A speaker of intrigue and ambition

Marco Rubio's youth belies his plans for Florida. And beyond.

Published March 3, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - He looked so young that Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings thought he was an aide.

Make copies, she ordered in the midst of a hectic special legislative session in 2003.

But the young man sent to the copy machine was no aide - he was Rep. Marco Rubio.

Nobody confuses Rubio with a go-fer any more. The youthful looks remain, but today he is one of the three most powerful politicians in Florida.

Rubio is the first Cuban-American speaker of the House and, at 35, the second-youngest speaker in modern history.

As the Miami Republican takes command of his first regular session Tuesday, it's clear his ambitions are not confined to his final two years in office.

Possessed with charm, and an intriguing personal storyline, Rubio is heralded as the next big thing.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he's governor some day," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "Or maybe even president."

Rubio's ascent has not been flawless. He has faced a surprising amount of criticism in his five months as speaker.

He stripped two lieutenants of power for voting against the property insurance relief package, a move that called into question Rubio's oft-stated commitment to inclusiveness.

He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations to the House, including a members-only dining room.

He awarded six-figure salaries to staff members, some of whom now earn more than their counterparts in the governor's office.

Rubio disarms his critics with a mix of defiance and humor.

"The Florida House is a big part of this community. We employ a lot of people. If you've read the newspapers, you see we pay well," he said at a recent Tiger Bay Club luncheon.

The Tallahassee crowd, mostly Democrats, laughed. Rubio proceeded with a speech that reached far beyond state government.

"What it takes to give a world-class education to a kid with five strikes against him is very different" than what is given to a kid with no strikes, he said. "We have to do both. If we don't, we're not America anymore ... We're just another rich country with a powerful army."

Rubio is passionate about ideas in the mold of his role model, former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The idea that propelled Rubio onto the national stage was a Republican Party-funded book called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.

The book, a product of months of community forums around the state, was Rubio's effort to let citizens determine the agenda in Tallahassee. But it is drawing criticism at home as a pre-packaged Republican playbook.

"There is a frustration with this adherence to 100 Ideas, like it's some doctrine they all signed onto," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors.

Idea No. 96 is the basis for the House leadership's proposal to replace property taxes with a higher sales tax. The plan, which Rubio announced two weeks ago, has been called bold and innovative. Mostly, though, it has been panned as a regressive scheme that would hurt the poor.

Rubio's plan has ignited a passionate debate over taxes. He challenges listeners to name a political figure in history who was universally liked.

"You can't be popular and lead," he says.

It's a line that would please Bush, who anointed Rubio as his ideological heir in 2005 by giving him an ancient Chinese sword in a ceremony in the House chamber. The sword rests on a bookshelf in Rubio's office, a reminder to stay true to conservative values.

Bush has left office, but he and Rubio talk regularly about policy. "He's been a huge influence, probably as much as anybody," said Rubio, who counts the former governor as one of his Coral Gables constituents.

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Rubio's values were nourished on the front porch of his family's West Miami home. As a boy, he listened as his grandfather sat in an aluminum folding chair, his cane at his side, puffing on a Padron cigar and telling stories in Spanish about the Cuban revolution.

"Most kids weren't interested in that stuff. They wanted to play," said Rubio's sister, Veronica Ponce. "But my brother was fascinated with the history that my grandfather carried with him."

Some of Rubio's earliest memories are of momentous events.

"I remember following the Iran hostage crisis," he said. "In fact, that's when Nightline was started."

When Rubio joined neighborhood kids for tag, he made the rules and divided the teams. On Sundays, he watched the Miami Dolphins on TV with a notebook in his lap. "He would write down all the plays," his sister said. "He would be coaching from home."

The football obsession has not waned. Friends say it can be maddening to watch a game with him, dictating strategy from an easy chair. Awake each morning at 5:30 (6 on weekends), the first thing Rubio does is browse ESPN.com for NFL draft developments.

The things he loves - football, history, politics - cause him to talk so fast or so long sometimes he'll stop and apologize, flashing a boyish smile.

Growing up, "he liked to talk a lot," Veronica Ponce said, laughing. "I remember when he was in the third grade and a teacher sent home a note saying he should become a lawyer."

He did, and now makes $300,000 a year at Broad and Cassel in Miami.

Rubio grew up somewhere between poor and middle class, one of four children born to Cuban exiles. His father, Mario, was a bartender and his mother, Oria, worked in a factory, cleaned hotel rooms and stocked shelves at Kmart. The family moved to Las Vegas in 1979 but returned to Miami in 1985, the year Rubio's grandfather died.

A small but capable cornerback at South Miami High, Rubio was recruited to play football at tiny Tarkio College in Missouri. His playing days ended when he transferred to the University of Florida. He began dating a girl from Miami, Jeanette Dousdebes, who was later a Miami Dolphins cheerleader. Now married, the couple has three children. A fourth is on the way.

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While attending law school at University of Miami, Rubio joined the presidential campaign of Bob Dole, who faced an uphill climb in challenging Bill Clinton in 1996.

One night the campaign staff got together at a headquarters in Little Havana. Dozens of volunteers packed the hall to hear from some of the biggest players in South Florida politics. Yet it was the 24-year-old Rubio who worked the crowd into a frenzy with a motivational speech.

"It kind of took the thunder away from the elected officials," said Rep. David Rivera of Miami, a longtime friend who was there. "But that was Marco."

Rubio impressed Al Cardenas, a Dole campaign co-chairman and later chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

"I think volunteers kept coming back for Marco as much as they did for Bob Dole," Cardenas said.

Cardenas, a powerful Miami lawyer, hired Rubio as a clerk in his firm and gave him a full-time job when he passed the Bar.

In 1998, Rubio made the leap from campaign staffer to candidate and won a seat on the West Miami City Commission. Mayor Rebecca Sosa remembers the "handsome boy" who showed up at her house one Saturday while she planted roses in her front yard.

"He told me his parents came from Cuba and he wanted to pay back all that was given to him," Sosa said. "I stopped what I was doing and invited him inside for coffee. The next day we were knocking on doors together."

Two years later, Rubio was elected to the state Legislature. The ambitious rookie rose quickly and became majority leader under Speaker Johnnie Byrd. By November 2003, Rubio had beaten back more than a dozen other challengers to claim the speaker's job himself.

By winning office in a special election, Rubio had a head start on other freshman members. He also ran for speaker immediately after a fellow Cuban-American, Rep. Gaston Cantens of Miami, lost the top job to Rep. Allan Bense of Panama City.

Had Cantens won, Rubio's bid for speaker likely would have been doomed because House members carefully balance power by rotating the position around the state every two years. Cantens' defeat cleared the way for Rubio to become Miami-Dade's first House speaker in more than three decades.

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On the day of his designation speech in 2005, Rubio paid homage to his Cuban heritage and then asked House members to reach under their desks and unwrap a package. Inside was a book titled 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future. The pages were blank.

"Together we will write a book which will detail and outline our vision for the future," Rubio said. He challenged them to find ideas - in the community, on their own, wherever - that were relevant to ordinary life and the future. Idea raisers across the state and a Web site produced thousands of suggestions.

The concept quickly spread to other states. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich brought it to Georgia, calling it a "work of genius." Last month, Rubio traveled to Oklahoma for an idea raiser, then stopped at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to give a speech to 500 employees.

As Rubio's profile has grown, however, so has the grumbling. Some Republicans privately say he is already reaching for higher office, such as governor.

Democrats openly wonder if the 100 Ideas has trumped other debate. Each time one of the ideas moves forward, the House Majority Office churns out a celebratory press release noting the bill's connection to the book.

Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, the Democratic leader, says he is not crazy about all the ideas, but praises Rubio's spirit of inclusiveness.

Rubio allowed Gelber to pick ranking Democratic members for committees - a departure from past practice. "He's not afraid of our voice," Gelber said. "I think he wants the debate to be pointed and about issues."

Marco Rubio

Hometown: Miami

Age: 35

Occupation: lawyer, speaker of the Florida House

Net worth: $415,000 (as of 2005)

Family: Married, three children

Interests: flag football