same burden he endured. Records show he has established in their names Florida Prepaid College Plans.
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports.