Washington insiders and talking heads have been abuzz all week with discussion of Marco Rubio joining the national GOP ticket in the fall. After all, Mitt Romney needs to win Florida in November and the convention this year is in Tampa. As a US Senator Marco Rubio has quickly cultivated a national profile and a kinder, gentler image. Perhaps owing itself to handlers that see Rubio as the GOP’s biggest star, the one time firebrand continues to vote a dangerously ideological line but is not making the type of bombastic and provocative statements he did while in the Florida House.
Almost from the onset of Rubio’s legislative career, which began with a January 2000 Special Election (full disclosure: in that campaign I walked door to door against Rubio, as did many of the state young Democrats) the Miami based Republican took a strong conservative tone.
In the state legislature, Rubio often waved the flag and led the push for conservative causes. While careful with his words, Rubio often baited the public, implying Democrats and even some Senate Republicans were socialists and did not believe in free enterprise. Even by the low standards of the Florida House, Rubio’s rhetorical barbs seemed incendiary and completely over the top. Jeb Bush even dubbed Rubio “the great conservative warrior,” while he was in the State House.
Rubio’s alliance with controversial House members didn’t help either. Rep. Ralph Arza, Rubio’s closest ally in the House, was forced to resign after using a racial slur to describe Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, an African-American. Arza, who had become the right wing’s chief education “reform” advocate in the legislature, had been elevated to a position of incredible visibility and responsibility by Rubio.
The other dangerously close local ally of Rubio in the State House was the enigmatic and allegedly corrupt David Rivera. The Miami lawmaker made a splash in 2002 when he hit a mail truck carrying fliers for his opponent. The mail truck missed the deadline to get the piece into voters mailbox before the September 10th GOP primary. After Rivera won his primary Rubio cultivated him as a leader in the House-eventually helping him land a seat in Congress in 2010. Rivera’s scandals of personal finance, misleading journalists about his employment, potentially improper payments from gambling interests and FDLE investigations are too numerous to discuss in this post. But despite this, Rubio continued his support and active backing of Rivera.
As Speaker of the Florida House, Rubio was ideological to the core. Faced with a populist Governor in Charlie Crist, Rubio did little to forge consensus but instead continued the influence of Jeb Bush on the Florida Legislature. Prior to becoming Speaker, Rubio had forged right wing positions on issues such as Terry Schiavo, public funding of reproductive rights, guns, education “reform”, legal reform and worker compensation. With the possible exception of gun control, this put Rubio far to the right of Charlie Crist approaching the 2010 US Senate Primary.
In retrospect, Crist’s biggest mistake was thinking his general moderation as Governor in 2007 and early 2008, as well as his populist record as Attorney General from 2003 to 2007 (including taking on price gouging, civil rights issues and the insurance company) would be enough to beat Rubio in the primary. From 2003 to early 2008, Crist’s positions were often in conflict with the Bush/Rubio world view. But Crist had previously won GOP primaries against more conservative candidates and it can be understood why he thought he would do so again.
In 2009, Crist compiled his most conservative record since early in his State Senate term. The Governor, who had stressed moderation and had seemingly been made of teflon for years, marched to the right. Yet Crist could not stop the Rubio juggernaut that had been promoted by right wing think tanks and conservative talking heads on FOX News and other media outlets that support GOP candidates. Rubio’s rhetoric throughout 2009 was that of a tea party Republican whose electoral and legislative experience made him a dangerous prospect to lead the movement for years to come.
By the time Crist moved back to the middle and eventually left the GOP, Rubio had been thrust into the national spotlight as the next big thing in national politics. With a Democratic Party divided between its own nominee Kendrick Meek and the former Republican, Charlie Crist, Rubio’s election was assured. It was at this time Rubio toned down his rhetoric and adopted a “kindler, gentler” approach publicly.
It is important that voters of Florida and the nation are not fooled. Rubio is still a dangerous ideologue who has rarely, if ever, cast a moderate vote and has never promoted consensus as a way of governing. His ascension onto the national scene is a potential disaster for Democrats as he has the charisma, and media backing, to be a defining figure nationally. Here in Florida we blew our opportunity to stop him. Let us hope we can contain him at the national level in the months and years to come.