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  1. Florida Politics

Marco Rubio's wife long an unseen presence in his career

Jeanette Rubio is the wife of Sen. Marco Rubio. (2010 photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Jeanette Rubio is the wife of Sen. Marco Rubio. (2010 photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Published May 15, 2015

She didn't want to be a senator's wife. But she challenged him to man up if he had such a problem with Charlie Crist. When he reached the nadir of doubt and decided to quit the campaign, she persuaded him to keep going.

In the public life of her husband, Jeanette Dousdebes Rubio has been largely in the background. She smiled on stage during his presidential campaign launch last month in Miami but did not speak and appeared eager for the show to end.

"She is the antithesis of Marco," said Javier Manjarres, a conservative blogger who has gotten to know the Rubios since the 2010 Senate run. "She is so apolitical, non-confrontational. I get the sense she would rather him be home cleaning up the dog poop and helping her out with the kids and just working a 9-to-5 job. It's stressful for her."

Yet the 41-year-old, as poised in public as she is shy, has privately played a major role in Rubio's rise, offering blunt advice and bearing the responsibilities of raising four children, often as if a single mother.

Stung by her parents' divorce, she wanted a stable married life and harbored career aspirations beyond a season as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader. She got a voracious politician husband who has been ladder climbing since they met and in 2016 has emerged as a top contender for the White House.

Now Mrs. Rubio, herself the daughter of immigrants, is preparing to step into the fray.

"I don't think she looks back," said state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a friend. "She understands Marco's passion. People say she's quiet and shy. But she's also very principled. If she thinks something is wrong, she'll say it, and Marco really does look to her for advice."

• • •

Their alliance may have never happened but for Rubio's three-month party binge years ago.

The couple met in 1990 while Rubio was in college and she was in high school. Their first date was to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. To save money while he was at the University of Florida, he wrote letters. By 1995, the relationship frayed and Rubio embraced the single life in Miami.

"I went clubbing, and I liked it," he wrote in his memoir, An American Son.

One night he ended up at a South Beach club that pumped foam into a room of sweaty, writhing dancers. "I looked down at my shoes. They were perfectly white," Rubio recounted. "The foam had somehow bleached the color out of my cheap and obviously fake leather shoes. … I left the club and found the nearest pay phone."

Feeling like a phony, he called Jeanette, then a cab. They married three years later. Her extrovert husband jumped on stage with the wedding band, 200 people watching, and sang Sinatra's My Way.

Rubio, who graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 1996, began a law career but had his eye on politics. Jeanette worked as a bank teller and enrolled in fashion design school, intending to make that her career.

"We had been married less than a year and she wasn't ready to have a child yet. She wanted to finish school and her studies often kept her up well into the night," Rubio wrote.

As her plans were stunted, Rubio's political ambition took off, first as a West Miami city commissioner then as a state representative. He threw himself into the hunt for state House speaker, a behind-the-scenes battle that involves traveling the state and earning support from fellow lawmakers.

Jeanette resented the decision, made without her. "My political career had deprived her of the settled, predictable family life she longed for," he wrote.

Her desire for stability was rooted in her childhood. Her parents emigrated legally from Colombia, according to Rubio's office, but divorced when she was 6. Her mother remarried but that too ended in divorce.

In the race for speaker, Rubio enlisted his wife's support in managing the political committees he used to support his travel and consultants — a decision Rubio now says was a "disaster." During the 2010 Senate campaign his spending came under intense scrutiny by Crist and the news media.

Records showed thousands going to consultants and travel and even family members. Rubio's committee paid $3,500 to his mother-in-law's company for rental car services and $10,000 to "couriers," which included her family. The couple failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses. Rubio also racked up charges on a Republican Party of Florida-issued credit card.

He blamed the issues on inexperience, sloppiness and a blur of paperwork, saying his wife often did not travel with him and had to jog his memory about which credit card purchases were campaign related. He was cleared by the state ethics panel, but questions linger.

• • •

Begin to type "Marco Rubio" into Google and the top suggestion behind "Marco Rubio 2016" is "Marco Rubio wife," indicating tremendous public interest in who she is.

Rubio's campaign declined to make Mrs. Rubio available for an interview for this story — reflecting her reticence but also a desire to control her story. Family members and some friends also declined to talk.

The couple did sit down last month for a fluffy segment on Good Morning America, in which host George Stephanopoulos asked if she was "excited" about the presidential campaign. "Excited, overwhelming, different emotions," she replied, dressed in a sleeveless orange dress, her arms politely crossed.

Talk turned to her time as a Dolphins cheerleader in 1997, something Rubio seems to both embrace — when her picture was shown on the big screen during one game, he let everyone in the stands around him know she was his fiancé — and wish would go away.

Jeanette's sister, Adriana, was also a cheerleader, as was Rubio's younger sister, Veronica. Jeanette "was just a wonderful person. She has kind of a calm personality, very easygoing," Dorie Grogan, senior director of entertainment for the Dolphins, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010.

The campaign has emphasized her role as a mother. During the presidential announcement last month in Miami, Mrs. Rubio was on stage with their four children: Amanda, 15; Daniella, 12; Anthony 9; and Dominick, 7. (The children attend Christian school; the oldest, a Catholic high school.)

When she emerges on the campaign trail, she likely will highlight child education issues and human trafficking. She already influenced her husband on trafficking, having seen a TV miniseries about the subject. Mrs. Rubio met with advocacy groups and sat in meetings of her husband's Senate staff. "When we started talking about it, people had no idea it was going on here in our backyard. It's very hard to hear the girls' stories because they're young girls, 12 or 13," she told Parade magazine in 2013.

Jeanette Rubio is described as having a deep faith, and she was responsible for moving her family to a Baptist church, Christ Fellowship, which "sparked a spiritual awakening in Jeanette's life and eventually mine, too," Rubio wrote.

The family still attends Christ Fellowship but also a Catholic Church, where the children were baptized, a Rubio spokesman said.

She has a tight-knit group of friends but nights out are not common. When a friend had breast cancer, Jeanette was a constant presence by her side, once squeezing her hand so hard to distract from the pain of a needle.

A couple of years ago, Nunez, the state representative, was struggling on legislation requiring health care plans to cover oral chemotherapy and she relied on her friend for strategic advice. "I'll just say she put in a call and talked to somebody for me," Nunez said with a laugh. The bill passed.

That loyalty also has been on quiet display with Rubio's estranged friend, David Rivera, who has been dogged by ethical problems.

On Nov. 6, 2012 — Election Day — Jeanette Rubio showed up at a large precinct in the voter-rich Miami suburb of West Kendall to help then-U.S. Rep. Rivera, who was making a last-ditch effort for support. At the time, Rivera was the target of two federal criminal investigations and had recently been charged with breaking Florida ethics rules.

Jeanette Rubio arrived in the afternoon at the South Kendall Community Church, where some people had been in line for five hours. Few knew who she was. Clad in a Rivera campaign T-shirt, she stumped for her friend, who later that night lost to Democrat Joe Garcia.

• • •

Rubio was forced from the state House in 2008 due to term limits and began plotting his next move. When U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced he would not seek re-election, then-Gov. Crist emerged as a clear favorite. Rubio had an increasingly adversarial relationship with Crist and saw him as an unprincipled Republican. Finally his wife had enough of his complaining.

"Then why don't you do it?" she challenged him. He recalled in the book, "Jeanette embarrassed me with the truth but I tried hard to deceive myself. I accepted that Crist would be impossible to beat."

He jumped in anyway and was clobbered in fundraising and in the polls, once down by 30 percentage points.

Petrified of an embarrassing end to his political career, Rubio decided to leave the race and run for attorney general, a path that GOP leaders made sure would be open. But Jeanette argued against him quitting. "She reminded me how much she disdained politics," Rubio wrote. (Voting records confirm that; she hasn't cast ballots in a number of local elections over the years.) "But she was at peace with this campaign and willing to carry the burden at home, because I had convinced her I was fighting for the things we believed in."

Jeanette Rubio has eschewed the Washington scene, staying home in West Miami. In 2011, she got a job with a charity financed by Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. They knew the job would raise questions, and it has as Rubio's close ties to Braman, who has funded his political career and employed him as a lawyer, are exposed.

Records show Mrs. Rubio was paid at least $54,000 for her part-time job in 2013. The charity's IRS forms show it gave out only $250 that year despite having assets exceeding $9 million. The charity spent nearly $150,000 in air travel.

Debra Wechsler, Braman's daughter, said at the time her father and mother were doing more philanthropy directly themselves and that Mrs. Rubio was involved. She described Mrs. Rubio as a hard worker, meeting with groups seeking funding and evaluating the merits of those requests.

"She has a calm demeanor and people can sit and relax and get their story out," Wechsler said. The strain of juggling the job, four children and her husband's career, doesn't show.

"I'm sure she gets as harried as the rest of us," Wechsler said, "but she just doesn't complain."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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