On September 13, 2005, Marco Rubio, then a 34-year-old state legislator from Miami, was officially designated the next speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He was the first Cuban-American to win the job, and the Voice of America beamed his speech to countries around the globe, including Cuba. Nearly 200 people flew from Rubio’s hometown to Tallahassee to attend the ceremony, which took place in the state House chambers. They wore laminated floor passes inscribed with a quote from Ronald Reagan: “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
During his speech, Rubio—dressed in a dark suit with a red rose on his left lapel—asked House members to examine their desks. Inside, lawmakers found, wrapped in gift paper, a hardcover book titled 100 Innovative Ideas For Florida’s Future. It was blank. Rubio then told his visibly perplexed colleagues that they would fill in the pages together during the run-up to his speakership. The ideas would come from ordinary Floridians, he said, and members would collect them at town hall-style meetings called “idearaisers.” The gambit quickly won rave reviews from national figures, including Newt Gingrich, who called the concept “a work of genius.”
Closing his speech with a passage his advisers had counseled him to drop, Rubio asked his colleagues to imagine a single mother, trapped in poverty and holding her firstborn child: “In her heart burns the hope that everything that has gone wrong in her life will go right for that child, that all the opportunities she never had, her child will.” Her success, Rubio continued, would depend on the choices legislators made. “If our purpose here is simply to win elections or to use this place as a springboard to other offices, then her cause will be of little interest to us and her dreams for her child will have little chance,” he said. “But if we aspire to be agents of change, if our goal is to make a lasting and meaningful impact on our world, then her cause will also be ours.” The lines brought the crowd to its feet.
Sitting in the front row, Gov. Jeb Bush was clearly moved. He took to the podium and declared, “I can’t think back on a time when I’ve ever been prouder to be a Republican.” After encouraging lawmakers to pursue “big ideas,” he presented Rubio with a golden sword “of a great conservative warrior.”
Ten years later, perhaps the biggest question facing Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign is whether he has enough executive experience to lead the country. Detractors often compare Rubio to Barack Obama circa 2008—a young politician who simply isn’t ready to occupy the most powerful office in the world. To deflect this comparison, Rubio has been talking a lot about his leadership experiences in Tallahassee. Obama, he told Fox News in March, “was a backbencher in the state Legislature in Illinois, and I was in leadership all nine years that I served there, including two as speaker of the House.”
So how did Rubio fare during his years in the Florida House? Did he live up to the extraordinary expectations that were showered on him at his designation ceremony in September 2005? I recently talked to 30 people who worked with Rubio during his years in Tallahassee. My goal was simple: to figure out what it looks like when Marco Rubio wields power.
JUST SEVEN YEARS before his designation ceremony, Rubio was knocking on doors in West Miami, the middle-class city of Cuban immigrants where he grew up. Barely out of law school, the 26-year-old was seeking a seat on the city commission. He won easily. Then, less than two years later, a seat in Florida House District 111—a safe GOP district—came open when a state representative resigned early to run for the state Senate. Rubio jumped in.
At a ceremony in September 2005, Marco Rubio was officially designated as the next speaker of the Florida House. “I can’t think back on a time when I’ve ever been prouder to be a Republican,” Jeb Bush said at the event. (State Archives of Florida/Florida Memory/Mark Foley Collection)He campaigned as a moderate Republican, preaching tax cuts and early-childhood education while leaving social issues off the table. In the primary, he faced tough competition from Angel Zayon, a radio and television reporter popular among Cuban exiles. But Rubio won a runoff by 64 votes, and, with the GOP nomination in hand, coasted to victory in the general election.
Rubio arrived to a Tallahassee in transition. In 1992, Florida voters had passed a constitutional amendment limiting state legislators to eight years. The measure had several profound effects on state government. First, it meant that Rubio’s victory—eight years after the passage of the referendum—roughly coincided with a mass exodus of term-limited lawmakers. It also set up a very specific dynamic for the selection of House speakers (who, from 1997 onward, have all been Republicans). Now, lawmakers had only a finite amount of time to climb the ladder toward House speaker. It was akin to a class of high school freshmen who arrive at their new school knowing that, senior year, only one of them will be student-body president. In an additional twist, tradition called for an aspiring speaker to secure the necessary votes long before being named House speaker-designate—a ceremony that took place about a year before a new speaker actually took the reins. As Dan Gelber, a Democrat who represented Miami Beach and served as minority leader, puts it, “The Republicans choose their speakers based on an ultrasound.”
What it all added up to was a strong set of incentives for freshmen to move quickly upon arriving in the House. Which was exactly what Rubio did. Because he had won a special election—about 10 months before the regular elections—he was already in office when other future members of his freshman class were still running. In October 2000, Rubio, a newly minted state rep, showed up at the downtown Fort Myers law office of Republican House candidate Jeff Kottkamp. Accompanied by a lobbyist, Rubio was bearing campaign checks from the cruise-line industry and a gasoline distributor. “He had a little bit of a head start” in the speakership race, says Kottkamp. “I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what he was doing.” (Unlike a number of the Florida Republicans I interviewed for this story, Kottkamp has not chosen sides in the Bush-Rubio face-off of 2016.)
Rubio commuted back and forth to Miami; the official legislative session was only 60 days a year, and he had another job—he worked at a law firm specializing in land use and zoning—but by his own estimate he spent nearly half the year in Tallahassee. And he took his new post seriously. During the 2000 election crisis, the Legislature met in special session to decide whether lawmakers should exercise the “nuclear option” and award the state’s 25 electors to George W. Bush, but as the U.S. Supreme Court waded into the recount battle, most lawmakers went home for the weekend. Rubio stayed, “in case he was needed, in case something happened,” says Nelson Diaz, a former legislative aide. Likewise, when the state Capitol was evacuated on 9/11, Rubio refused to budge. Diaz recalls handing him a note telling him that the World Trade Center had been bombed; authorities were concerned that Tallahassee, home to the president’s brother, could be a target. As other lawmakers left the building, Diaz says, Rubio headed for the speaker’s office and asked, “What do we need to do?”
Nine months into Rubio’s legislative career, Mike Fasano, the House majority leader, asked the freshman to be one of his two majority whips, a position that typically requires sharp elbows and arm-twisting. But Rubio took a different approach. “Marco always used honey rather than vinegar,” Diaz says. “He was charming. He knew the policy. He could convince you on a policy basis. “… It wasn’t your typical you-have-to-fall-in-line kind of threat.”
Dudley Goodlette, another GOP leader, called Rubio a “friendly enforcer.” His oratory was his best weapon. Many colleagues recall watching Rubio scribble a few notes on index cards, before rising to deliver a rousing speech on the House floor. “When he spoke, it was a rallying call on an issue,” says Lindsay Harrington, a former Republican state representative. “If you really needed something that was statesmanlike, Marco would always be the one to give that presentation.”
“Anytime Marco would get up to speak, you could hear a pin drop in that chamber,” says Marty Bowen, a Republican legislator who would become one of his top lieutenants. “He really commanded a presence, so people paid attention to him.”
Rubio did not cloak his ambition. When Fasano resigned as majority leader after a flap with the House speaker in September 2001, the first call he received was from Rubio, who was already wrangling for the legislator’s old job. “It wasn’t, ‘How’s everything going?’ It was, ‘Can you help me become majority leader?’ ” recalls Fasano. (The former legislator is now supporting Bush for president.) “He had only been a member of the Florida Legislature for a couple of years. He wasn’t thinking about what good he could do for the Legislature, for his party, and for his constituents. He was thinking about what good he could do for himself.” (Rubio declined to be interviewed for this article.)
He didn’t get the majority leader post that time; the speaker chose a more experienced lawmaker. But another opportunity soon came along. In his second year in the Legislature, he volunteered to help a committee tasked with the once-in-a-decade ritual of redrawing voting district boundaries. It’s a tedious task, one that involves managing the grievances of dozens of lawmakers whose political careers could end with the shifting of lines. Johnnie Byrd, a Republican leader on his way to becoming speaker, thought Rubio would be perfect for the job. “He has this real ability to communicate with people all over the state,” Byrd says. “Many Miami-based legislators don’t have that ability to communicate statewide, so I let him run with it.”
“Marco always used honey rather than vinegar,” says a former aide. “He was charming.”
Fueled by a steady diet of Mountain Dew and Cuban coffee, Rubio pored over the legislative maps. He broke the state into five regions and met one-on-one with lawmakers to help draw boundaries. “The most personal thing a legislator ever has to deal with is their own district,” Byrd says, “and he was able to make them reasonably happy. “… Imagine a freshman legislator in an organization driven by seniority and he captivates all of them, on both sides of the aisle, and brings it in for a landing.”
Rubio’s hustle endeared him to leadership, and in late 2002, he was appointed majority leader. At some level, it was a natural stepping stone to House speaker. Yet Rubio’s supporters discouraged the move, saying it would kill his speakership ambitions before they left the cradle. “I would be in the vote-counting business, and would have to twist arms on difficult votes, making as many enemies as friends in the process,” he wrote in his memoir. His solution? He persuaded Byrd, the speaker, to restructure the job—making him primarily the chief spokesman for the House GOP while transferring the more difficult legislative wrangling to the whip’s office.
Rubio, it seems, understood that his main strength was his charisma and exceptional public-speaking ability. And thanks to those assets, he was becoming a star. A Miami Herald headline in March 2003 declared him “a GOP wonder boy”; the article captured him cornering the media outside a Democratic press conference on the state budget to counter the minority party’s arguments. “My brain was wired to do this stuff,” a beaming Rubio told the newspaper. “You have to enjoy the game.”
ON MONDAY NIGHTS during the 2001 and 2002 legislative sessions, Byrd would rent various banquet rooms around Tallahassee and invite conservative luminaries to speak to the GOP caucus. Among the guests: Art Laffer, the supply-side maven whose tax-cut theories single-handedly redefined Republican doctrine, and Stephen Moore, the economist who founded the Club for Growth. “I made sure that Marco and all the Republicans got a steady diet of free-market economics. I think they all began to understand what the real driving economic issues were in the country,” says Byrd, who is backing Rubio for president. “I think Marco absorbed that, like everything else he was around.”
You can certainly hear Rubio’s conservatism during this stage in his career. For instance, in January 2003, he called out his more moderate counterparts in the Senate in his weekly message to House members. “Over the last three years the Senate, as a collective body, has demonstrated an unhealthy fixation with raising taxes,” he wrote.
But Rubio was not entirely a rock-ribbed conservative. Some former colleagues describe him as a centrist who sought out Democrats and groups that don’t typically align with the GOP. Early in his tenure, for instance, he set up a meeting with farmworkers to discuss their working conditions. He addressed a crowd of about 50 one night in the hall of a migrant-labor housing complex in Homestead, a farming community south of Miami; ultimately, he cosponsored legislation that would have allowed workers to sue growers in state court if they were cheated on pay. “The idea that any legislator, let alone a Republican, would reach out to farmworkers was unheard of. We were flabbergasted,” says Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. In the years before his speakership, Rubio would also cosponsor a bill that sought to award in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants.
Today, Rubio has positioned himself as a foreign-policy hawk, but in the wake of 9/11, he struck a libertarian chord on national security matters. As state lawmakers considered dozens of bills to strengthen law enforcement, he expressed suspicion of measures that sought to expand police detention powers and suspend public-records laws. “I can’t ignore the fact that a lot of people I represent came to this country because of the freedoms that make it what it is,” Rubio said. “So many of these measures that we are talking about implementing were the very same ones that were forced on the people of Cuba right after Castro took over.”
In 2002, Rubio led a successful charge to quash a Republican bill that would have required all colleges to submit the visa information of foreign students to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “I’m concerned,” he said, “that by the end of the session, immigrant and foreign-born people who are here in this country legally won’t be able to get married without a struggle, get a driver’s license without being hassled, and won’t be able to go to school without being tracked.”
BY 2003, RUBIO had formed a political action committee—Floridians for Conservative Leadership—and embarked on a relentless campaign to win over fellow lawmakers in his bid for the speakership. “The key thing to becoming speaker is to help other people. It’s more of a mind-set than tactics,” Byrd told me. “Rather than saying, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ Marco was more disarming, engaging, curious about where you were trying to go. “… He is not wanting to lord over people. He wants to make solutions that get buy-in from everybody.”
One by one, throughout 2003, rivals dropped out. By November, only three remained, and Rubio and his team worked to poach supporters from rival camps, offering key chairmanships and support for future races. Eventually, all three opponents—including Kottkamp—quit the campaign. Rubio was now in line for the job.
But before there was any celebration, there was damage control. Rubio started calling his former rivals, as well as their supporters. “I need to talk to you tonight,” he told Rep. Dennis Baxley, who had backed another candidate. The lawmaker responded that he was busy holding a fundraiser in Central Florida. “I’ll come to you,” Rubio said. The two met around 9 p.m. in a Burger King off Interstate 4. “I think I already have the votes to be speaker,” Rubio told Baxley, “but I think I need you with me.”
Baxley was an influential social conservative, and his backing would enhance Rubio’s clout and broaden his coalition. Over coffee, the two discussed faith, family, and politics. Baxley told me that Rubio was so excited that “I don’t think he sat down the whole time.” Rubio asked Baxley to join his leadership team. The lawmaker asked to sleep on it, but his opposition had begun to melt.
Around the same time, Rubio had a similar late-night meeting in the lobby of a South Florida hotel with Marty Bowen, a onetime rival who had earlier dropped her bid. The two spoke for hours. “He wanted to make sure that when he was going into the speaker’s office that we were all going there with him,” she told me. “He didn’t want any hard feelings.”
It would be another three years before Rubio would officially be sworn in as speaker, and the constraints of his job as majority leader left him little room to notch significant policy victories. As the speaker-in-waiting, “you don’t do a lot of legislating on your own,” says Gelber. “Your job is to toe the company line for the years before your speakership, because you expect everybody after you to toe your line—and in fairness, that’s what Marco did.”
“My brain is wired to do this stuff,” a beaming Rubio told the Miami Herald in 2003. “You have to enjoy the game.”
Every major debate presented another opportunity to strengthen or fracture Rubio’s carefully constructed coalition of pledge-signers, who wouldn’t be officially committed to him until they cast their votes in a formal ceremony in 2005. “You can’t just say, ‘You signed your name on the dotted line and now you’re in lockstep with me,’ ” Harrington says. “You still have the responsibility to make sure you are taking care of those people. “… You’ve got to keep the crowd together.”
Meanwhile, Rubio’s rising status was paying off monetarily. In June 2004, Broad and Cassel, one of Florida’s top law and lobbying firms, hired him at $300,000 a year—nearly three times his previous salary at another firm. By law, he was prevented from lobbying, and the conditions of his employment barred him from introducing legislation that would affect the firm’s clients, but the new job raised eyebrows among some colleagues and the state’s press corps.
HOUSE SPEAKER is one of the most powerful positions in Florida government, but it has not traditionally been a successful launching pad for higher office. Byrd, one of Rubio’s predecessors as speaker, had self-destructed in the 2004 session. A laconic loner, Byrd spurned the legislative cocktail circuit and lacked the personal connections that are the currency of statehouses. As he geared up for a competitive U.S. Senate campaign (which he would ultimately lose), he pursued a right-wing agenda and punished lawmakers for opposing his priorities. In the final hours of the session, some House Republicans openly mocked Byrd and celebrated his departure. After adjournment, he found his state car plastered in the blue campaign stickers of one of his Senate opponents.
Rubio wanted his speakership to be different. He had spent years cultivating relationships with House members—football was a frequent topic of conversation—and was well versed in their grievances. He positioned himself as the anti-Byrd, decentralizing power to an unprecedented degree and casting himself as less a visionary leader than a manager of ideas. “I would leave it to members to create and pursue policy priorities while I oversaw the management of their agenda,” Rubio wrote in his memoir.
Obsessed with the notion of leadership, he devoured books on corporate culture like Jim Collins’s Good to Great, and assigned them to his team. He recruited several of his former challengers into his inner circle and held meetings around the state to talk about how to accomplish their goals. (Later, he would arrange for historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak to the GOP caucus about her book Team of Rivals.) In a nod to Rubio’s Catholic faith, the group was jokingly dubbed the “cardinals.”
Keeping a busy schedule, Rubio travelled to all corners of Florida in 2006, holding “idearaisers” with lawmakers and their constituents. Ostensibly, the effort was intended to solicit concepts for his 100 Ideas project, but the tour doubled as political roadshow, expanding Rubio’s Miami base and giving the incoming speaker a statewide profile. Democrats, meanwhile, were busy recruiting legislative candidates, hoping to notch a symbolic victory of flipping one House seat. On Election Day, they won seven. It broke the minority party’s 16-year losing streak and cost the GOP its supermajority in the House. In a particular blow to Rubio—who, as speaker-designate, was responsible for overseeing the GOP’s election effort—the winning candidates included a Cuban-American Democrat in Miami-Dade County. While Democrats had benefited from a national wave, they won in Republican-leaning districts that Rubio himself had helped draw, often facing better-funded competitors.
During his two years as speaker of the Florida House, Rubio repeatedly clashed with Gov. Charlie Crist. “I think Charlie Crist was his worst nightmare when it came to moving the agenda that he wanted to move,” says one of Rubio’s former colleagues. (AP Photo/Phil Coale)Some said Rubio’s personal ambitions had overshadowed the needs of his party. “He oversaw the single worst election cycle for Republicans in state history,” says Steve Schale, the strategist who ran the House Democrats’ campaign. “He was focused on a lot of legacy-building things and not recruiting good candidates and running good races.”
FOR EIGHT YEARS, Jeb Bush—who left office in January 2007, as Rubio was beginning his speakership—had taken a domineering approach to managing affairs in Tallahassee. Rubio’s style of leading turned out to be quite different. In a surprising departure from House protocol, he granted requests by Gelber (the Democratic leader) to make his own appointments to committees as well as to control his caucus’s offices and parking spaces—the cudgels of legislative power. Most important, Gelber says, he honored Democrats’ right to voice opposition: “I would say, ‘I have an amendment that we’re going to speak on and we’re going to spend an hour calling you guys rat bastards,’ and he would say, ‘Do you think you could do it in 30 minutes?’”
While Rubio was not above yanking a dissident member’s parking space or reassigning someone to a closet-sized office, retribution was not routine. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not cloistered in the speaker’s office. He made an effort to eat with members in the cafeteria and talk to them about their bills as well as their families. “That’s the first thing-when you can demonstrate a real interest in people and empower them to be successful,” Baxley told me. “This is an atmosphere where it’s easy to get caught in a culture that says, ‘It’s all about me.’”
But it was the way that Rubio restructured the speaker’s office that surprised many capital insiders. After spending years to secure one of the most influential positions in Florida government, he relinquished his biggest power. For the first time, committee chairmen—not the speaker—would determine which subcommittees would vet legislation, decisions that could dramatically influence a bill’s chances of passing. “I wanted the House to operate differently than it had in the past, when the speaker had so much authority that members could always assign the blame for any failure to the ‘fourth floor’—code for the speaker’s office,” Rubio wrote. “Under my speakership, committee chairmen would have more power than ever before, but a greater share of responsibility as well, and greater accountability.”
Though pitched as a move toward democratizing the House, it had a clear political benefit for Rubio: He could stay above the fray while his lieutenants tended to controversies. In 2007, for instance, the National Rifle Association pushed legislation that would allow employees to keep guns in their cars at work. Business groups opposed the measure. Rubio allowed Rep. Stan Mayfield, a top lieutenant and the chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources committee, to take the lead. Support for the bill had been shaky from the outset, but the measure became toxic after the Virginia Tech shooting, in which a student shot and killed 32 people on the college’s campus. Despite intense pressure from the NRA, Mayfield opposed the bill. “Stan made sure the speaker understood where he stood,” says Kevin Sweeny, a former Mayfield aide. “Speaker Rubio said, ‘Stan, I trust you to do what is right.’ “
While Rubio was all smiles and eager to win friends, his top advisers had grown up in the brass-knuckled world of Miami politics. “Charming miscreants,” Gelber says, describing them as a band of “Boris-and-Natasha-type figures,” a reference to the cunning spies in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. No one was closer to Rubio than David Rivera, a representative from Miami who had managed his speakership campaign. (Rivera did not respond to a request for comment.) The two formed a brotherly bond in the trenches of Miami elections, and they lived together during legislative sessions in a modest, three-bedroom home they bought in a Tallahassee subdivision. In the Capitol, Rubio gave Rivera the House clerk’s office, which was located just off the chamber floor, and knocked down a wall so they could have direct access to each other. He made Rivera the chairman of the Rules Committee, a powerful post that gave him control over which bills made it to the House floor for a vote.
Rubio’s relationship with Rivera was emblematic of the new speaker’s general style: a tendency to delegate many of the toughest parts of politics. Bob Levy, a longtime lobbyist, says he rarely visited Rubio when he wanted something for his clients. It was Rivera who took the meetings. “When you talked to David, you knew you were talking to Marco,” Levy told me. “Rivera got things done,” Gelber says, “sort of like a fighter pilot might plow the horizon for the guys behind him—with a similar amount of damage, I might add.” “There were times when David did things that Marco wouldn’t necessarily sanction, but he considered that David’s choice—as long as they didn’t involve Marco directly,” Jill Chamberlin, Rubio’s former press secretary, told me.
AS HE HAD PUT the pieces of his speakership in place, Rubio had seemed to be trying to claim Jeb Bush’s mantle for himself. In the final months of Bush’s tenure in 2006, Rubio had fired nearly a dozen veteran House staffers and spent $2 million to hire some of Bush’s closest advisers, including his budget director, chief economist, and transportation guru. In fact, Rubio hired so many Bush aides—18 in all—that capital insiders began calling his suite “the governor’s office in exile.” His chief of staff, Richard Corcoran, was paid $175,212—$46,000 more than the governor. (Rubio argued that the House had to pay competitive salaries to retain top experts.)
The incoming speaker also spent more than $500,000 on renovations, including a private dining room for lawmakers—a necessity, he said, to help members eat without being hounded by lobbyists. Justified or not, all of this spending was a public-relations disaster. (Later, Rubio would also face criticism for using a state GOP credit card for personal expenses; he said the charges were mistakes that he ultimately covered himself.) While most new speakers allocate money to renovate their offices, Rubio’s spending not only exceeded his predecessor’s, it was also at odds with his image as a conservative champion of small government. The irony of Rubio seemingly violating the first principle of his 100 Ideas manifesto—”Do not unnecessarily expand the role of government”—was media fodder for weeks. “What happened to smaller government?” asked a December 2006 headline in the Miami Herald. “Memo to Mr. Rubio,” the Orlando Sentinel declared. “You were chosen by your colleagues to be speaker of the House, not governor.”
“Marco, unlike Jeb, is not afraid of a collaborative process,” says one Democratic House colleague.
The person who had, in fact, been chosen as governor was Charlie Crist, a centrist Republican. And he and Rubio would soon find themselves in conflict. As a former state senator, Crist had a natural rapport with the more moderate upper chamber. Rubio, as the leader of the fiery and often dogmatic House, quickly found himself the odd man out in a dynamic that would come to define his speakership. Within months of taking over as speaker, he was balking at a Democratic-inspired plan to overhaul the state’s insurance market by dramatically expanding the role of government. Crist supported the legislation; Rubio pushed back, but fearing a backlash, he relented and shepherded the measure through the House.
“We were going to be doing something different than what our convictions on free enterprise would tell us to do,” Baxley recalls. “When you see you’re outnumbered, you have to figure out how to make the best of the situation.” Only two Republicans voted no, and Rubio promptly stripped them of their committee posts, an action at odds with the open environment he had promised.
Rubio soon reasserted himself, pushing a “tax swap” plan that would eliminate property taxes and replace the revenue with an increase in the sales tax. Perhaps the boldest of the 100 ideas, it was widely panned as a regressive scheme that would hurt the poor, but he mounted a statewide tour to promote the plan, which won him national attention.
Crist pushed a much more modest approach, based on his campaign promise to double the state’s homestead exemption, a popular tax break for homeowners. The Senate ignored Rubio’s plan, but the speaker insisted on a special session to tackle the issue of property taxes. However, with little support for his tax-swap plan, Rubio scrapped the idea and eventually, with visible frustration, agreed to smaller changes. “A speaker’s legacy is achieved in his first year, and his influence wanes in his second year,” Rubio wrote. “For better or worse, property-tax reform would be my legacy, and it was incomplete, to put it charitably.”
Before the end of his first year, Rubio would sue Crist for bypassing the Legislature to negotiate a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. “I think Charlie Crist was his worst nightmare when it came to moving the agenda that he wanted to move,” says U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, who served as Senate majority leader during Rubio’s speakership. Adam Hasner, who served as Rubio’s majority leader in the House, told me only half-jokingly that talking about this time period makes him break out in hives. He describes Rubio’s lawsuit as an act of political courage. “You weren’t standing up to a weak Republican governor,” he says. “You were standing up to a guy who people were looking at potentially as a vice president. I think it did take a lot of conviction and a lot of leadership for Marco to do the things that he did.”
In his second session, Rubio played hardball with Crist. Climate change was one of Crist’s signature issues, and he wanted the Legislature to pass a bill that would lay the groundwork for a California-style cap-and-trade system to cut carbon emissions. Rubio and House conservatives opposed the idea, but public sentiment was with Crist. The House ultimately passed the bill, but Rubio’s team inserted a poison pill that prevented the plan from going into effect. “I fully credit him with the gutting of the bill,” Gelber says.
By the end of his speakership, Rubio and Crist were on a path to confrontation—which would culminate in a decisive Rubio victory in the 2010 Senate race. In challenging and then defeating Crist, Rubio would become a hero to tea partiers across the country. But Schale, at least, suggests that Rubio’s positioning on Crist’s right flank was partly a matter of savvy strategy. Rubio “was not this tea-party, archconservative type of guy,” he told me. “Marco saw the rise of Charlie Crist, who was redefining the Republican Party as a more moderate, bipartisan populist type, and he had to carve out a different space just to be heard.”
“I think you can call him a conservative pragmatist,” says David Simmons, a Republican who served under Rubio in the House. “There was a need to be principled, but there was a need to be pragmatic about what you can obtain. “… Throughout the time he was speaker, I think that the view was we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in any piece of legislation.”
IN THE END, the centerpiece of Rubio’s early speakership, his 100 Ideas, yielded mixed results. Though Rubio would boast that all 100 ideas passed the House and that 57 became law, PolitiFact Florida found that just 24 became law while another 10 were partially enacted. The fact-checking website concluded that 23 ideas were either more goals than laws—a commitment to having a “Top 10” public university, for instance—or were not enacted in the way Rubio intended.
While Rubio can claim successes from his list of 100 ideas—from enabling drivers to purchase multiple-year car registrations to expanding a voucher-like school-choice program to requiring high schools to offer more vocational training in high-demand fields—few of his achievements are the kinds of legacy items that defined previous speakers. Many of the people I talked to for this story could not readily recall Rubio’s top policy achievements. “I can give you the agenda for every speaker I can remember. For Marco, there was no agenda,” says Levy, the longtime Tallahassee lobbyist. “It’s not like he came in and said, ‘I’m going to get rid of growth management, or reform education or criminal justice.’ “… His agenda was the 100 ideas. His staff would divvy that up among chairmen and they would sink or swim based on members. “… I think it was certainly very innovative and a great political idea, but I don’t remember what happened with the 100 ideas. How important could it have been if people don’t remember?”
However, Rubio’s defenders (and even some critics) point out that he had the misfortune of presiding over the House in austere times, just as the Great Recession took hold and Florida’s economy plummeted. There was little money in the budget to fund new proposals. Moreover, Rubio’s backers say the 100 Ideas book was never intended to be a political scorecard. What matters, they argue, is how it inverted the top-down power dynamic that had defined lawmaking in the capital for decades. “The whole concept of 100 Ideas was to empower legislators and empower citizens,” Hasner told me. “People forget that Marco didn’t write the book. The whole point of the book was to be inclusive and solicit policy ideas for a conservative agenda.”
“He wanted to make sure his speakership wasn’t viewed as some of the others before where the speaker wielded the heavy hand of authority,” Bowen told me. “We were all elected the same way and we were all a team, and that’s the way he wanted his tenure as speaker to be—that we were a team and that the members could use their discretion on a lot of things. If somebody had a difference of opinion on things, he would always get us together and say, ‘Let’s look at your ideas and your ideas and be somewhere in the middle.’ “… I consider him a great leader.”
Indeed, probably the biggest consensus to emerge from my conversations had to do with Rubio’s reluctance to be a top-down manager. “There are organizations where it’s all about one strong dynamic player, and I saw him as more of the team-builder, someone who empowered other people,” says Baxley. Gelber, the Democrat, puts it this way: “Marco, unlike Jeb, is not afraid of a collaborative process. He understands the notion of achieving what you can.” In this respect, a Rubio presidency might prove to be a close managerial cousin of the administration of George W. Bush, who was famously comfortable delegating.
Where opinion splits is on whether Rubio’s tendency toward delegation is a virtue or a problem. While Byrd (a supporter) praises Rubio as “a good listener” who “makes everybody have a part in what’s going to happen,” Fasano (a Jeb backer) looks at the same instincts and says, “When confronted with an issue, with a problem, he pretty much would throw it in the laps of his staff and want to take the road of noncontroversy. To me, that’s not a leader.”
It was also clear from Rubio’s time in Tallahassee that, while he is a genuine conservative, he might not be quite as doctrinaire as the country was led to believe when he first emerged on the national radar. “I believe he’s willing to cross the aisle,” says Chamberlin. “He is very loyal to the Republicans, but he doesn’t exclude the Democrats.”
He also excels at the most political parts of governing: the speech-giving; the debates; the process of persuading individual legislators to support him. Obama has one of these qualities—like Rubio, he is an exceptional orator—but he has a notoriously cold relationship with Congress. “My sense is that Marco would have a more traditional approach to dealing with members of Congress than the current president does,” says Schale, who managed Obama’s campaign in Florida in 2008. “I think he’d probably be more engaged in congressional stuff.”
But was Rubio good at the policy, or just the politics? The sympathetic view is that he deeply cared about ideas while leading the Florida House; he just faced a set of circumstances in which policymaking was always going to be difficult. “A lot of the time his own members would support Governor Crist over what he wanted, particularly the first year,” says Kottkamp, who became Crist’s lieutenant governor. “Nobody wants to be sideways with a governor with a 70 percent approval rating. I could sense the frustration when I met with Marco. He had a lot of ideas and things he wanted to get done.”
The less-charitable version is that he was too focused on politics, especially his own career. “Marco’s biggest liability is that he is a young, ambitious guy,” says Schale. “If there’s a thing that young, ambitious guys have to watch out for, it’s being overly cautious, overly scared, worried about making that misstep, and Rubio at times has let that ambition get in the way of progress “… which is why I suspect he’s not going to have a campaign that is based on big ideas. It’s going to be based on really nice poll-tested clichés.”
This view isn’t confined to the Democratic side. “There is a certain safety to his manner of being. He is not necessarily a risk-taker,” says J.C. Planas, a former Republican colleague in the Florida House who is currently supporting Jeb. “Marco is more of a politician than he is a policy wonk.”
Now, as he heads into the thick of the 2016 campaign, Rubio is once again pitching himself as a candidate of ideas—on everything from poverty to higher education. The question, of course, is whether his leadership instincts—the ones he displayed and honed over eight years in Tallahassee—will allow him to see these ideas through. “I know that I have not always been right, … but I have always done what I believe to be right,” Rubio said during his good-bye speech to the Legislature in 2008. “I have always been motivated by the hope that I can be an advocate for what I believe is right to do. And I’ll tell you something else: I leave here today with full peace in my heart because I know I have done my best. The best that I could do, I have tried and done. I just hope it was good enough.”
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