What Kind of Leader Is Marco Rubio? An Investigation.

A look at what happens when the Florida senator wields power.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 14: : Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a speech hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative at the 3 West Club on August 14, 2015 in New York City. Senator Rubio, criticized President Obama's recent nuclear deal with Iran as well as the opening of relations with Cuba and presented his foreign policy if elected President.
Bryan Thomas AFP/Getty
Michael J. Mishak
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Michael J. Mishak
July 10, 2015, 1:02 a.m.

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.”

(RE­LATED: New Hamp­shire, Iowa TV Sta­tions Re­verse Them­selves, Sell Ads to Marco Ru­bio)

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.

(RE­LATED: The Pres­id­en­tial Cam­paign Staff Fam­ily Tree)

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.

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush’s Money Jug­ger­naut: $114 Mil­lion and Count­ing)

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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