Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on March 9, 2003.
TALLAHASSEE — Marco Rubio arrived here in 2000, winning the Republican nomination for a state House seat by a 64-vote margin, and at 28, looking more like a fresh-faced legislative page than a member of the august chamber.
Now, just three years later, the Miami native is the Republican Party’s majority leader in the House, part of the inner circle, and arguably the most high-profile House member behind Speaker Johnnie Byrd.
He’s also a prime contender in an increasingly crowded field — now numbering nearly a dozen lawmakers — angling for position in the highly competitive race for House speaker in 2006.
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If he wins, Rubio would be the first Cuban-American speaker in Florida history. At a time that his Republican Party is seeking to bring diversity to its ranks on a national scale — and Florida’s political importance is magnified — he would quickly become one of the country’s most prominent Hispanic leaders.
If he doesn’t become speaker, GOP strategists have other hopes for their boy wonder, perhaps a statewide run for attorney general.
It’s a meteoric rise fueled in part by term limits but also by what observers say is Rubio’s political prowess and a seemingly endless supply of energy.
“Early on, I knew he was the full package,” said former state Republican Party chairman Al Cárdenas, who met Rubio when the younger man, then a University of Miami Law School student, was serving as Miami-Dade County political director for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.
“He learned how to navigate the treacherous waters that can be Miami-Dade politics and survived,” Cárdenas said. “He’s one of the few people who seemed to get along with every faction.”
In the House, Rubio burst rapidly into leadership, landing a position as majority whip, where he marshalled support for the Republican line on the House floor.
Last year, as House members tackled the politically explosive task of redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries from Pensacola to Key West, Rubio injected himself into the map-making, helping to chart the political purposes behind every line drawn.
Poring over maps in strategy sessions fueled by soft drinks, he got to know Byrd, then the redistricting chairman and incoming House Speaker. When Byrd took control of the office, he tapped Rubio as his majority leader, “the partisan mouthpiece,” as Byrd calls it, responsible for developing the GOP message and keeping lawmakers on point.
“Marco’s Mr. Energy,” the laconic Byrd said. “I think if he drank two or three more Mountain Dews a day, we’d never be able to control him.”
While Rubio is constantly maneuvering for support for his speakership in an election that may not even happen until 2005, his main mission now as majority leader is to make Byrd look good. That’s not always a comfortable position for a young, ambitious politician, particularly given Byrd’s rocky start. Byrd has stirred unrest for what some see as excessive showboating.
But Rubio is ever the loyal lieutenant.
“I won’t allow, I can’t allow, any future aspirations to get in the way of being the best majority leader I can be,” he said.
Even as one of Byrd’s most important lieutenants, Rubio faces an uphill struggle for the speakership.
The Legislature is dominated traditionally by leaders from Orlando and points north, while Miami has long been shut out of power.
To win the top job, contenders spend years courting their colleagues by raising money for their campaigns, promoting their legislative bills and building friendships.
Before legislators were limited to eight years in office, this process took decades. Now, members begin campaigning in some cases before they even set foot in Tallahassee. The speaker-designate is elected by each party caucus as much as two years in advance.
In Rubio’s class of more than 30 House members, at least 10 from across the state have begun angling for the 2006 speakership — and more are expected to join the fray.
Byrd — a lawyer from mostly white, rural Plant City who has hired several Cuban Americans in his office, including Rubio’s former aide — says some lawmakers believe “Miami is going to take over the world if someone from Miami is speaker.”
But, he adds, “If someone from Plant City can be speaker, I certainly think someone from Miami could be as well.”
Rubio sees last year’s nearly successful push for the job by his friend, Rep. Gaston Cantens, as reason for hope that the chamber’s GOP majority would elect a Cuban American from Miami.
Cantens fell short of becoming speaker after Byrd, finishing second behind Rep. Allan Bense of Panama City.
Rubio’s political polish belies his youth. He’s quick with a sound bite: Asked why he got into politics, he rattles off a made-for-a-campaign story about his Cuban grandfather, crippled by polio, and his love for democracy.
“He would sit on the porch and would talk to me for hours about politics,” said Rubio, who admits to being a Democrat “for two weeks” — as an eight-year-old, following the 1980 Democratic National Convention as Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter.
Then Ronald Reagan appeared at the Republican National Convention, and the schoolboy swooned.
“Here was this cowboy,” Rubio recalls.
Born in Miami, Rubio moved with his family to Las Vegas when he was 8. His father, a hotel bartender on Miami Beach, sought better opportunities.
Rubio spins the time out west to his best political advantage, talking fondly — and politically astutely — of the racial diversity of the Vegas schools he attended until the family moved back to Miami when he was 15.
Rubio earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, then attended the University of Miami Law School. In his senior year, he got involved in the Dole campaign and met Cárdenas. After graduation, he joined Cárdenas’ law firm.
In 1998, Rubio made his first bid for elected office: running for the West Miami city commission. He won a seat on the commission, but lost the vice-mayorship by a single vote. Though entitled, he declined a recount, even then calculating which battles to wage.
He nearly didn’t make it to Tallahassee. When Sen. Al Gutman resigned his Senate seat after pleading guilty to a Medicare scam, the departure created a cascade of openings, and Rubio put his name in for a House seat.
He outraised his opponents significantly, drawing money from the business interests in Tallahassee that saw him as the party insider, and he hired Miami political veteran Al Lorenzo as a campaign consultant.
Rubio finished second, though, in the GOP primary.
For the runoff against TV reporter Angel Zayon, Rubio said he embarked on a family blitz, sending his parents, sisters, uncles, aunts and in-laws door-to-door.
“My lasting memory of that race,” said Rubio, who went on to victory in the general election over Democrat Anastasia Garcia, “is my seven-months pregnant wife, Jeanette, who hates politicking, standing at a precinct in Hialeah, handing out pledge cards.”
The couple now has two daughters and Jeanette, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, comes to Tallahassee with them as often as possible.
He maintains a wide smile and is constantly wisecracking as he frenetically meets with the Speaker to set the message for the week.
He has counseled Byrd to avoid creating early wedge issues with the Senate, but the vastly outnumbered Democrats still provide sport.
Monitoring a rambling Democratic caucus press conference that blames the GOP for budget woes, Rubio cornered the media outside and delivered the GOP riposte, calling the criticism “a reflection of the sad state of the Democratic caucus.”
“My brain was wired to do this stuff, “ Rubio says, smiling. “You have to enjoy the game.”
GET TO KNOW MARCO RUBIO
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of Florida; law degree, University of Miami
Occupation: Attorney Public office: State representative, Miami; current House majority leader
Experience: Executive director of Dole for President campaign in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, 1996; West Miami city commissioner.
Personal: Wife, Jeanette Dousdebes-Rubio. Two daughters, Amanda and Daniella.