The Rubio romance

For the national press, a harder look is in order

FLORIDA — Much of the national media appears to be in love with Florida’s junior senator—Republican Marco Rubio. Back on March 23, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post wrote about potential vice-presidential running mates for Republican nominee Mitt Romney and offered this gushing assessment:

The case for Rubio is simple and close to conclusive. He’s Hispanic, giving the GOP an opportunity to reestablish some sort of foothold in that electorally critical community. He’s from Florida, a major swing state. He’s a tea party favorite thanks to destruction of moderate Governor Charlie Crist in a Senate primary in 2010. And, he’s young; at 42 years old, Rubio is 23 years Romney’s junior. Rubio’s not perfect—we hear whispers that his time in the state legislature could be mined by a good opposition researcher—but he’s a clear number one choice in our Line.

Cillizza offered little that was new with this. He accepts the notion that some Hispanics will swoon just because Rubio is on the ticket. He is enamored by the fact that Rubio is young. (And note that Rubio is even younger than Cillizza thinks; he is 40, turning 41 on May 28.)

Cillizza also joins the chorus of those who believe Rubio could help Romney win Florida. Perhaps, but I suggest he read an impressive April analysis by Nate Silver of The New York Times, who concludes that running mates may have little impact on winning their home state. (Also, we humbly suggest that if there is information that could “be mined by a good opposition researcher” about Rubio’s state legislative record, perhaps the Post might want to put on its miner’s helmet.)

When Rubio gave a foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution, The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung both fawned over Rubio and backhanded the GOP: Rubio, she wrote, “took another step onto the national stage Wednesday with a foreign policy speech that positioned him squarely in the middle between a dying breed of GOP moderates and his partisan brethren who have condemned President Obama as an international weakling.”

DeYoung offered no quotes from members of the “dying breed” or the “partisan brethren.” And had she talked to at least a few members of the “partisan brethren,” DeYoung may have discovered, as Politico did here that some foreign policy conservatives were unhappy with Rubio’s speech.

The Rubio romance has a history. Two days after Rubio won the 2010 election, Gary Andres, who then worked for the lobbying firm Dutko Worldwide, wrote this for National Review Online:

Hero—Marco Rubio. He was in a tough three-way race. He didn’t sacrifice principle. He ran as a solid conservative. Now, as a newly elected senator from a large swing state, he can help the GOP grow its appeal to Hispanic voters nationally. He is the future of the Republican Party.

He was not the first to swoon. But in a short paragraph, Andres captured the coming frenzy. At this point, Rubio had not even been sworn in as a senator. He had yet to cast a vote. What Rubio and his handlers did, was capture the imagination of some senior Republicans and the national media. He made the vice presidential short-list before anyone knew who would be the presidential nominee.

Back in Florida, there has been considerably more skepticism. Florida reporters had been following Rubio closely since 2006, when he became speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. I remember sitting across a table from him shortly after he became Speaker, listening to Rubio speak energetically about his “100 ideas,” which he had put together from conversations with Floridians all over the state.

It was to be his blueprint for his two-year term as speaker. The Capitol Press Corps considered Rubio smooth, glib, and ambitious. They also raised serious questions about his finances.

In 2008, The Miami Herald “discovered he failed to properly disclose a generous home loan from a politically connected bank.” It would be one of many stories about Rubio’s dealings.

In this April story, Herald reporter Marc Caputo offers a good summary of questions that have been raised about Rubio’s conduct and statements.

Caputo begins his story with a decision last week by the Federal Elections Commission to fine Rubio $8,000 because it received

prohibited, excessive and other impermissible contributions totaling $210,173.09. By itself, the fine is a pittance for a campaign that raised about $21 million. The errors appear to be relatively small and largely clerical. Still, it’s sloppy. It’s also a surprise. And it feeds into a broader narrative that Rubio is risky.

It is part of a broader narrative that The Miami Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, and other Florida newspapers have been reporting about for years. This March 2010 story by the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald remains a good starting point for the national media to learn more about Rubio’s difficulties.

Marco Rubio was barely solvent as a young lawmaker climbing his way to the top post in the Florida House, but special interest donations and political perks allowed him to spend big money with little scrutiny.

About $600,000 in contributions was stowed in two inconspicuous political committees controlled by Rubio, now the Republican front-runner for the U.S. Senate, and his wife. A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald analysis of the expenses found:

• Rubio failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses—including $7,000 he paid himself—for one of the committees in 2003 and 2004, as required by state law.

• One committee paid relatives nearly $14,000 for what was incorrectly described to the IRS as “courier fees” and listed a nonexistent address for one of them. Another committee paid $5,700 to his wife, who was listed as the treasurer, much of it for “gas and meals.”

• He billed more than $51,000 in unidentified “travel expenses” to three different credit cards—nearly one-quarter of the committee’s entire haul. Charges are not required to be itemized, but other lawmakers detailed almost all of their committee expenses.

Rubio’s spending continued in 2005 when the Republican Party of Florida handed him a credit card to use at his own discretion. While serving as House speaker in 2007 and 2008, he charged thousands of dollars in restaurant tabs to the state party at the same time taxpayers were subsidizing his meals in Tallahassee.

After months of helping to anoint Rubio as the savior of the Republican Party, some members of the national media may be ready to take a closer look. Bret Baier of Fox News did a more than 30-minute interview with Rubio last week and asked many uncomfortable questions. Rubio worked his charm and handled most of them deftly. Still, at long last, the questions are being asked.

The national media should have been asking them a while ago, and it is still a better story than simply guessing who might be on Romney’s short list.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.