October 3, 2010
A first sign the tea party movement was more than a political temper tantrum came May 5, 2009, when a Miami lawyer posted a YouTube video about ideas.
Marco Rubio’s rise in Florida Republican politics has been propelled by being an idea man, so he brought the strategy to what then looked like an impossible race for the U.S. Senate. Within a year, he has turned polls upside down and stands out as symbol of a conservative backlash.
“I don’t think it’s possible that Marco Rubio would have risen without the passion and energy that the tea party and people who support it have brought,” said Henry Kelley, chairman of the Walton County Tea Party, after listening to Rubio at a campaign stop last week. “Like in a lot of other states, the voters have decided who’s going to rise up, rather than the party hierarchy, and that’s an exciting development for American politics.”
Kelley, a Fort Walton Beach business professor, said conservatives believe Rubio because he hasn’t moderated, compromised or switched positions.
Before anyone outside Kentucky and Nevada had heard of Rand Paul or Sharron Angle, before party-switching Democrat Arlen Specter lost renomination in Pennsylvania, before Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska beat party favorites in Senate primaries, Rubio was drawing acclaim in Florida.
Before becoming speaker of the Florida House, he held “idea raisers.” He capped his installation as speaker by giving each representative a book of blank pages, asking them to return it to him filled with ideas for Florida’s future.
Now, his campaign website features an ideas page — 82 as of last week — for what Rubio proposes to do in the Senate. They include cutting the White House and congressional staffs by 10 percent, freezing civilian federal employment until the government work force returns to its 2008 level, banning budget earmarks, ending economic-stimulus spending and amending the Constitution to require balanced budgets.
Rubio skims over such topics, along with health care and Social Security and education, in his stump speech. But he returns to one idea, “American exceptionalism,” that can bring a halt to his voice as he speaks of his parents fleeing Cuba and telling him he could go as far as his talents will take him in America.
“I have represented a constituency of people who know what it’s like to lose your country,” he said. “I am privileged to be a citizen of the greatest society in the history of the world, and I want to pass that along to my four children.”
By fortune or design, Rubio picked the right time 18 months ago to start spreading his message. A little-known former legislator from Miami couldn’t have toppled a governor with 70 percent approval ratings — even driving him from the party — without a brushfire in the grass roots.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush remained neutral until Gov. Charlie Crist bolted the GOP and became an independent candidate for the Senate. But on MSNBC last week, Bush told former Panhandle congressman Joe Scarborough he was behind Rubio early on.
State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, tried to talk Rubio out of running. Crist was so far ahead, Gaetz urged Rubio to run for attorney general.
“If Charlie Crist had not turned out to be the bait-and-switch governor, Marco would have a tougher time,” Gaetz said. “Marco has the right message in these times, but Charlie Crist is the best thing that’s happened to him.”
Rubio, 39, grew up in Miami and Las Vegas, the son of a bartender and a Kmart cashier-stock clerk. He started college in Missouri on a football scholarship, switched to the University of Florida and took his law degree at the University of Miami.
“America is the only place in the world where poor people with an idea can compete with rich people,” he said. “When was the last time you heard news accounts of a boatload of Americans arriving on the shores of some other country?”
A West Miami city councilman, Rubio won a House seat in a special election culminating in his rise to be the first Cuban-American speaker in 2006 and ’07. He and Crist were allies, crafting property tax plans, economic development and education policy.
When ex-Sen. Mel Martinez called it quits, Crist was the obvious favorite to replace him. But Rubio moved first.
“I want to be part of offering an alternative,” Rubio said then. At the time, he acknowledged Crist’s lead and said, “We may be outspent, probably will be, but we are not going to be out-idea’d or outworked.”
The tea parties at courthouses squares and state capitols were a national phenomenon then. But, with state and national GOP celebrities lining up behind Crist, Rubio began a climb in the polls.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was an early supporter, giving Rubio credibility among groups such as the Club for Growth, which boosts conservative purists. The New York Times Sunday magazine put Rubio on its cover as “the first senator from the tea party.”
The first poll after Rubio’s announcement showed Crist leading, but said 72 percent didn’t know enough about Rubio to have an opinion. He hit the GOP circuit, racking up an unbroken series of 26 victories in straw polls by county and district Republican clubs, and spoke at tea party rallies. By early 2010, he had turned the polls upside down.