THE NEXT VP?
IN THE THICK NOONISH WARMTH that blankets West Miami’s warren of tight streets, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s shiny blue Ford F-150 pickup looks somehow sleepy, like a tired dog tagged only with a grinninggator University of Florida license plate and two telling initials: MR.
He’s nosed the truck into the driveway of an oak-shaded, two-story confection flanked by similar homes on the dead end of Southwest 13th Street.
If West Miami’s hard-working citizens inhabit tidy little cookie cutters, the Rubio home cuts the figure of a big pastelito — a lofty Cuban pastry stuffed with sweetened fruit or meat, in this case rising almost 20 feet in sand-colored stucco walls and recessed doors and windows to meet the carapace of red Spanish roof tiles.
Conceivably, this son of a career bartender and a sales clerk could transition from his first political job on the tiny West Miami city commission, where elected officials are paid $100 a month, to a Mitt Romney White House where vice presidents are paid $230,700 per year — all in a blazing 14 years.
But you wouldn’t know it from the neighborhood.
When he’s home from Washington or the road, the senator lives quietly with his Colombian-born wife of 15 years, Jeanette Dousdebes Rubio, and their four children.
Famously, she was once a Miami Dolphins cheerleader.
Here, the senator becomes Marco to many, going about his business like anybody else.
“Sometimes, Marco even comes in and pays the bills himself,” says Annery Gonzalez, the city clerk, who arrived from Cuba 18 years ago at the age of 25, with no English. “He’s always pleasant, always nice.”
Hers is a typical West Miami story, the kind Marco Rubio grew up with, one of thousands that thread themselves like muscle and sinew through the bones and body of his life.
Ms. Gonzalez met Sen. Rubio when they were both in their mid-20s (she’s two years older). She’d taken her first American job as a secretary at city hall, and he’d won a city commission seat. Now, she’s married with three children who are growing up in the same milieu he did, just like his own kids.
In its self-containment, Sen. Rubio’s West Miami could be small-town Iowa or Indiana, New Jersey or New York, West Virginia or east Carolina. People know each other. People look out for each other. People want to be part of it.
“I moved my grandparents here from Little Havana to escape the craziness,” says 26-year-old Alex Tamayo, a longhaul truck driver and immigrant standing in his covered carport. Mr. Tamayo is rebuilding both the body and engine of a 1981 Mustang, an All-American car.
Little Havana, the rough and raucous section many Americans associate with the Cuban experience in Miami, floats like a sister planet about three miles to the east, a world close in proximity but distant in character and behavior.
And they can talk about politics, which his grandfather, silver-haired Raphael Arnaiz, 71, does eagerly, inviting reporters into the spotless little home.
Imprisoned by Castro after his failed attempt to hijack a boat in 1961, Mr. Arnaiz was lucky not to be shot. He finally escaped Cuba with his wife in 1994, seeking asylum here, he says.
While Mrs. Arnaiz sweeps tiny piles of dust past the silent face of a large-screen TV, he leans forward on a leather couch to speak.
“Marco Rubio is a young figure who promises…” He pauses for effect, letting “promises” hang in the air. This is the rhythm of Cuban discourse. The dramatic pause is an oratorical skill not just reserved for the likes of politicians like Sen. Rubio, but for practically every Cuban hunched over a dinner or domino table debating practically any topic.
“Rubio’s politics are universal,” Mr. Arnaiz continues. “Anglo-Saxon, Latino, black, white — everyone can benefit.”
For a time, this neighborhood intimacy and shared experience weren’t enough for the Rubios.
Unlike many, the family once tried the greener grass. But its breakout move to Las Vegas when the senator was 8 ended three years later. The Rubios quit the desert and returned to West Miami, never to test the far horizon again.
But to people here, it’s hardly a bump in the road.
The Rubios remain Catholic, and they also visit a Southern Baptist Church outside of West Miami. So what?
That’s the attitude among his neighbors.
They trust the roots, and the roots run deep.
His lovely home, for example, is only about three blocks from the much smaller house where he grew up. That place is still owned by his ailing mother, who lingers in the care of his sister, say people who know him.
Miami will soon become public.
On June 19, two books about Sen. Rubio will burst like headbutting nose guards into this toughest of political games: the race for the White House.
The kickoff begins officially on Aug. 27 with the Republican
National Convention in Tampa, when Mitt Romney will stand beside his yet-to-be-named vice-presidential nominee. Against that backdrop, each book will describe Sen. Rubio’s childhood and young adulthood, and perhaps trace the conservative nature of his vision.
One, “The Rise of Marco Rubio,” is a biography of his life by Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia. The other is Rubio’s own autobiography, “American Son.”
Sen. Rubio did not respond to Florida Weekly requests to discuss his childhood or his politics. His staff and book publicists said he would not talk about growing up in West Miami until after “American Son” muscles its way onto the summer reading charts.
“I think growing up in one of the most Cuban communities in the world outside of Havana was crucial to him, both as a politician and as a person, as obvious as that may seem,” he explains.
“As a politician, that experience provided him with a very digestible and understandable narrative — the narrative of the exile community, and the narrative of America as a place where people went because the place they came from was flawed, and in the case of Cuba, deeply flawed.”
As a person, however, his experience became more complicated, suggests Mr. Roig-Franzia.
While the Rubios had been struggling to navigate the national culture as defined by Las Vegas, more than 100,000 Cubans escaped the world of Fidel Castro in the six-month Mariel boatlift of 1980.
Most of those refugees made their way to Miami, where the Rubio family returned in 1982.
“When they came back, there was this tremendous new influx of Cubans who were really steeped in attained experience of that island (unlike Marco),” says Mr. Roig-Franzia.
“He was surrounded by that passionate sense of betrayal, the passionate sense of a people who had been pushed away. It was that sentiment that pervaded his high school years, both on the streets of West Miami and at South Miami High.”
Other telling stories about him are not hard to find either, outside the covers of political or literary ambition.
Although the senator is arguably West
Miami’s most famous son, he doesn’t throw his weight around.
At least not here, where about 5,000 of the 5,800 residents are Cuban Americans, according to the Census Bureau’s demographic profile of West Miami.
“We had his street closed last year, it was all torn up for repairs, there were ‘Closed’ signs all over, and suddenly he drives up in his truck one day,” recalls Juan Peña, director of Public Works and Code Enforcement in West Miami.
“Instead of just driving through — I mean, who’s going to stop him? — he stops at the top of the street. He says, ‘I’m trying to get to the airport. I have to get to my house first.’
“I say, ‘OK.’
“‘But it says, “Closed,”’ he says.
“I say, ‘Marco, you’re a U.S. senator. Just drive through.’”
Instead, says Mr. Peña, the senator pulled his pickup to the side of the road and walked the rest of the way to his house.
Among Cuban Americans, the reach of Sen. Rubio’s voice these days is unprecedented.
A prominent Republican, a Tea Party darling and a United States senator — this is a man who just might run the kickoff all the way back to the goal line, from his working-class origins.
Sen. Rubio has seized this pigskin detail of his story like a split end seizing a long pass — which he did to great acclaim on the floor of the Florida House, courtesy of Dan Marino. The former Miami Dolphins quarterback threw the football in a crisp arc across the room to him, permanently etching the senator’s name in the list of manly politicians who can catch the ball. (He almost dropped it, though, which might have changed history since the event recurs on YouTube at the touch of a button.)
Following his abbreviated football career at the now-defunct Tarkio, the someday senator returned permanently to the Sunshine State.
In seemingly short order, he bounced in and out of Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, graduated from the University of Florida, earned a degree with honors from the University of Miami law school, and finally embraced life as a career politician.
From city commissioner to state legislator (he served from 2000 to 2009 in the state House) to United States senator, Mr. Rubio has had a dazzling run.
And now, his de rigueur protests notwithstanding, he likely remains one of Mr. Romney’s top choices for vice president.
If he proves to be the chosen one by Mr. Romney and by American voters, Sen. Rubio would become one of the two youngest men ever to serve as vice president. Only Richard Nixon was younger — age 40 — when he joined President Dwight Eisenhower as the vice president, in 1952.
The youth issue
Is he too young? That’s a matter of debate across the country, among most Republicans, and in West Miami.
Sitting in front of the Community Center shortly before mid-day, two elderly Cuban women field that question like a couple of great ball handlers.
Is Sen. Rubio too young to be vice president or president?
“Yes, he doesn’t have the experience,” says one.
“Hey, you’re talking to journalists!” scolds her companion, before turning to address them.
“He’s not too young. He’s a smart man, he’ll learn on the job — Kennedy wasn’t too young, was he?”
The Rubio critic considers this momentarily.
“We don’t see him much around here,” she says. “They come by when there are campaign stops.” She frowns critically, but her friend isn’t having it.
“Hey, quit speaking badly about him. Marco Rubio is a good man and he’ll do a good job.”
Neither would give their names.
Many others appreciate his youth, too — from a variety of backgrounds.
“That’s what’s good about him, he has ideas,” argues Maritza Valdez, working an afternoon job, one of two, delivering prescriptions from a local pharmacy to homes in West Miami.
“Here, everyone running things? They’re all old,” she says. “But (Rubio’s) open to new ideas to solve our problems. And he’s Cuban — Latino. That’s good for us, too. I hope he’s nominated.”
Only a few blocks away, neighborhood residents David and Holly Alligood, sitting outside watching the street, both insist age is beside the point.
And so is the immigrant history of anybody’s parents, including Sen. Rubio’s, Mr. Alligood says.
“To put those kinds of parameters around what makes a good politician is foolish. I support him.
“Here’s a guy — he’s made-in-America with Cuban parts. He’s a natural-born citizen. And the fact that his parents immigrated — well, that doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies, and it doesn’t turn me off, either.
“If you’re here and you’re a citizen, whether you come from Guatemala, or Cuba, or Europe, you’re an American.”
Ambitions and a clean nose
Young or not, ambition has fueled Mr. Rubio’s seemingly meteoric rise for longer than most people realize, says Jim Gestwicki, the tall, aging director of West Miami’s Rebeca Sosa Recreation Center.
Here, troops of animated children arrive each afternoon to do what Marco himself did 25 or 30 years ago — play ball.
Mr. Gestwicki supervised the young Rubio in flag football and basketball. And he may have been the first man in America to harness the concept of the White House to the reality of Marco Rubio in a single conscious thought without laughing it away.
“Marco used to come here to play all the time,” he explains. “One day I remember, when he was about 15, he had been watching some councilmen talking, and he asked me, ‘What did that mean?’
“So I told him. I don’t even remember what it was about. Then I asked him, ‘Why did you want to know?’
“And he said, ‘Because I want to be president some day.’
“I told him, ‘Then you better watch everything you do, because if you mess up someday it’s going to come back to haunt you.’”
So far, that hasn’t been true. During Sen. Rubio’s run for federal office in 2010, critics including Republican Gov. and senate contender Charlie Crist struggled to pin corruption labels on Mr. Rubio. They failed.
Revelations that he’d spent tens of thousands of dollars or more on personal purchases with a Republican Party credit card, or that he allowed a home he purchased in Tallahassee with close friend and then-State Rep. David Rivera to fall into foreclosure did little to slow his progress.
He paid back his debt on the credit card, he has said, and the house problem was taken care of, according to his staff. They did not elaborate.
Mr. Rivera, now a U.S. representative from District 25, came under investigation by the FBI and the IRS for taking more than $500,000 from dog track owners after he’d pushed voters to allow Las Vegas-style slots at parimutuel betting operations in 2008, the Miami Herald reported.
Tackling the issues
But all that may be behind Sen. Rubio.
As it happens, on the warm afternoon that two reporters are getting to know his neighborhood, the senator son of Cuban immigrants has set foot in Cuba for the first time in his life.
Not the Cuba of his parents under the dictator Batista — they arrived from that Cuba in 1956, becoming naturalized U.S. citizens 19 years later, when Gerald Ford was president and little Marco was 4.
Nor is the senator finally establishing a toehold on the post-1958 Cuba of Fidel Castro.
Instead, Sen. Rubio has hit the beach in the American Cuba at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. Navy base that sits like a muscular pimple on the nose of Fidel. There, among others, prisoners classified as terrorists are detained by the CIA and the State Department.
He is, after all, a member of the Senate’s powerful Select Committee on Intelligence, ostensibly here to inspect the American operation.
While reporters are stopping their car in front of the silent Rubio house in West Miami to take a picture, 500 miles to the Southeast Sen. Rubio is coming down hard before the cameras, as he was taught to do by his elders.
Remember, he cautions, speaking of prisoners at Guantanamo: “These are enemy combatants who are directly engaged in the fight against the United States and our interests.”
His tone implies that too much sympathy, or any sympathy at all for any treatment they receive, isn’t going to cut it.
The senator has consistently argued the hard line in his view of international relations, asserting that the United States must aggressively counter tyrants, whether communist or otherwise.
That approach plays well not just to a Cuban-American base but to a much broader conservative base. And so does his insistence that government is too big, spending has been wasteful under President Obama and the Democratic leadership, and regulation of businesses too strict.
The make-or-break paradox
Mr. Romney’s attraction to the young senator, however, may not stem from his standard-issue conservatism. Instead, it may lie in Sen. Rubio’s ability to overcome a thorny paradox, winning Hispanic voters who could alter the outcome of the presidential election.
The paradox is this: As the Spanishspeaking son of immigrant parents, Sen. Rubio is expected to understand the issues of Hispanics better than any other candidate — especially Hispanics from such crucial swing states as Florida (29 electoral votes), Colorado (9), or New Mexico (6).
But as a conservative Republican, the senator is expected by many to make it harder, not easier, for immigrants to become citizens.
No one yet knows how he will handle those conflicting expectations.
For many Hispanic voters, the so-called Dream Act — the proposal to put people born elsewhere but raised and educated in the United States on the fast track to citizenship — is the most important issue for any candidate of either party.
“Dreamers nationwide are encouraged because Rubio has finally taken the step and joined this discussion,” says Mayra Hidalgo Salazar. “We see this as a result of all the work we’ve been doing at the grass roots level, and statewide.”
Ms. Salazar, a college student born in Costa Rica but raised in Florida from the age of 6 months, is a board member of United We Dream, a member of DRM Capital, a lobbying group, and a member of FLIC, the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
She is the only member of her family who remains illegal — the rest have obtained visas, married into citizenship, or been born here, she says.
To her, this is not a partisan issue, especially since President Obama has failed to issue an administrative order stopping the deportation of undocumented students, which forces them to continue living “in the shadows,” she says.
Into this restless disappointment, she suggests with a note of skepticism, the senator might insert himself.
“Rubio’s made a lot of nice noise about his (Dream Act) bill, and we’re all very eager to see it, but he has yet to introduce it — there is no bill that has actually come forth. Just talk,” she says.
“We hope it’s bi-partisan. As a young Latina and an undocumented student, I understand the power the Dream Act has for Latino voters, and the power it has to change lives.
“The Republican party would be very remiss not to take that into account during this election season.”
Some Cuban Americans who share experiences similar to the senator’s — and who may harbor as much ambition for themselves — passionately agree.
“I’m very excited to see what Rubio is going to do to help immigrants,” says Eddie Gonzalez, who changed his name in the Miami-Dade County courthouse last week to VoteforEddy.com, suddenly winning a place in the national spotlight.
“Rubio’s parents came here as immigrants like mine. He’s living the dream that all immigrants want for their children, like I am, so he really needs to be the torch-bearer on this issue.”
A 30-year-old candidate from Hialeah running independently for the U.S. Dist. 25 seat in the House of Representatives (Broward, Collier and parts of Miami-Dade counties), Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges that immigrant Cubans often have it better than other immigrants from the Americas.
After all, the path to citizenship for a Cuban is relatively straightforward and assured, a matter of patience and the right bureaucratic steps. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Costa Ricans, or other immigrants from the Americas do not enjoy a similar embrace.
“I’m happy for my brothers and sisters that they have a clear path,” Ms. Salazar says, in a salute to Cuban Americans.
“Now, the rest of us are waiting for Rubio.” ¦