When Marco Rubio returned home to Coral Gables two weeks ago after the legislative session ended, his wife, Jeannette, had a list of jobs waiting for him that needed to be done around the house. No rest for the weary. That's the way it goes when you are 34 years old with a wife and three kids, have been away on business for 60 days, and are in line to serve as the next Speaker of the House in Florida.
Rubio is shockingly young for the job. He won his first race in 1998, getting elected to the City Commission in West Miami at the age of 26. Two years later, voters sent him to Tallahassee as a House member.
He's the new face of the Republican Party post-Jeb, guiding the always-more-conservative-than-the-Senate House of Representatives over the next two years. He'll be the first Cuban American in that role and the second-youngest speaker.
"It never ceases to amaze me the complexity of the issues we face in the state of Florida," Rubio said by phone. "Florida is facing a property insurance crisis like no state has ever faced. That's had a dramatic impact on the insurance industry. So people turn to government for a solution. But government doesn't always have a solution."
Yes, Rubio is a conservative. In a 2005 ceremony where Rubio was named the 2007-2008 speaker, Jeb Bush invoked "a mystical warrior" named Chang, "who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society" -- and who apparently is the Gov's imaginary counselor and conscience who never flags from principle even when Jeb does. He used the Chang story as a way of challenging Rubio to stay true to his principles before presenting the future speaker with a golden warrior's sword. (And yes, the Chang bit was widely ridiculed in the liberal blogosphere.)
As further evidence of his conservative chops, Rubio's committee this year passed a version of an education voucher bill that would give any parent public money for private schools on demand. (It died, never making it through the Senate.)
But Rubio is different from other Florida conservatives who have made it to the top of the heap in the legislature.
First, listen to him as he talks about how his party is perceived today.
"Clearly there are some poll numbers that don't bode well for Republicans," he said. "To deny that would insult you and your readers. There's a challenge. Republicans have been in control in Florida for 10 years. Historically, what happens to people who are in power for any period of time -- and I'm not talking about the party, but historically -- they have a tendency to become enamored of the process and the power. In essence, you forget what got you there.
"We can't be the party of the status quo," he continued, "even if it's our status quo."
To that end, Rubio started off his time as pre-speaker in a unique way: He presented his colleagues with a present, a book titled 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future. The pages were blank.
The book, he explained, would be written by legislators after listening to Florida's citizens for two years. And he put up a website, 100ideas.org, to solicit ideas from Joe and Jane Lunchbucket throughout the state.
As I write this, the website had received 621 ideas. Some deal with little details (Idea 615: License plates that are good for two years, not just one). Some think bigger (Idea 619: Universal health care; Idea 606: Moratorium on Growth).
Some, even Rubio acknowledges, are just wacky. (Idea 599: Cell Phone w/Laser Radar Gun.)
But good, bad, liberal, conservative, big or little, they remain on the website. No censorship.
For many in Tallahassee, "100 Ideas" was first viewed as a goofy publicity stunt.
Slowly, attitudes are changing.
I now see "how remarkable it is for someone to do this," said Thomas Croom, a Republican consultant and the author of the conservative blog, "PEER Review Florida." "He told the people that we don't have the answers. You don't see a lot of people [in politics] who say that. It's going to set the tone for what he is going to do in the next couple of years. I think he's pretty solid right now."
"It's been a challenge getting politicians and even citizens to buy into '100 Ideas,'" Rubio acknowledged. "People are not used to being asked for their ideas. Modern politics is largely a game of blame. We're trying to change that, and it's met with some resistance. They're not used to being asked to create a vision and a plan. A vision that is relevant to people's daily lives.
"We have no accountability in government," Rubio said. "People don't run on platforms anymore. They run on sound bites. People don't offer concrete plans anymore. We only really deal with things that are relevant to people's lives when they become a crisis."
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It was a great day. I enjoyed meeting the mayor.