Ties That Bind: Will a longtime friend of Marco Rubio’s compromise his larger ambitions?
May 24, 2012
On April 19, Republican Senator Marco Rubio appeared at a policy breakfast in Washington. The ostensible topic was his proposal for a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, but it wasn’t long before the conversation drifted to vice presidential talk. Since the start of the Republican primary, Rubio has been named at the top of nearly every short list of likely running mates—and for good reason. He is young, charismatic, and popular with both the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. He has a reputation for being serious about policy. He is a Hispanic in a party that badly needs to do better with Hispanic voters. And it hardly hurts that his home state is Florida.
Of course, when the inevitable question arose, Rubio declared in his surprisingly youthful voice, “I don’t want to be the vice president right now.” Was it because he was too inexperienced, the interviewer asked? Rubio, a lively speaker with a canny sense of comic timing, said no. “I’m older than I look,” he explained. “I’ll be forty-one this year, but I feel forty-two.” Later, he said: “Three, four, five, six, seven years from now, if I do a good job as vice president—I’m sorry—if I do a good job as a senator …I’ll have the chance to do all sorts of things.” The gaffe was striking not least because it was a rare moment in which Rubio seemed to be caught off-balance. But Rubio was adamant that he wasn’t angling to be on the presidential ticket. “I think the Senate is a very valid place to shape and drive American policy, foreign policy, which I enjoy deeply,” he said. “If I were running for vice president, I would have to answer questions about my dog.”
All of these coy denials only seemed to heighten Republican interest. And, in the following days, Rubio did all the things one would expect of someone who wanted to be vice president: He gave a well-received foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution and appeared with Mitt Romney, by that point the all-but-certain nominee, at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. But, in the midst of this media blitz, there was one bit of news that didn’t quite fit: Politico reported that Rubio was planning to hold a fund-raiser at an upscale Capitol Hill restaurant for a Florida congressman named David Rivera.
Given that conservative excitement over Rubio was approaching fever pitch, it was a strange move indeed. For a year and a half, Rivera had been under criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. In September, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had named him one of the 19 most corrupt members of Congress. Rivera, in short, was not the kind of person for whom someone auditioning to be vice president would want to hold a fund-raiser.
But Rivera also happens to be Marco Rubio’s closest friend in politics. And, during the course of their friendship of 20 years, he has been instrumental in Rubio’s rapid rise from West Miami commissioner to U.S. senator. A Republican colleague in the Florida House describes their relationship as “one step below blood.” As a result, if Rubio makes it on to the Republican ticket, questions about his dog may be the least of his problems.
THE SON OF FIRST-GENERATION Cuban immigrants, David Rivera was born in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to Miami when he was nine. He went to an evangelical high school and, at the age of 14, volunteered for Youth for Reagan. After that, he was hooked on politics for life. Not long after college, he landed a job as a legislative assistant for Florida Senator Connie Mack. In 1990, at the age of 24, he was executive director of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party. Colleagues attribute his success to a combination of exceptional political smarts and hard work. Rivera had a reputation as the guy who would come in earlier than any other volunteer and leave after the lights had gone out.
It was through his work with Republican campaigns that Rivera met a young college student named Marco Rubio. “They came out of this intensity of the Reagan revolution as very young guys,” says Dennis Baxley, who later served with both men in the Florida House. Rubio had also grown up in Miami, one of four children born to a bartender and a maid, both of them Cuban immigrants. He attended a small college in Missouri on a football scholarship, eventually ending up at the University of Florida. In 1992, when Rubio was 21 and Rivera was 27, they both volunteered for Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s congressional campaign. Their friendship continued during the 1996 Dole-Kemp presidential bid, when Rivera was Bob Dole’s South Florida campaign manager and Rubio was the campaign chairman for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
When the 26-year-old Rubio ran for a seat on the West Miami Commission, Rivera donated money to his campaign, according to a forthcoming biography of Rubio by Manuel Roig-Franzia, a reporter for The Washington Post. In 2000, Rivera helped Rubio again in a race for a vacant Florida House seat, recalls J.C. Planas, a Miami lawyer who served with them in the Florida House. “Marco was probably going to get to where he was regardless, but David—especially early on—helped Marco a great deal,” he says. Another former colleague says Rivera looked out for Rubio “like a big brother.” In 2002, Rubio had a chance to return the favor: When Rivera decided to make his own run at the Florida House, Planas remembers that Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, helped with the campaign.
Some observers were puzzled by the close bond between Rubio and Rivera, because outwardly they were so different. Rubio was a devoted family man with boyish good looks—even now, at 40, he still looks like he doesn’t need to shave. “He was a star since the beginning,” says Rebeca Sosa, the mayor of West Miami when Rubio was a commissioner. “He was kind to everyone, so everyone loved Marco.” He was also a dynamic public presence. A former speaker of the Florida House, Allan Bense, recalls a speech Rubio once gave about the American dream that “made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”…