06.18.12

Who is Marco Rubio? Life Story Revealed in Manuel Roig-Franzia’s Biography

Florida’s senator is on short lists to be Romney’s VP pick and is already one of the Republicans’ brightest stars, but where did he come from and how has he risen so fast? John Avlon on a new biography that tells his remarkable story—and raises interesting questions.

Marco Rubio’s memoir, American Son, is coming out on Tuesday. It will inevitably be a campaign document, scrubbed clean of unflattering details, intended to be an exhibit in his bid to be Mitt Romney’s VP nominee. Which is why The Rise of Marco Rubio by Manuel Roig-Franzia of The Washington Post is an especially valuable and well-timed look the man who might be Vice President.

It is a portrait of one young man’s rise to power in the swampy world of Florida politics. Rubio’s rise is propelled by a number of firsts—the first Cuban-American speaker of the state House of Representatives, the first member of Gen X to reach the upper echelons of American politics, among others. 

The most interesting aspect of this biography is Rubio’s means of ascent. He is described by Roig-Franzia as “a professional apprentice,” someone unusually adept at ingratiating himself to elders in positions of power. He volunteers for unglamorous tasks like the state’s redistricting commission and does hard work with intense focus, acutely aware of being seen and becoming trusted by more senior members of the party, greasing the wheels with a well-timed laugh and his affable nature. He is more than willing to make any adjustments to expedite his rise: for example, in his first years in the Florida state House, Rubio doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in earmarks, but when the Club for Growth comes calling, he quit cold turkey.

Like Bill Clinton, he is a young man in a hurry, accumulating power by leveraging personal relationships. And, as was once said of Nixon during his VP years with Ike, he is an old person’s idea of what a young person should be like. But rather than being a plastic young conservative who spends his youth fantasizing about coat-and-tie cocktails with William F. Buckley, Rubio is a relatable member of his generation. He does not listen to patriotic hymns on road trips, but rap, spitting along to the sounds of Snoop Dogg.

There are plenty of revelations in the book. Among the most interesting is Rubio's circuitous personal religious path—described by allies as a “journey of faith”—ranging from attending Catholic Mass during his boyhood in Miami to his adolescent conversion to Mormonism when his family lived in Las Vegas to describing himself as a Baptist when his political career began and then back to his original Catholicism, all of them embraced with a God-and-country frame that resonates powerfully with the Republican Party base as well as, presumably, Rubio's soul. 

Along with faith, football has been a constant focus of personal devotion. At times in Tallahassee he seemed more interested in meeting Tim Tebow or Dan Marino than in passing pieces of legislation. Even more fascinating, his wife, Jeanette, and her sister are former Miami Dolphins cheerleaders. How this has not drawn more attention to date remains a mystery.

The Rubio family’s path from Cuba is a particularly well-told encapsulation of the American Dream, personal sacrifice leading to hard won success. Rubio’s father was a bartender; his mother worked the night shift at Wal-Mart. Their son is now a U.S. senator. Only the hard-hearted or hard-partisan could not be inspired by this evidence of meritocracy in action, which no less than Barack Obama’s rise is evidence of American exceptionalism. 

Far from practicing what he preached, the young fiscal conservative was certainly spending more than he brought in.

As with any family, there are frayed threads in the tapestry. Roig-Franzia uncovers several details that opposition researchers had apparently missed in the past, notably that Rubio’s older sister Barbara was married to a man named Orlando Cicila, who was arrested in a major Miami drug bust for serving as a middleman for cocaine shipments throughout the U.S. in the mid-1980s. He was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison when Marco was just a teenager. In a less serious vein, another brother-in-law is described as a "Latin heartthrob singer” and sometime actor who played an amorous yoga instructor in the 2009 film Couples Retreat. Also interesting is the fact that his cousin Mo is the first Hispanic Democrat to lead the Nevada state Senate, positioning him alongside another rising GOP star, Governor Brian Sandoval, in that swing state’s power structure. 

Other revelations are more relevant to Rubio’s vetting as a possible VP nominee. State legislatures tend to be sleazy places and among the nuggets discovered is the fact that Rubio’s annual income rose from $124,000 a year when he entered the state legislature to more then $410,000 in 2008, thanks to his concurrent work with a powerful local law firm. But strangely Rubio’s net assets clocked in at just over $8,000 during his last year in the statehouse. Far from practicing what he preached, the young fiscal conservative was certainly spending more than he brought in.

In the rise to become the speaker, Rubio also formed a PAC-like campaign- committee organization called “Floridians for Conservative Leadership.” It came under some scrutiny from Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times for spending $150,000 on administrative costs—including payments to Rubio’s wife, nephew, mother-in-law, and his wife’s half-brother. It only gave out $4,000 in campaign contributions, the ostensible purpose for such a committee. 

Most significant were the self-inflicted legal and ethical troubles Rubio allies like fellow legislators David Rivera and Ralph Arza found themselves in. But Rubio rewards personal loyalty and he stood by his men, for better or for worse.

Along with cultivating the support of influential party leaders like Governor Jeb Bush and Al Cardenas, Rubio’s rise was propelled by a commitment to policy innovations, compiled in a book titled Ideas for Florida's Future, a think-tank blueprint that drew the admiration of national conservatives like Newt Gingrich. This focus on best practices shows an activist approach to limited government even within Rubio's conservative commitments. 

Most admirable are Rubio’s political cojones. Deciding to challenge the then-incumbent governor Charlie Crist for an open Senate seat in 2010 was a gutsy decision. After all, Crist had a 70% approval rating at the time, and Rubio could have just jumped into the governor’s race as a prohibitive favorite. Even long-time Rubio allies like Al Cardenas did not initially support his effort. But surfing the Tea Party wave, he made Crist’s televised embrace of President Obama a core campaign issue, and rose from statewide obscurity to decisively win a three-way race for Senate in the fall.  

In a very short time, Rubio has established himself as a substantive rising star in the Republican Party. Along with Bobby Jindal, he represents the demographic future of the country in a party that is overwhelmingly white, without sacrificing any social-conservative credentials. A sign of his national standing emerged again this past Friday, when President Obama’s plan to amend deportation policy borrowed its framework from Rubio’s version of the Dream Act.

Whether or not he is Romney’s VP nominee—and for my money, he would be the best choice for the GOP, even given the risks of a freshman senator in the spot—Marco Rubio is going to be a major player in American politics for the next several decades. That’s why The Rise of Marco Rubio is a rewarding read, giving valuable insight into this young man in a hurry—affable and intelligent if perhaps a bit too eager to play the game of politics to get ahead.