Marco Rubio

How Marco Rubio rose from West Miami commissioner to White House contender

Senator-elect Marco Rubio walks through the halls of the U.S. Capitol a few days after getting elected in 2010.
Senator-elect Marco Rubio walks through the halls of the U.S. Capitol a few days after getting elected in 2010. GETTY IMAGES

They can’t pinpoint the moment, exactly, when they knew Marco Rubio would run for president. Maybe when he became one of Mitt Romney’s most popular ambassadors during the 2012 campaign. Maybe after his improbable 2010 U.S. Senate election when he drew comparisons to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Maybe the emotional day in 2008 when he bid farewell as the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

No matter. The people who grew up with Rubio in South Florida’s bare-knuckled politics, who believed in his ambitious rise, who helped shield him from ever getting so bruised that a national candidacy would be impossible, say it was only a question of when the Republican son of Cuban immigrants would aim for the White House.

“The first day I met him, I knew big things were waiting for him,” said Rebeca Sosa, the Miami-Dade County commissioner and former West Miami mayor who took Rubio under her wing in his first race, for city commission in 1998. “Not president, right then, but big things.”

Former state Rep. Ralph Arza said he told Rubio in the Florida Capitol in 2003 or 2004 that he had a “premonition” Rubio would someday seek the presidency. Visiting his old friend in the U.S. Capitol about a year ago, Arza said Rubio asked him about his old hunch.

“Do I win?” Rubio asked.

Rubio, a 43-year-old married father of four, is poised to kick off his 2016 Republican presidential campaign at 5:30 p.m. Monday at downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower, the Ellis Island for Cuban exiles.

He would be the third GOP candidate to formally declare his candidacy, after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — a fellow Cuban American — and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. More contenders are likely to follow, including Rubio’s friend and onetime mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a man Rubio so admired that he planned to sit out the 2010 U.S. Senate race after Bush indicated he would take part.

Now the script has flipped. Rubio will run in spite of Bush’s own presidential aspirations, fund-raising prowess and big-name endorsements. Some Rubio friends, who are even better Bush friends, argue the younger Rubio should wait his turn.

“He’s got a brilliant career in the Senate,” lamented Bush adviser Al Cardenas, the former Florida Republican Party chairman who hired Rubio as Miami field director of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.

But Marco Antonio Rubio has never been one to miss a political opportunity.

Statehouse run

Rubio spent only a year on the West Miami City Commission before he decided on a statehouse run in 2000. The seat opened up unexpectedly in 1999, and Rubio took his chance — even though it meant challenging a better-known Spanish-language radio personality, Angel Zayón, now a city of Miami spokesman.

Rubio won. And he used his early arrival to the statehouse — fellow freshmen lawmakers wouldn’t be sworn until the following year — to round up support as House speaker in 2006. Speakers are decided years in advance.

Another Cuban American, Gaston Cantens, ran for the preceding speakership. But he didn’t get it — apparently outmaneuvered by Rubio supporters who knew the House wouldn’t elect back-to-back Miami speakers. Rubio denied any involvement, and Cantens later backed him.

The two-year position gave Rubio statewide publicity. And as he made clear in his memorable 2008 farewell speech — which some lawmakers at the time gushed was the best they’d ever heard, and both Republicans and Democrats still mention today — he had bigger things in mind.

“There are things wrong with America. But it is our obligation to ensure and protect it for the next generation,” he said. “That is the greatest American inheritance. Every generation of American has left for their children a better country, a better life than their own. I hope this generation of leadership will not be the first to fail. I don’t believe we will.”

Tea party favorite

When Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez retired, Rubio decided to go after his seat, even after the popular sitting GOP governor, Charlie Crist, announced his own candidacy. Top Republicans implored Rubio to drop out — run for governor, they said, or for attorney general — to avoid losing to the formidable Crist. Far behind in fund-raising and public-opinion polls, Rubio nearly did.

But he stayed, spurred by what he later described as pride and anger at feeling disrespected by Crist and the party establishment. Rubio drove his F-150 pickup truck to small political gatherings across the state and seized the growing frustration among conservative voters who came to call themselves the tea party.

It proved a shrewd strategy. Despite revelations about sloppy campaign accounting and questionable charges to his Republican Party of Florida credit card, Rubio’s appeal grew so much that Crist chose to leave the GOP and run as an independent rather than fall to Rubio in the primary.

Rubio made the cover of the New York Times Sunday magazine. The headline: “The First Senator from the Tea Party?” He won decisively in the general election and his Senate victory party drew reporters from more than 300 news outlets.

“No matter where I go, whatever title I may achieve, I will always be the son of exiles and will always be the heir of two generations of unfulfilled dreams,” Rubio, surrounded by wife Jeanette and children Amanda, Daniella, Anthony and Dominick, told the crowd after being introduced by Bush.

Avoiding spotlight

Once in office, Rubio laid low.

Like Clinton and Obama before him, both elected to the Senate with a national profile, Rubio at first avoided the spotlight. He worked on uncontroversial legislation to tackle human trafficking. He wrote a memoir and acknowledged his parents had not fled Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution in Cuba — as listed on his official Senate website — but emigrated years earlier, in 1956. They tried their luck again on the island in 1961 before returning to the U.S. for good.

His 2012 book was timed for publication with carefully crafted speeches that positioned Rubio as a possible Romney running mate. He was vetted for the position but ultimately didn’t get it; Romney’s former campaign insisted it had nothing to do with Rubio’s close friendship to ex-Rep. David Rivera of Miami, who had been dogged by investigations and would soon be tied to an illegal federal campaign-finance scheme in a case that is still ongoing.

“Our vetting team was confident that, if chosen, his legislative record and high personal character would have been a great asset to Mitt on the campaign trail and in office,” former Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said.

Rubio still traveled as a Romney emissary, particularly to woo Hispanic voters, and introduced him to a national television audience during the Republican National Convention. When Romney’s loss left the GOP searching for a fresh message, Rubio championed immigration-reform legislation he had talked about for months. He became the party’s face — “The Republican Savior,” read a Time Magazine cover — and delivered the 2013 GOP State of the Union response, a speech mostly remembered and ridiculed because Rubio made an awkward reach for a water bottle.

Backlash over immigration

The Democratic-led Senate adopted the immigration law, but it went nowhere in GOP-controlled House. And Rubio suffered backlash from tea partiers who felt his support of a path to citizenship for the nearly 11 million immigrants in the country illegally was a betrayal.

“I knew that his numbers were going to go down,” said Alfonso Aguilar, director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, a conservative group that favors pro-immigrant policies. “However, I think that he realized, like I realized, that the majority of likely Republican voters in the primaries are not against immigration reform.”

Nevertheless, Rubio was forced to rehabilitate his image in repeated interviews and remarks to conservative groups. He renounced a comprehensive approach, saying it was unrealistic, in favor of a sequential, piecemeal plan that would start with further securing the U.S.-Mexican border. Immigration activists consider the change a capitulation.

Rubio immersed himself in foreign policy, which has given him a prominent perch to oppose the Obama administration — particularly on its rapprochement with Cuba — and to draw a contrast to other Republican presidential hopefuls with less experience on the subject. He created a political action committee, Reclaim America, that raised millions from visits to donors in key election states. He wrote a policy book, published earlier this year and promoted with a tour in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the first presidential-primary states.

And he has made clear he’s OK with leaving the Senate after a single term. Even if he falls short of the White House, he could run for Florida governor in 2018 — and maybe try again for the presidency in 2020 or 2024.

“All my life I’ve been in a hurry to get my future,” Rubio wrote in his memoir, An American Son.

The future is now here.

An earlier version of this story misstated when Rivera was connected to the federal campaign-finance scheme.

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