LAS VEGAS — Driving through the working-class, northern Las Vegas neighborhood where Marco Rubio grew up, with his cousin narrating in the shotgun seat, you get the sense that—in a slightly different world—Rubio might have become a rising star in Democratic politics instead.
“I do think that his life here was at a critical time in his life that would have impacted his personal beliefs: things he learned in the LDS church, school, and the community as a whole,” said Mo Denis, who‘s now a Democratic state senator who represents their childhood district.
Las Vegas is where Rubio experienced his first case of real racial animus, first saw the reality of urban gang violence, began listening to R&B to fit in with the locals, and convinced his family to go to a Catholic church (rather than the Mormon church it had previously attended).
He even got involved in labor politics—but not on the side you’d assume.
Denis is a major player in Nevada’s Democratic politics, having been the state’s first Hispanic Senate Majority leader. Last week, The Daily Beast spent the afternoon with him on a “star tour” of sorts featuring young Rubio’s life in Vegas.
“We grew up here in Vegas, whereas there were in Miami—there’s a different political scene. A lot of Cubans were Democrats once upon a time,” Denis told The Daily Beast. “I’m sure he would have [been a Democrat if he stayed in Vegas]. A Democrat here is different from a Democrat in Massachusetts, for example… He didn’t live a charmed life. Our parents weren’t part of the elite class. We were just hard-working, working class.”
Vegas was also where Rubio got his first taste of labor politics, when his father and other members of the Culinary Worker Union held a strike over wages and working conditions in 1984.
Rubio helped support the strike, which was located across the street from Sam’s Town, a hotel where his father worked as a bartender and which still stands. Now a fiscal conservative, Rubio wrote in his memoir that the strike became his “obsession,” helping to walk the picket line, make signs, and block security staff from videotaping the picketers.
“I became a committed union activist. I got to spend time with my father,” Rubio said. “I was excited to be part of the cause and join forces with striking workers from many hotels.”
Rubio even accused his father of selling out when he returned to work despite the strike after money ran low, the senator writes in his memoir, a fact that he’s ashamed of now.
Rubio’s time in Las Vegas is one of the most compelling parts of his personal narrative—when he talks about how he managed to ascend to the highest rungs of American political power despite being the son of a bartender and a maid, Vegas was the backdrop for the story.
“I spent six years as a child growing not far from where we stand tonight,” Rubio reminisced at the Republican presidential debates last week at the Venetian Las Vegas. “I used to sit on the porch of our home and listen to my grandfather tell stories as he smoked one of three daily cigars.”
Of course, Rubio didn’t stay in Las Vegas—in his teenage years he returned to Miami, developing the political connections that elevated him through local, then state, and now federal politics. His parents moved from Nevada back to Florida, fearing that Rubio would be lured in by somewhat-lucrative casino work rather than go to college.
As Denis took us through the College Park neighborhood, near North Las Vegas, where both he and Rubio spent many of their formative years, he pointed out the elementary school and the junior high they both attended.
But that wasn’t the only education Rubio received while living in College Park.
In the years after the Mariel boatlift, a mass immigration of Cubans to the United States in 1980, an older kid in College Park started breaking the wooden fence on the Rubios’ property, calling the family trash and telling them to go back on a boat to where they had come from.
It would be the first time that Rubio encountered that kind of racial hatred, Rubio wrote in his memoir An American Son, having just moved from majority-Hispanic Miami to Sin City, where Hispanics were just a small minority.
Rubio’s mother, Oriales Rubio, had six sisters. At the time Rubio and Denis were growing up, four of the seven sisters lived in Las Vegas.
“We all kind of grew up together,” Denis said, describing his younger cousin Rubio as constantly inquisitive. “With all our cousins, it’s like extended brothers and sisters that you have. We were just that close.”
Rubio went by “Tony” at the time, short for the his middle name, Antonio—a nickname his close family continues to use. It was in high school, after he left Las Vegas, that Rubio would return to “Marco.”
At a Mexican joint called Macayo, which Denis called “the hangout in high school” just a couple miles away from Rubio’s childhood home, Denis reminisces about the six years the Rubios spent in the city. It was a different time then: The sleepy Las Vegas metro area had just under half a million people in 1980—now it is home to more than 2 million.
Macayo has been a mainstay throughout it all, and a place the Denis and Rubio families would have converged from time to time to eat (Macayo began serving smooth AND chunky salsa with chips when the Rubio family came to town, Denis recalls, a sign of the times).
Despite their closeness as kids, Denis hasn’t chosen whether or not to support his cousin in the 2016 presidential elections yet. In the past, he’s rallied against Rubio’s political allies but it has never gotten personal. Back in 2012, when Rubio held an pro-Romney event at C.C. Ronnow Elementary School, which Rubio had attended as a child, Denis held a competing press conference, opposing Romney’s candidacy for the White House. But there was no animosity—afterwards, the whole family retired to a private room inside the school to catch up.
And, Denis grinned, an endorsement for his cousin may do more harm than good during a Republican primary.
“I’m walking a fine line here,” Denis said. “I can support him better by not supporting anybody.”
Denis stopped to point out Rubio’s childhood home: a modest one-story home on the corner of Lava Avenue and Ingraham Street that Rubio lists in his memoir. In the years since the Rubios lived there, the new owners have put a water fountain in the front yard and raised the fences—but from time to time, people drop by to see the place where a potential future president grew up.
But while there isn’t a formal endorsement, Denis is helping his cousin in another unique way.
“The reason I do these interviews is that I want people to understand that he’s different from most people who run for political office—he’s grown up more similar to a lot of people in the country. He didn’t live a privileged life,” Denis added.