Rubio’s Miami Beginnings Foreshadowed Ambitious Political Career

Aug 18, 2016

Credit AP/Aug. 30, 2012

Republican U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio had been looking forward to his speech at the Republican National Convention for a long time. He just didn’t expect to be encouraging Republicans to vote for Donald J. Trump.

Rubio had a brief moment in the sun after the Iowa caucus in February. He came in third, but his star seemed to be rising. A month and a half later, he conceded the primary in his home state of Florida to Trump.

“We live in a Republic, and our voters make these decisions,” he told his supporters, when they booed after he congratulated Trump.

After dropping out of the race, Rubio said he was going back to private life, where he was expected to pull in big money for speaking engagements. Making money outside of politics was a long-deferred goal, according to Sean Foreman, a political scientist who has been following Rubio and wrote a book chapter on his 2010 Senate election.

But this political season hasn’t stuck to the script. National Republicans, eager to hold onto Rubio’s seat, leaned hard on him to run for reelection. Florida Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, whom Rubio was supporting, wasn’t polling well in the fight to replace him.

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Rubio multiple times to reconsider during an interview in June, which came after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

“It really gives you pause to think a little bit about your service to your country and where you can be most useful to your country,” Rubio said of the shooting.

A week and a half later, on June 22, Rubio announced that he was seeking re-election.

Political from an Early Age

Rubio spent much of his early life and political career in southwest Miami, an area with a large Hispanic - particularly Cuban - population.

Albert Pardo, 49, had just started working as a teacher and coach at South Miami Senior High when Rubio was a student there.

“You could tell he was going to be a lawyer in the future,” he said. “Maybe a politician.”

The school is mostly working class. Rubio has touted those modest roots, often relating his experience growing up as the son of a bartender and a maid.

But as Pardo remembers it, “he was already political back then. He liked to look professional, walked around school with a briefcase.”

After a one-year detour playing football at a small college in Missouri, Rubio came back to Florida for undergraduate and law school and to start his legal career.

A Confident “Rainmaker”

Andre Williams worked with Rubio at Ruden McClosky, a large South Florida law firm, in 1999. They were both young lawyers hungry for careers in politics. Williams remembers Rubio had a lot of support in the Cuban-American community, at a time when the firm was trying to grow its influence there.

“I believe Marco’s role was primarily rainmaking,” Williams said,”because I didn’t see him in the office a whole lot. I don’t recall him grinding it out in the office like I was.”

Williams ate lunch with Rubio a few times a week. They talked about politics and their careers, and he remembers that Rubio saw supporters everywhere.

“I just remember Marco speaking with a great deal of confidence that he could secure the African-American vote,” Williams said.

Williams said he was surprised by that confidence. Williams grew up in Miami Gardens, where the population is almost 80% African-American, and had seen no “authentic engagement” from Rubio in that area.

Still, after a short stint on the West Miami City Commission, Rubio was elected to the State House where he eventually rose to become Speaker.

In 2010, Rubio rode the tea party wave into the U.S. Senate, beating Florida’s then-Governor, Charlie Crist.

Taking Heat on Immigration

As a Senator, Rubio gained national attention in 2013 as a member of a bipartisan group called the “Gang of Eight.” The group devised a compromise immigration bill, providing for more border security and a way for some undocumented immigrants to apply for permanent residency.

The bill passed in the Senate, but Rubio did not actively campaign for it after that. It never came to a vote in the House.

Rubio is still taking heat for that, especially in largely Hispanic Miami.

In early July, a group of activists visited his Doral office carrying a box of flip-flops.

“He supported immigration reform until it was inconvenient for him, and he turned his back on our community,” said activist Thomas Kennedy, originally from Argentina.

Thinking big in the classroom

Rubio did not respond to requests for an interview, but Dario Moreno bristles at accusations that the Senator has been untrue to his Hispanic heritage. Moreno, who is also Cuban-American, is a professor of political science at Florida International University.  He has known Rubio for 20 years and co-taught classes with him from 2009 to 2015.  

He says Rubio is a big-ideas guy and often reflected on the work of the university.

“I’ll tell you what intrigues him: the future of higher education. Are universities really preparing our students?” Moreno said.

He said he also talked with Rubio about issues involving technology and national defense, as well as President Obama’s use of data and social media in his campaigns.

Moreno believes Rubio is a gifted political leader.

“Marco has an inherent understanding of politics, of public opinion,” Moreno said, “of what motivates people.

After 18 years in public office, Marco Rubio has decided he isn’t ready to leave that life quite yet. He wants to take his briefcase back to Washington.