Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on March 4, 2007.
TALLAHASSEE — When Marco Rubio first entered the Florida Legislature, he was a 28-year-old attorney just four years out of law school. His sole possession was a Toyota Camry, he didn’t own his own home and he was paying off student loans.
That was only seven years ago.
Now the West Miami Republican owns three houses, has a $300,000-a-year job at a law firm and has become the first Cuban-American to become speaker of the Florida House.
His evolution doesn’t stop there. The telegenic and rapid-talking lawmaker has gone from being a fervent defender of the GOP agenda to speaking in bold, sweeping strokes about a need to change the “culture” and “dialogue” in Tallahassee.
Leading up to his ascent last November, he crisscrossed the state, holding “idearaisers” and collecting the results in a book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future. The book has drawn national attention, including from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose signed portrait sits on a table in Rubio’s House office. Some of the top ideas include an overhaul of Florida’s property tax system and a change in what public schools teach children.
“The goal of the book isn’t just the particular ideas, it’s changing the political culture,” Rubio said. “We want to create a place where Democrats and Republicans agree on where to go and then spend all their time and energy debating on the best way to get there.”
Rubio’s rapid rise hasn’t been entirely smooth. While he was busy preparing the book last fall, House Democrats snagged seven seats held by the GOP. It marked the first time in more than 20 years that Democrats gained seats.
Rubio also bristled over criticism last fall for spending more than a half-million dollars for House renovations as well as spending another $2 million to hand out pay raises and swelling the ranks of House employees, many of whom had ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Following the January special session on insurance, Rubio demanded that two top House Republicans resign their leadership posts after they voted against the insurance bill that the House and Senate drew up. Rubio will say publicly only that people who agreed to serve on leadership posts knew what was expected of them.
That this son of Cuban immigrants reached this pinnacle of power at the young age of 35 doesn’t surprise those who know him.
“He’s been working toward this his whole life,” said his older brother, Mario Rubio, who works for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.
During a childhood split between Miami and Las Vegas, Marco Rubio developed passions for both football and politics. He once walked a picket line when his father, a bartender at a Las Vegas casino, went out on strike. He played on his high school football team and even got a scholarship to a small college in Missouri, but he eventually returned to Florida.
During his senior year at the University of Miami law school, Rubio worked on the 1996 presidential campaign of Bob Dole, a move that would link him with other prominent Miami-Dade Republicans, including eventual state party chairman Al Cárdenas, who eventually offered Rubio a job after graduation.
Rubio jumped into his first run for office in 1998, winning a spot on the West Miami City Commission. He got his shot at the Legislature at the end of 1999, when a House seat opened up after the incumbent jumped into a special election for a state Senate seat. Rubio won the GOP runoff for the seat by a mere 64 votes.
Those who have worked closely with him contend he’s a natural leader, pairing intellect with wit and an eloquent speaking style. Former Gov. Bush made it clear he considered Rubio an idealogical heir, presenting him with a sword that Bush said helped him stay true to conservative values.
“Every 50 years in the world, a Marco Rubio is born,” said Al Lorenzo, a veteran campaign consultant who managed Rubio’s first campaign for the Florida Legislature. “He’s in a different league.”
But questions remain as to how Rubio will deal with adversity or criticism. Rep. David Rivera, who co-owns a house with Rubio in Tallahassee, maintains his friend and legislative ally is just passionate.
“He will be passionate and he will debate as energetically as anyone else, but I don’t think he will get angry,” said Rivera.
Help for South Florida
As the first House speaker from Miami in more than 30 years, Rubio is poised to help South Florida, including getting a state subsidy to help the Marlins get a $60 million tax break, even though he recently warned that a downturn in sales tax collections could limit what lawmakers do in the coming year.
Rubio right now has no set plans on what he will do once he finishes his two-year term as House speaker. While he often jokes his dream job would be general manager of an NFL team, he won’t speculate about his next move.
“If I do a good job as speaker, I believe I will have opportunity both in politics and outside politics,” said Rubio.
Born: May 28, 1971, in Miami
Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Florida; law degree, University of Miami
Professional: Works as counsel at Broad and Cassel law firm. Previously worked at Becker & Poliakoff law firm as well as Tew Cardenas law firm
Political: West Miami City Commissioner, 1998-2000. Elected to Florida House in 2000 special election
Personal: Lives in West Miami with his wife Jeanette Dousdebes. They have three children — Amanda Loren, Daniella, Anthony — and his wife is expecting a fourth child.