If, as the pundits and prognosticators expect, Florida voters elect Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate, the tea party may get the credit from the media, but Rubio will owe a much greater debt to someone else: former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Jeb, the son and brother to presidents, and a man filled with confidence and ambition — many believe, to be president of the United States himself, despite the failures of the prior Bush presidencies, still has tremendous influence in Florida.
His two terms as governor are considered a success by Republican standards. He slashed corporate taxes, pushed for private school vouchers (a move that was ultimately deemed unconstitutional) and ended affirmative action in contracting and higher education. Like his brother, he pushed for educational reforms centered around standardized testing (though the state remained among the lowest performers in educational attainment nationwide) and went to war with the state’s teacher’s unions over an amendment, pushed by then-state Senator Kendrick Meek, to reduce class sizes in Florida schools (he lost, but hasn’t given up on the idea of rolling back the class size amendment, via a new proposed constitutional amendment put on the ballot by his allies in the state legislature.)
Jeb continues to influence education policy through his Foundation for Excellence in Education. His allies run the state House and Senate, including in-coming Senate president Mike Haridopolos, in-coming House Speaker Dean Cannon, and especially State. Sen. John Thrasher, who this year took over the state party after the fall of Gov. Charlie Crist’s hand-picked chairman Jim Greer (who is now facing grand theft charges for operating a fundraising firm with his top aide which the party didn’t know he held a 60 percent interest in.) Thrasher this year pushed through a bill which remarkably encapsulated Jeb’s educational ideas, which mostly center around crushing teacher’s unions and advancing charter and private schools; so much so that many in the state saw Senate Bill 6 as Jeb’s bill.
SB6 would have ended teacher tenure in Florida, eliminated advanced degrees as a criteria for additional compensation, and tied teacher pay to student test scores. Teachers, parents and students erupted over the bill, and when Gov. Charlie Crist, the state’s former education secretary (and attorney general) vetoed it, Bush was livid. Crist had already angered Jeb by seeming to dismiss his role in the improvement in the state’s educational outlook during Crist’s tenure. The SB6 veto was seen as the clearest signal that Crist, already under fire for embracing President Barack Obama and accepting federal stimulus funds, was on his way out of the Republican Party.
According to sources, none of whom would talk on the record, Crist’s refusal to acknowledge Jeb’s reforms, and his reversal of several Bush priorities as governor, were the beginning of Jeb’s quiet crusade to blunt any ambitions Crist might have for higher office.
Enter Marco Rubio.
Rubio had been a little known city councilman in West Miami, but even then, was seen as someone with a big future by those close to the levers of power in Florida.
Jeb, like his father and brother, has long believed that building the Republican Party for the long term will require expanding beyond its white base, by attracting Hispanic voters. George W. Bush won a third of the Hispanic vote in 2000, after cultivating strong relationships with Latinos in Texas. He placed his ally, Alberto Gonzales, in the attorney general’s spot, and tried (and failed) to make arch-conservative Miguel Estrada the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.
But it is Jeb who may have found the most valuable asset of all in Rubio: a young, telegenic vessel to channel hard right, even anti-immigrant, tea party rhetoric through. Jeb had long been thought to be grooming his own son, George P. Bush, for the job of conservative ambassador to Hispanic voters. But with Rubio poised to go to Washington, he can give George P. more time.
Rubio’s rise paved by powerful allies
Though the media in Florida tends to romanticize 39-year-old Marco Rubio’s rise through politics, what is often underplayed is just how thoroughly the young Cuban-American’s path has been paved by Bush cronies.
He was “discovered” by Al Cardenas, Jeb’s money man and one of the most influential players in Republican politics as the former party chairman, when a young Rubio interviewed for a job on the 1996 Bob Dole presidential campaign. It was Cardenas who first brought the young man to Jeb’s attention.
It was also during the Dole campaign that Rubio met his now best friend, David Rivera, who is himself a mystery — a staunch anti-Castro politician who this year denied being friends with a businessman, Ariel Pereda, who facilitates trade with Cuba (who also is tied by about five degrees of separation to Rubio); and a man who has fought allegations that he abused a former girlfriend since his first political campaign in 2002. Rivera has risen to power as the state’s chief budget writer in the House, in part by riding Rubio’s coattails, and he is now running for Congress himself. He and Rubio own a house together in Tallahassee, which recently went into foreclosure. And Rivera is facing a lawsuit seeking to oust him from the ballot for seemingly false statements on his financial disclosure forms. Rivera, who earns about $30,000 a year as a state legislator, owns two homes and three cars, and has long claimed on his disclosures to be a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development — an agency that says it has never heard of him.
After working on the Dole campaign, 29-year-old Rubio ran for the city council in West Miami. But by 2000, he had won a seat in the State House. From there, it was a short six year trip to the speakership, with stops along the way as House Majority Whip and Majority leader. Along the way, he accumulated allies that would provide him with political allegiance, access, and most important: money.
There’s Ralph Arza, also a former State House member, who with Rubio and Rivera, helped push Jeb Bush’s agenda through the legislature (Arza was known as the “point man” for Bush’s educational initiatives.) Rubio was forced to distance himself from Arza in 2006, after the State Rep. was revealed to have called then-Miami Dade School’s Chief Rudy Crew, who is African-American, the n-word, and Arza’s cousin left a threatening voicemail for a fellow House member who outed Arza’s language use to the media. Arza resigned from his House seat and charged with two felonies for the incident.
Fuel distributor Max Alvarez, owner of a company called Sunshine State Gasoline Distributors, got a deal slipped into the state House budget by his virtual “son” Marco in 2008. He donated $7,500 to one of Rubio’s political action committees in 2003 — committees which would ultimately take in hundreds of thousands of dollars, and pave Rubio’s way to the Speakership.
Republican fundraiser Alan Mendelsohn, the once-powerful fundraiser who has hosted Jeb Bush in his home, whose organization gave $50,000 to Rubio’s PACs. Mendelsohn is now under indictment for tax fraud and influence peddling.
Sergio Pino, owner of Century Home Builders, who in 2000 was appointed by Jeb to serve on the state’s transportation committee. Pino gave $10,000 to Rubio’s leadership PAC, and who sits on the board of US. Century Bank, which in 2005 gave Rubio a $135,000 home equity loan on his newly purchase house in Miami, based on an appraisal well above other homes in the area — a loan Rubio then failed to disclose in his financial filings. The bank later received more bailout money than any bank in Florida (which Rubio had no control over.)
Another ally, Nora Cereceda bought that West Miami house in 2007, at a time her chiropractor son, Dr. Mark Cereceda, happened to be lobbying the then-House speaker against a bill that would have eased the requirement for all Florida drivers to have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance. Rubio had been leaning toward abolishing the coverage requirement. Nora Cereceda paid $380,000 cash for the home — earning the Rubios a $205,000 profit, even as the housing market soured. Rubio has called it an “arms length” transaction. He later removed the House block on the insurance provision, which allowed the state to extend the requirement that drivers carry $10,000 in PIP coverage. According to property records, the West Miami home is now worth approximately $215,000.
Ray Sansom, who preceded Rivera as Rubio’s handpicked budget chief, who succeeded him as Speaker, now sits under indictment for allegedly steering public money to a crony who wanted to build an airplane hangar, and who had arranged a college professorship for Sansom.
And Viviana Bovo, a political consultant/lobbyist whose husband Steve was a Hialeah Councilman and former lobbyist for Miami Children’s Hospital. After he termed out in the House, Rubio and Bovo went to work for a company, Florida Strategic Consultants, where they got lucrative contracts with Jackson Memorial Hospital (a no-bid, $96,000 deal) and … Miami Children’s Hospital, which paid $102,000.
But none of these allies has been as important to Rubio as Jeb Bush himself. In 2005, Jeb even bestowed the Mystical Sword of Chang on his young protege, who he was already building up to be the Latino Ronald Reagan, and possibly to succeed him as governor.
Jeb paved the way for Rubio to be taken seriously by the National Review when he seemed to be the longest of long-shots against Crist in the primary. Rubio’s education plan, released by his U.S. Senate campaign, is an almost word for word recitation of Jeb’s long held ideas. Jeb tag teamed with Rubio through the Arizona immigration law upheaval, with the two first jointly opposing the law (along with Bush family operative Karl Rove), and then supporting it with qualifications, after receiving a storm of attacks from the right. To get right with the tea party base, Rubio then went further, endorsing an “English only” law for the U.S., opposing the DREAM Act, and even suggesting the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S., even as infants, should be deported to countries alien to them, along with their parents.
Despite the controversies, Rubio has had strong media support to smooth his image with Latinos, including Radio Mambi hosts Lourdes D’Kendall and Marta Flores, and right wing blogger Javier Manjarres, of The Shark Tank.
A golden path, and troubled assets
Throughout his career, Rubio’s path seemed to be paved with party gold. But Rubio has seemed always to struggle with his personal finances. Despite receiving a $69,000 post at Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center in 2008, and a lucrative job at the law firm Broad & Cassell, which paid him $1.2 million over four years but where it wasn’t clear Rubio ever saw any clients, and a gig as a Univision on-air political analyst, Rubio listed his net worth at just $8,300 in 2010; he says due mostly to student loans.
Rubio has recently faced questions over his curious use of donor money, spending huge sums on his party American Express card and not submitting a bill payment for a six-month stretch during Jim Greer’s controversial tenure as party chair (Greer is currently under indictment for grand theft.) This summer, a former supporter, GOP consultant Chris Ingram, alleged Rubio used his party Amex to pay for a $4,000 kitchen remodel in his house. The campaign shot back that Ingram is simply a disgruntled non-hire, but they never took Ingram up on his offer to take a lie detector test. And this month, TRR discovered that Rubio spent $1,500 in U.S. Senate campaign funds on his sister-in-law’s school charity. Some have called it a pattern of behavior that fiscally-minded voters ought to find troubling.
According to the St. Pete Times:
When Rubio joined the Florida House of Representatives in 2000, he did not own a home, had few possessions and made $72,000 as a lawyer.
But he had $30,000 in “assorted credit and retail debt” (as described on his financial disclosure form) and in 2001 listed $165,000 in loans from the University of Florida and University of Miami Law School.
As Rubio climbed the ranks, he began to use little-noticed political committees to fund his travel and other expenses and later had a Republican Party of Florida credit card.
What emerged, records show, is a pattern of blending personal and political spending. Over and over again Rubio proved sloppy, at best, in complying with disclosure requirements.
Virtually broke, the 31-year-old lawmaker began campaigning to be House speaker in 2003 and created a political committee — Floridians for Conservative Leadership — to help elect other Republican candidates and curry their support.
With his wife serving as treasurer, Rubio did not wait for the state to authorize the committee before accepting campaign donations.
The committee listed its address as Rubio’s home, a modest place he and his wife bought in West Miami in 2002, but reported spending nearly $85,000 in office and operating costs and $65,000 for administrative costs.
Over 18 months, nearly $90,000 went for political consultants, $51,000 went for credit card payments and $4,000 went to other candidates. That’s less than the $5,700 that went to his wife, Jeanette, much of it for “gas and meals.” (Mrs. Rubio does not work and the couple file joint tax returns.)
Rubio reported raising more than $228,000 for that committee over 18 months, but he failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses as required by state law.
In four elections between 2000 and 2006, Rubio faced only token opposition. Yet he still spent nearly $670,000 in campaign funds for political consulting, television advertising and other expenses, including meals, travel and, in one case, $1,485 to the company leasing him a Jeep Cherokee. Rubio’s campaign said it was justified because he drove it all over his district.
A second political committee created by Rubio in late 2003, Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government, was to “educate the public about conservative leadership in government.” The committee raised more than $386,000, much of it going to Rubio’s political strategists and consultants.
Other expenses included $14,000 incorrectly listed as “courier services” that were in fact payments to Rubio’s relatives who he said were helping with the committee’s political activities.
In 2005, Rubio had access to a new source of campaign money: state GOP credit cards. He charged more than $100,000 from November 2006 to November 2008, much of it for travel expenses and meals.
Rubio has insisted that the vast majority of those charges were for GOP business, and he directly paid off any personal expenses, though after a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald report, Rubio agreed to pay the party $2,400 for plane tickets he said he mistakenly double-billed.
He has refused to release his party credit card records from 2005 and 2006.
Rubio is adamant his use of the political committees and credit cards is above board and has denied reports that the IRS has opened an inquiry, part of a widening look at Republican lawmakers who had credit cards.
Rubio’s years as House speaker were referred to as “Camelot” by a group of admirers and fellow lawmakers (including Rivera) who called themselves his “12 Disciples.” And Rubio rewarded their loyalty with donor-funded trips (including to his lavish family reunion in Georgia — paid for on the party American Express card) and with hefty salaries, like the $175,000 a year earned by his top aide, Richard Corcoran.
He also paved the way to opportunity.
A former aide, Amber Stoner, traveled frequently with Rubio in and out of state (and on his Republican Party credit card) as the person Rubio put in charge of his “100 ideas” agenda — the laundry list of proposals to improve the state and country that paved the way for Rubio’s reputation with conservatives as an idea man.
- 2007-02-14 Tallahasee Delta (Unknown/Atlanta/Tallahasee)
- 2007-02-28 Tallahasee Delta (Miami/Tallahasee)
- 2007-05-11 Columbia, SC USAirways (Columbia/Charlotte/Tallahasse)
- 2007-05-15 Atlanta Delta (Tallahasee/Atlanta/Philadelphia)
- 2007-05-20 Tallahasee Delta (Unused – credit)
- 2007-05-27 N/A Delta (Tallahasee/Orlando)
- 2007-05-27 Tallahasee Continental (Tallahasee/Tampa)
- 2007-05-27 Tallahasee Delta (Orlando/Tallahasee)
- 2007-05-29 Tallahasee Continental (Tallahasee/Tampa)
- 2007-07-12 Tallahasee USAirways
Source: RPOF database, Jacksonville.com
Stoner is still listed as one of the administrators of the “100 ideas” Facebook page, along with Rubio and his wife Jeanette:
And after she left Rubio’s employ, Stoner became one of the top 12 lobbyists in the state before she’d even entered law school, with a single client: HCA Healthcare, the new iteration of the former Columbia/HCA, once run by GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott (who left the company under a cloud amid massive Medicare fraud charges). And it just happens that Scott is the former co-owner of the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team with Jeb’s big brother, former President George W. Bush.
Despite the questions he has faced about his personal finances, Rubio has been remarkably successful at making the case to tea party voters that he is a fiscal conservative (though not all are willing to go along, including independent tea party candidate Alex Snitker). And he has gained the support of such tea party and fiscally hawkish groups as the Tea Party Express (though he has taken steps to distance himself from the tea party movement), and the anti-tax Club for Growth. Rubio recently told the SP Times:
“I talk about fiscal conservatism in the context of government spending,” he said. “It’s not in the context of some ideological religious adherence to some rigid ideology. It is in the context of the fact that our government spends more money than it takes in and you cannot do that over a sustained period of time without bankrupting your country.
And for the most part, he has emerged unscathed, thanks in part to the incredibly efficient marketing machine that has been assembled around him (as in the days of his political PACs, much of the money Rubio has raised for his Senate campaign has gone to consultants.) In the general election, Rubio has successfully glided away from the far right, even leaving a Sarah Palin rally in Orlando Saturday without getting a photo-op with the tea party’s most popular figure, Sarah Palin, who has endorsed him.
Jeb’s invaluable help
While there’s no way to prove that Jeb is pulling the strings, it’s hard not to gather that Bush has throughout Rubio’s career, had a hand in writing the tune.
Most people don’t realize it, but according to Rubio himself, it was Jeb who convinced Rubio to run for Senate against Jeb’s nemesis, Gov. Crist.
Once Rubio got in, Jeb pretended to be on the sidelines regarding his candidacy, only to make the big “surprise” endorsement later. And Rubio has the full backing of the Bush machine’s ultimate operative, Karl Rove, including all that secret money Rove is pouring into Florida on Rubio’s behalf.
Jeb has become Rubio’s chief attack dog against Crist, slamming his attacks on Rubio’s prior support for Social Security privatization — a plan which mirrors the partial privatization scheme advanced by Jeb’s brother George.
There have been whispers about Jeb’s role in strangling Crist’s Senate campaign before, though again, no one will say so on the record.
One of the big questions swirling around the national political scene is whether Jeb Bush will make a run for the White House, even as early as 2012. As one retired politician who knows the former governor told me on background, “Jeb is running for president, and Senator Marco Rubio will be his chief Hispanic surrogate.” Another mysterious person, known on Twitter only as MIA_Politics, but who seems to have unusual access to details about Rubio and his allies (along with some salacious allegations that have yet to gain traction in the traditional media) is also convinced Jeb plans to run, and to use Rubio as a lever to help move Latino votes. Another person in the Bush family orbit says Jeb is currently testing the waters for a presidential run, but that the main factor won’t be Rubio, but whether the tea party movement can successfully change the national conversation away from blaming George W. Bush for the collapsed economy, and instead focus the blame on Barack Obama.
Either way, having his protege in the Senate (and a Republican governor choosing the Florida Secretary of State, as he did with Katherine Harris in 2000) would be helpful to Jeb if he chose to try and become the third President Bush in America’s history. (Jeb has said he’s not running, and that he would even endorse Sarah Palin for president, but the former lawmaker told me he believes that’s a ruse, to encourage Palin to run, knowing the party will come calling, and practically beg him to run if it’s believed the unelectable Palin would be the nominee.)
Because at the end of the day, many in Florida believe that the person Jeb really wants to bestow the Sword of Chang on, is himself.