November 17, 2015


What Kind of Leader Is Marco Rubio? An Investigation. : A look at what happens when the Florida senator wields power. (Michael J. Mishak,  NOVEMBER 16, 2015, National Journal)

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. [...]

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. [...]

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. 

Posted by at November 17, 2015 2:57 PM