The Magazine

The Rise of Rubio

Will a longstanding friendship block his vice presidential prospects?

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Shortly after Mitt Romney won the Wisconsin primary and, in effect, the Republican nomination, I asked a prominent Republican strategist whom he thought Romney would choose as his running mate. He answered without hesitation.

Photo of Marco Rubio and David Rivera in January 2008

Marco Rubio and David Rivera in January 2008

NEWSCOM

“Marco Rubio.”

And whom should he take?

“Marco Rubio,” he responded, in a tone that suggested the answer was obvious.

Not everyone agrees. Skeptics argue that Rubio is too young and too inexperienced. Valid concerns? Perhaps. But not enough to keep Rubio from strong consideration as Romney’s running mate. One thing might be: Rubio’s longtime friendship with Representative David Rivera.

Rubio’s name has appeared on virtually every “veepwatch” list compiled by the media. There’s a reason for that. In late March, Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes asked Romney about prospective running mates and mentioned both Rubio and Paul Ryan. Romney, the man whose list is the only one that matters, said that Rubio (along with Ryan) was one of a dozen “leading lights in the Republican party who could be part of a national ticket.”

The fact that the de facto nominee would mention Marco Rubio as a possible running mate is rather extraordinary. Just three years ago this month, Rubio was a longshot candidate for the Senate in Florida (the first poll had him at 3 percent) whose shoestring campaign was struggling to raise enough money to enable him to travel around the state to raise more money. Then on May 12, 2009, Charlie Crist, Florida’s popular governor, announced that he, too, would be running for the Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee immediately declared its “full support” for Crist, and top Republicans in the state, including former state chairman and Rubio mentor Al Cardenas, urged Rubio to drop his bid—something he strongly considered.

Rubio ultimately stayed in the race. He won the nomination and then a three-way contest that included Crist, running as an independent after it became clear he would lose the Republican nomination, and Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek. It wasn’t just the fact that Rubio won that was remarkable, but how he did it: Rubio carried
49 percent of the vote in a state with the oldest population in the country, running on a promise to reform Social Security and Medicare.

Since his arrival in Washington, Rubio has followed the Hillary Clinton model of conduct for new, high-profile senators. He has kept his head down, studied hard, and mostly resisted the temptation to weigh in on the micro-controversies that get Washington talking. Rubio has focused on big issues. He has devoted much of his time to foreign policy and national security, with seats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Foreign Relations Committee.

In late April, Rubio earned good reviews for a weighty foreign policy address he delivered at the Brookings Institution. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza called it a “crisp and thoughtful tour of the world” notable for its bipartisan character. And in a small off-the-record question-and-answer session over lunch afterwards, Rubio impressed several of the journalists and foreign policy thinkers with his knowledge of the subject matter and his ability to respond to detailed questions with detailed answers.

This is the real reason Rubio is among the first names mentioned in discussions about Romney’s prospective running mate. He is a substantive and articulate spokesman for modern conservatism. He is personable and cerebral, engaging and thoughtful, likable and knowledgeable. The political media focus on ethnicity and geography—he’s Hispanic, he’s from Florida—but if those were the most important criteria, we’d be hearing a lot more about Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diáz-Balart. Rubio is the best communicator in the Republican party today, and no one else comes close.

Because Rubio is such a star, with such obvious promise as a future leader of the GOP, national Democrats are certain to go after him with reckless abandon. It’s the downside to being regarded as the Next Big Thing. As much as Rubio will be compared with other possible Romney running mates, he’ll also be measured against his own potential—an almost mythical version of the ideal vice president. 

It’s no wonder that reporters are carefully analyzing every Rubio utterance on his prospects to determine his level of interest. At a recent forum sponsored by National Journal, Rubio made news by strongly disclaiming interest in running with Romney. “I don’t want to be the vice president now, or maybe ever. I really want to do a good job in the Senate.” Moments later, however, the headlines from the event changed after a rare Rubio slip of the tongue. “If in four or five years, if I do a good job as vice president—I’m sorry, as senator—I’ll have the chance to do all sorts of things.”

Rubio recently reiterated his desire to remain in the Senate to do the job he was elected to do. But he doesn’t have much patience with the claim that he’s unsuitable for inclusion on the ticket.

“Look, I’m not telling you I want to be VP or anything,” he said. “But I’ve always thought—I chuckled when I read an article yesterday. The guy wrote that the only experience I have is being on the city commission. I mean, I’m not telling you that I’m the most experienced guy in the Capitol, but I served nine years in one of the largest legislatures in the country. I was in leadership eight of my nine years. I was majority whip, majority leader, and speaker of the house. We had a $72 billion budget—which is larger than most states. I wasn’t part of the landscaping crew until last week, either. I’m not telling you I’m deeply steeped, but I’ve served in local, state, and federal government. I’ve been an officer of the third-, fourth-largest state in the country. I went through a bruising, battering election with seven televised debates.”

He’s right, and there’s more. Consider: In his primary race against Crist, the National Republican Senatorial Committee conducted extensive opposition research on him; in the general election, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did the same; and, in running against Crist, Rubio was taking on the entire Republican establishment in the state of Florida. Many of the very same Republicans he’d worked with on campaigns and in the legislature went to the Crist campaign with their complaints and allegations about Rubio. It’s safe to assume that virtually all of those reports from Republican insiders made their way into the media as Crist, whose desperation increased with every new poll, flailed away trying to slow Rubio down. The Florida press corps has a well-deserved reputation for toughness, and many of the stories just now making their way onto the pages of national publications have been thoroughly reported and researched by very capable journalists in Miami, Tampa, Tallahassee, and elsewhere.

Rubio, for instance, has repeatedly addressed—if not entirely put to rest—claims that he used a Republican party charge card for personal gain. Rubio says the use of the card was sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental, and that he paid the charges directly to American Express in a timely manner. Given the controversy the practice has generated, he acknowledges that he didn’t handle it well. He says he discusses the issue at length in his forthcoming book.

Beyond that, there are suggestions that Rubio will get caught up in the trial this July of former Florida Republican party chairman Jim Greer. A close ally of former governor Crist, Greer is charged with money laundering, fraud, and four counts of grand theft. Rubio is not concerned. “I had no relationship with Jim Greer. He hated me. But do you think if Jim Greer and the party and those guys had garbage on me they wouldn’t have dropped it during the campaign? It’s all silly talk.”

If there’s baggage remaining from the days before Rubio’s election to the Senate, it is not a central feature of a forthcoming book about Rubio’s life from the Washington Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia. Veteran Florida political reporter Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times read the book and reports that supporters of Rubio can “rest easy” because it paints a largely flattering picture of the senator.

“I’m not competing. I’ll be honest with you—it just annoys me. If the worst thing they can say about you is that you don’t have experience—that’s a blessing. I’m not a Rob Portman in terms of experience around this place,” says the 41-year-old Rubio, who notes that with his service on the Intelligence Committee he has “more foreign policy experience than Barack Obama” had when he ran for president.

“The problem,” says Rubio with a smile, “is I look like I’m 35.”

There is another, potentially much bigger problem, however—one that could affect Rubio’s prospects for a spot on the ticket in 2012. His name is David Rivera. Rivera and Rubio are longtime political allies and close friends. They rose together in the world of Cuban-American politics in south Florida. They labored together on political campaigns, worked together in the Florida House of Representatives, and even bought a house and lived together in Tallahassee, the state’s capital, during legislative sessions from 2005 until 2008.

Rubio and Rivera met in 1992, when Rubio was an undergraduate at the University of Florida and both young men were volunteers for the congressional campaign of Lincoln Diáz-Balart. Four years later, Rivera brought Rubio into Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in Florida. A year after that, Rivera helped run Rubio’s own campaign for West Miami city commissioner. The two men served together in the Florida legislature over much of the past decade. They share a circle of friends in the tightknit Cuban-American community, and Rubio’s wife, Jeanette, is very close to Rivera’s girlfriend, Esther Nuhfer, who works for Rubio’s “Reclaiming America” PAC.

Their mutual friends say that while their careers have followed similar trajectories—from Miami to Tallahassee to Washington—the two men are very different. Rivera has never stopped being an operative. He’s always scrambling to raise money, to put together coalitions for one effort or another. For Rivera, politics is fundraising and trading favors and winning.

Rubio is the opposite. Rubio is the visionary, and while he’s always been ambitious, he is consumed with policy and driven by a deep and abiding belief in the American idea. For Rubio, politics is the means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, with Rubio the subject of intense speculation that he could be on the Republican presidential ticket, Rivera finds himself the subject of multiple investigations.

The public list of Rivera’s questionable activities is long and almost certainly incomplete. The FBI and IRS are both reportedly investigating Rivera. Last month, Miami-Dade state attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle ended an 18-month investigation without charging Rivera with any crime. Her office issued a “Close-out Memorandum” to explain the findings of the investigation, conducted jointly with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Rivera and his allies have called the memo an exoneration. It is no such thing. In fact, the 16-page document is a devastating indictment of Rivera—in the figurative, if not the literal, sense—and a plea for further examination of Rivera’s conduct.

The Florida investigation focused on two areas: the payments Rivera and his family received for lobbying work he performed for gambling interests while serving as a member of the Florida legislature and his alleged personal use of campaign funds.

In 2005, south Florida voters supported a measure to allow slot machines at racetracks and other businesses in Broward County but rejected the same proposal in Miami- Dade. Rivera immediately sought to reverse the decision in Miami-Dade and in 2006 reached an agreement with Fred Havenick, the owner of a dog track in Flagler, to serve as the “chief campaign strategist” for a second vote in 2008. After Havenick’s death in June 2006, Rivera signed a contract with his surviving relatives. According to the Close-out Memorandum, Rivera directed payments for his work to Millennium Marketing, a company he had created in 2000, and “revived” in 2006, with his mother, Daisy Magarino, and his “godmother,” Ileana Medina, as principals. Rivera, who was elected to the Florida house in 2002, worked “almost on a daily basis on behalf of the slots initiative” in late 2007 and early 2008 “from an office at what was known then as Flagler Dog Track.” Millennium was ultimately paid more than $500,000 for work on the project, and investigators were able to trace more than $100,000 of that back to Rivera’s bank accounts.

It’s not illegal to work as a political consultant while serving in the Florida legislature, but elected officials are required to disclose the sources of their income. Rivera failed to disclose any income from Millennium or his work on the gaming referendum (he later amended those reports). When investigators questioned attorneys for Magarino and Medina about the arrangement, “they confirmed their association with the corporation and the fact that it was the subject [Rivera] that performed the services for the slots initiative that Millennium was paid for.”

Prosecutors were told that the payments from Millennium were “loans,” and they were given promissory notes to support that claim. But when they attempted to verify that the promissory notes had been produced at the time the loans were supposedly made—by dating the ink on the papers and examining the hard drive of the computer that produced them—they were stymied. “We were told during a sworn statement that the original promissory notes were lost and that the computer stopped working and was discarded.” Because investigators were unable to prove that Rivera had falsified his income disclosures with “corrupt intent” or that the stories about the loans were untrue, they could not charge Rivera with a crime.

The investigation then turned to Rivera’s campaign finances. Rivera had campaign accounts to finance his runs for public office and his efforts to win election as a Republican committeeman. The former are regulated, the latter are not. Investigators questioned Rivera about the commingling of his various accounts and his alleged use of political contributions for personal spending. Rivera responded with “a very broad interpretation of what constitute permissible campaign related expenditures,” telling investigators that “he was for a period of almost a decade, continuously and simultaneously engaging in official business, campaigning for public office, as well as campaigning for committeeman.” Rivera “explained as a single man without children, his entire life’s focus was on political activities related in some manner to campaigns for office” so “that virtually every travel related expenditure—airfare, automobile costs, lodging, meals, and related miscellaneous expenses for personal items and entertainment—were indeed permissible campaign related expenditures.”

Rivera didn’t just spend the money on himself. “According to the subject’s broad interpretation of the law, it was appropriate and permissible to pay for his female companion’s expenditures as well, as they were essential to his election campaigns.”

Ironically, the revelation that triggered the Florida investigation—Rivera’s claim that he derived income from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—is not even mentioned in the Close-out Memo-randum. That doesn’t mean it’s not troubling.

From 2003 to 2009, Rivera claimed that funds from USAID were a primary source of income outside of his modest salary as a legislator. But USAID told the Miami Herald, which broke the story, that it had no record of employing Rivera. Confronted with this unpleasant reality, Rivera claimed that a company he founded—Interamerican Government Relations—was a USAID subcontractor and that he received the payments through that entity. When he was asked who the primary contractor was, Rivera refused to answer. His campaign provided the Herald with documentation showing that he had taken three trips to Central and South America over a three-year period between 2005 and 2008. But when Herald reporters tried to confirm that Rivera was working for USAID on these trips, a State Department official told them he was not. “The three trips cited by Rivera were not organized by USAID, nor were they tied to a government consulting contract or development work,” the Herald reported on October 12, 2010.

In response to questions from The Weekly Standard about whether USAID has any documentation of payments to Rivera, either directly or through Interamerican Government Relations, agency spokeswoman Alexandra Glass said, “USAID has no record of Rep. David Rivera working for the Agency.” Rivera’s congressional office referred requests for an interview to his campaign, which did not respond.

Should Marco Rubio have to answer for David Rivera? “They’re not the same person,” says one Rubio friend. “They’re separate people who live separate lives.”

That’s true. Rubio is not mentioned in the report from Florida investigators, and when Rubio is mentioned in news coverage of Rivera’s troubles it’s not because there is any suggestion of his involvement in Rivera’s schemes but merely to note the potential damage to Rubio’s political fortunes. (The one exception: Deutsche Bank threatened to foreclose on the home that Rubio and Rivera own together following a billing dispute.)

So it’s possible that Rivera’s problems will remain Rivera’s problems. There is, of course, a recent example of a politician achieving tremendous success in spite of problematic associations. In the 2008 campaign, Republicans tried with limited success to bring attention to Barack Obama’s friendships with radicals like Bill Ayers and crooks like Tony Rezko. Obama survived his long relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright—who married the Obamas, baptized their children, and addressed them from the pulpit for years, sometimes using stridently anti-American and hateful language. 

But Obama did one thing that Rubio has been unwilling to do—at least so far. He distanced himself from the problem. Despite an increasing number of private calls for Rubio to do the same, from good friends and prominent national Republicans, he is sticking by Rivera. 

Rubio has agreed to attend a fundraiser in Washington for Rivera this month. Sources close to the senator say he committed to the fundraiser before the release of the detailed report on the Florida investigation. Still, he has no plans to cancel.

“I guess it’s because I’m new to Washington, but I’ve never felt that—I mean, maybe it’s acceptable here, it isn’t to me—to turn your back on friends when they’re going through a difficult time, no matter, you know, what they may have done or not done,” Rubio told Bret Baier of Fox News. “And so in his case, he’s a friend and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.” 

Rubio described his relationship with Rivera in his interview with The Weekly Standard. “The best way to characterize it is—I’ve known this guy when he was a punk and I was a punk,” Rubio told me. “He’s my personal friend. Now the guy’s got some problems. And I can’t make excuses. I don’t know what the story is there. I don’t have access to his bank accounts.” 

Some friends of both Rubio and Rivera want Rivera to do what Rubio has thus far been unwilling to do. 

“If David wanted to be a real friend to Marco, he would not be putting Marco in this situation,” says a Florida Republican who is close to both men. “David should voluntarily put some separation between them, but he knows how loyal Marco is and he’s taking advantage of that.” 

Will Rubio’s relationship with Rivera keep Mitt Romney from considering him as a running mate? It won’t be helpful.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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