Marco Rubio was 28 when he was elected to the Florida legislature. He was about to become a father and was struggling to balance the financial demands of a growing family with his political aspirations.
About a year and a half after taking his seat in Florida’s part-time legislature, Rubio got a financial boost, accepting a job at the Miami law firm Becker & Poliakoff for $93,000 a year. Although Rubio was a lawyer by training, his colleagues quickly recognized the advantage of having a charismatic, high-energy politician in the office.
“It was as simple as saying, ‘Marco, who should I call in this place about this issue?’ ” recalled Perry Adair, a real estate lawyer in charge of the firm’s Miami office, where Rubio worked from 2001 to 2004. “Marco knew the staff everywhere. He had been in politics all his life.”
Although he began his legislative career as a man of modest means, Rubio in 2008 reached an income level that placed him in the top 1 percent of American earners. His outside work included helping real estate developers navigate city hall bureaucracies, assisting a law firm in adding ethnic diversity to its client base and lawyer roster, teaching college-level political science classes, and coordinating conference calls for a Washington lobbyist seeking federal funding for Miami hospitals.
Rubio’s annual income grew from about $72,000 when he was elected to the state House in 2000 to $414,000 in 2008, when his two-year speakership ended, according to financial disclosure forms and interviews with Rubio campaign staff members.
About 80 percent of his total income during his tenure in the state House came from Florida law firms that lobby state and local governments, according to a Washington Post analysis of state financial disclosure forms. Much of the rest was his legislative salary, typically about $29,000 a year.
Now, as the 44-year-old U.S. senator runs for president, he is facing questions about his personal finances and his spending practices. He bought an $80,000 boat and his wife leased a high-end SUV, expenses first reported by the New York Times, and he disclosed cashing out some retirement savings. He had previously come under fire over his use of a Florida Republican Party credit card for personal expenses when he was a state lawmaker, and he reimbursed the state GOP $2,400 in travel expenses that he acknowledged he had mistakenly received for official government travel.
Financial turning point
On the campaign trail, Rubio makes his humble beginnings and middle-class lifestyle central components of his pitch to voters, even bragging at times that he is among the least wealthy candidates in the race. In a subtle dig at his rivals, such as Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush, Rubio often jokes that his detractors think he is “not rich enough” to be president.
Even so, Rubio’s time in Tallahassee marked a financial turning point for the lawmaker and his family.
The bulk of his private-sector income during his Tallahassee years came from his employment at Broad and Cassel, one of Florida’s top law and lobbying firms, which hired Rubio at $300,000 a year in 2004, months after he secured the support from his House colleagues to be in line for the speakership.
Rubio declined to be interviewed for this article. A campaign spokesman, Todd Harris, said that Rubio’s private-sector income was not unusual for state lawmakers and reflected the unique skill set he offered prospective employers.
“Unlike Congress, the Florida legislature is a part-time body, meaning virtually every legislator makes their living from outside employment,” Harris said.
“When Marco was hired at Broad and Cassel, he was in line to become the first Cuban American House speaker in Florida history,” Harris added. “That gave him an enormous profile, along with some very marketable experiences and qualifications.”
Although the annual session plus year-round committee meetings and constituent work often add up to full-time work, many state lawmakers maintain private careers as lawyers or business owners or in other jobs.
A review of Florida financial disclosure forms shows that Rubio experienced an unusually large jump in his private-sector salary. His outside pay grew proportionally more than any of the nine other Florida House speakers who served between 1997 and 2014, the documents show.
Many already earned six-figure incomes as they began climbing the leadership ladder. Generally, they experienced more modest growth during their years in the leadership, the records show.
Harris said it was “impossible, and frankly irrelevant” to compare salaries of state House speakers in a part-time legislature in which members have a broad array of financial backgrounds.
“Some were millionaires before they were ever elected,” Harris added. “Others, like Marco, started with significantly less.”
Some former colleagues say Rubio charted an unusual path, entering the legislature before establishing an outside career. He had been a city commissioner in tiny West Miami and had focused on building his political networks rather than a lucrative legal portfolio.
Johnnie Byrd, who was House speaker several years before Rubio, explained the difference, noting that he was a “country lawyer” working for a small firm in a small town while Rubio opted for a big firm with political connections.
“My memory of Broad and Cassel is that they were a really rapidly rising firm at that time,” said Byrd, who said he supports Rubio’s presidential bid. “They were one of the big firms in Florida that was doing a lot of government work.”
Rubio’s income raised some concerns among his colleagues, particularly after his big jump upon securing the speakership, said Mike Fasano, who as House majority leader in 2001 gave Rubio an early leadership post but became a critic and backed Rubio’s 2010 Senate rival, Charlie Crist (D). “Other members of the Florida House do not see their salary triple overnight,” said Fasano, who is backing Bush’s presidential campaign. “I feel confident in saying that if he had not been selected to the speaker-designate, his salary would not have shot up to $300,000.”
Questions about lobbying
When Rubio first arrived in Tallahassee in 2000, he was employed by Ruden McClosky, a law firm that paid him $72,000 a year, a total that Rubio recalls in his memoir was barely enough to make ends meet.
In 2001, Rubio met Alan Becker, a former state legislator building a lobbying and law firm. Becker offered Rubio $93,000 to join his firm.
“I didn’t hesitate a moment,” Rubio wrote in his book, “An American Son.”
Becker, in an interview, said he hired Rubio to work on zoning and land-use issues. He said he knew that Rubio, focused on the legislature, would have limited time for the firm.
“I was paying him accordingly,” Becker said. “If he was devoting 100 percent to the law business, he would have been paid more because he was worth it.”
During his time at Becker’s firm, Rubio registered with the Miami-Dade County government to lobby on behalf of real estate and other interests. Democrats later cited this to attack him as a lobbyist, but Rubio has said his county-level work focused on local zoning issues and was not lobbying in the traditional sense.
Adair, the Miami lawyer, recalled that Rubio was especially effective in helping clients who were real estate developers cut through the clutter of local government bureaucracies. Adair said Rubio never sought to influence local officials’ decisions.
“It can be hard to get meetings with local government officials and it can be hard to get answers,” he said. “Marco was a good guy to have around because he could help you get an answer that would otherwise have taken two months.”
In December 2003, Rubio was registered as a federal lobbyist for Becker & Poliakoff in Washington, according to records maintained by the U.S. House and Senate and never previously reported. The registration form, which includes Rubio’s signature, declares that he would concentrate on “budget appropriations and health care.”
Harris said that Rubio could not recall filling out the registration form and that he did not lobby. Firm officials said it had been an error, and the firm sent a letter in 2005 asking the Senate to revoke the registration.
At the time that Rubio’s form was filed, Becker & Poliakoff had formed a joint venture with a Washington lobbying firm hired by Miami-Dade County to help find federal funding for Miami’s public hospitals. As part of his work for the Becker firm, Rubio helped Jonathan Slade, one of the Washington lobbyists, learn about the county’s federal needs, Slade said.
Rubio arranged conference calls between Slade and county officials to discuss hospital issues, Slade said. Rubio was usually on the line for the calls, Slade added, but did not participate in the conversations. Slade said that he was not aware that Rubio did any federal lobbying, and that he was surprised to learn Rubio had once registered.
‘Paycheck to paycheck’
By 2003, Rubio had lined up the commitments he needed from his GOP House colleagues to secure his place in line to assume the speaker’s gavel. Soon thereafter, he began to receive other high-income offers.
During a 2004 dinner with Rubio and his wife at Chef Allen’s, a popular restaurant north of Miami, Becker persuaded him to stay by offering him a 50 percent raise. It was less than one of the competing offers, but enough to keep Rubio, at least for a while.
But when Broad and Cassel offered to more than double his salary, Rubio was compelled to listen.
Becker told Rubio that he would be “out of his mind” to say no.
In his memoir, Rubio described himself as “torn.”
“I had been in difficult financial straits when Alan Becker had offered me a job, and I was indebted to him,” Rubio wrote. “But I couldn’t afford to refuse the financial security the Broad and Cassel offer would provide.”
Rubio described his circumstances at the time: 33 years old and the sole earner in his household.
“I had a mortgage, student loans and other debts, and we lived paycheck to paycheck,” he wrote. “We had outgrown our two-bedroom home in West Miami, and my salary at Broad and Cassel would make it possible for us to buy a bigger house and settle some of our debts.”
Broad and Cassel was known for its real estate, litigation and government relations practice.
But Rubio’s role, aides said, was non-political. He was prevented by law from lobbying. The firm’s offer letter to Rubio, dated June 18, 2004, forbade him to introduce legislation that would affect the firm or its clients. The letter also mandated, in accordance with state laws, that Rubio’s salary would not include any money the firm received from lobbying.
Instead, the son of Cuban immigrants was brought on board largely to help the firm diversify its mostly white, male Miami office.
“Because of my political obligations it was understood that my primary responsibility would not be to handle individual clients,” Rubio said in a written response to questions from The Post. “Instead, my job was to raise the firm’s profile in Miami, help attract younger lawyers to build for the future, and opening new doors for the firm, particularly in the Cuban American business community where Broad and Cassel had limited ties.”
Rubio said that, today, the firm’s Miami office is “thriving,” adding that, “I am proud of the leadership role I played to help make that happen.”
Vivian de las Cuevas-Diaz, a lawyer recruited to the firm, said she had been reluctant to accept a long-standing offer but changed her mind after hearing Rubio’s pitch. Over lunch, she recalled, Rubio acknowledged that Broad and Cassel had not kept pace with Miami’s economic and ethnic transformation. But he said the firm would be a good home for an ambitious young lawyer. “He said it would be a great state platform” to build visibility and a client base, said de las Cuevas-Diaz, now a partner with Holland & Knight.
As he became speaker, Rubio still made time to talk with the lawyer he had helped recruit.
“I find it incredible that it didn’t matter what was going on — when I said I needed something, he was always available,” she said.
Rubio continued to work at the firm for the two years he was speaker, a term that started in November 2006.
In 2008, during his final months as speaker, Rubio’s income rose yet again — this time the result of a new teaching job at Florida International University, a large state school in Miami. The part-time position paid Rubio $69,000 a year.
Rubio’s private income got another boost shortly after he ended his two-year stint as speaker and left state office — signing on as a consultant for public hospitals he had recently championed as a lawmaker.
Rubio and a former aide signed consulting contracts worth $102,000 with Jackson Hospital Systems and $96,000 with Miami Children’s Hospital, according to Senate disclosure forms and interviews with Rubio aides.
Then came the 2010 campaign, when Rubio secured his spot as a national Republican star.
Fame followed, as did lucrative book deals — earning him at least $1.2 million, according to financial disclosure forms — and a chance to become president.
Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report. Story from Tom Hamburger for The Washington Post.