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Marco Rubio's Political Roots Began Where He Grew Up, West Miami


And let's turn now to our series Journey Home. It's about the places the presidential candidates in this country got their start. In this encore airing, we focus on Marco Rubio who at age 44 is the youngest candidate in the 2016 presidential field. The Florida senator is a rising star in the Republican Party, and his roots are planted in a small city just outside Miami. NPR's Greg Allen visits the community that helped shape Marco Rubio, West Miami, Fla.


GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's less than a square mile, a tight-knit community of just over 6,000 people. This is where Marco Rubio grew up.

TANIA ROZIO: Make a right right here and that'll take you to City Hall.

ALLEN: Tania Rozio has lived in West Miami for nearly 50 years. She shows me around the town she calls a little gem. There's the park, and the recreation center, where the community holds Christmas shows, Halloween parties and Fourth of July celebrations. Palm trees line the streets. Most homes are modest one-story stucco, many brightly colored. Rozio points out others that have been renovated and expanded.

ROZIO: The houses now, people are putting a second-story on there. Instead of moving somewheres else, they want to stay within here.

ALLEN: That's what Rubio did. He lives in one of those updated houses with his wife and four children. West Miami is where, 30 years ago, Rubio's mother and father put down roots. They came to the U.S. for economic reasons before the Cuban Revolution when Dictator Fulgencio Batista held power. After five years in Las Vegas, they moved to West Miami in the 1980s. It was a blue-collar town where nearly all residents were Cuban-American. For high school, Rubio left the neighborhood to pursue a passion. Long before he was interested in politics, he was enthralled by another hard-hitting game, football.


ALLEN: He attended South Miami High School. In the '80s and early '90s, the South Miami Cobras were a football powerhouse. At South Miami, Rubio started just one game.

OTIS COLLIER: He was a safety on our defense.

ALLEN: Otis Collier was Rubio's coach.

COLLIER: He was a very knowledgeable kid. He always was in the right position. The thing that helped him, he was a smart kid. He played smart.

ALLEN: Rubio was one of the smaller players on the team, but he had a knack for reading offenses and pass patterns. South Miami's athletic director at the time, James Colzie, says Rubio learned a lot on the gridiron also useful in politics.

JAMES COLZIE: Strategies how to, not necessarily to manipulate people, but to how to anticipate.

ALLEN: They're qualities Rubio put to use back home in tiny West Miami, where campaigning is less about strategy and more about personal connections. In 1997 at the age of 26 and a year after graduating from the University of Miami with a law degree, he decided to run for a seat on West Miami's City Commission. One of the first people Rubio went to see was one of his mother's friends who also happened to be the town's mayor, Rebeca Sosa. She was outside stringing up her Christmas lights.

REBECA SOSA: This young boy came and told me, are you the Mayor Rebeca Sosa? Yes. Listen, I want to run for office, and everybody tells me that if you don't help me, I'm not going to win.

ALLEN: It was the beginning of his meteoric political rise. By the next day, Sosa was walking door to door with him. One of the city commissioners he was running to replace was longtime West Miami resident Tania Rozio, our tour guide for the beginning of the story. In West Miami, candidates' political affiliations aren't listed on the ballot. But Rubio had the support of the powerful local Republican Party. Rozio, now a Rubio supporter, recalls a conversation with a friend whose family was active in local Republican politics.

ROZIO: She says, I'm sorry, but I have to vote for him because this is our golden boy, and I think he's going to go places. And they pushed him into West Miami, and from then on, it's just history.

ALLEN: But Rubio had his sights set beyond his hometown. Just one year after winning that election, he took a shot at a seat in the state legislature. To win, he'd have to broaden his political base and gain support in nearby Hialeah, a town with 40 times as many people as tiny West Miami. And what would happen next would lay the foundation for the kind of politician he would become. Rubio was largely unknown in Hialeah so he went to see one of the most influential political figures in town, Modesto Perez.

MODESTO PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: The walls of his office are covered with old campaign signs, commendations and lots of photos. But the 74-year-old Perez isn't an elected official. He runs a refrigeration repair company. In this predominately Cuban-American city, he's been something of a political godfather, pulling strings for Republican candidates he likes, opposing Republicans and Democrats he doesn't. When Rubio came to see him, Perez says he was impressed by the young man's vision and charisma. Perez soon was spreading the word about the young politician he would call his godson. Rubio narrowly won that seat in the legislature and headed to Tallahassee, the state capital. Through an interpreter, Perez says, Rubio still had a lot to learn.

PEREZ: (Through interpreter) Marco was shy when he started.

ALLEN: Perez tells a story from when Rubio was speaker of the Florida House and came back to the district to hand out Thanksgiving turkeys. Rubio's staff had made arrangements to give away 40 donated turkeys. Perez says he was outraged.

PEREZ: (Through interpreter) And Modesto says, "What do you mean, only 40 turkeys?"

So he sees the trucks coming with the turkeys and he's like, "No, you're going to give me...

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PEREZ: (Through interpreter) ...You're going to give me 300 turkeys."


ALLEN: Perez says he helped Rubio understand how to use his political clout to help people. As a legislator, it's a lesson Rubio took to heart, delivering millions of dollars to his district for hospitals, parks and flood control. By the time he was House Speaker though and began developing aspirations for higher office, Rubio stopped requesting earmarked funds for projects back home. Ralph Arza is a Republican from Miami who served in the legislature with Rubio when he was speaker. Arza says Rubio ran Republican leadership in the Florida House like a sports team, and it was clear who was the most valuable player.

RALPH ARZA: One time he says to me, just open up the court and give Michael the ball. And it was giving him the ball.

ALLEN: Michael as in Jordan. It's a team from which Arza eventually was cut. After Arza used a racial epithet in phone messages left for a political opponent, Rubio told him he had to resign from the House. From the time he entered politics, Arza says, Rubio always had his eye on the long game.

ARZA: He had a blueprint of where he wanted to go, and he knew the options and he knew the challenges along the way. He always was playing the game looking down the field.

ALLEN: That was something he first learned in West Miami. Now from his hometown, he's once again looking downfield, this time with his sights set on the White House. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

GREENE: And let me just encourage you to listen to All Things Considered later today. Our colleagues there are focusing on another presidential candidate - Santa Claus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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