Rubio On Compromise, Immigration And His 'Union Activist' Past

Jun 21, 2012
Originally published on June 21, 2012 5:19 pm

To hear Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tell it, it's happenstance that his newly published memoir, An American Son, became available just as the speculation about Republican vice presidential possibilities is heating up.

Rubio, a rising Cuban-American star in his party, told NPR's Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered, in a Thursday interview:

"We had the opportunity to write this book. There were people who expressed interest in publishing it, who thought I had something to say. I don't think you write a book unless you have something to say. And I wanted to share the experience my family had in coming to this country. The things they faced even before I was born, going all the way back to my grandfather as a young man.

"I wanted to share my experiences and my life on the campaign trail because I think for people of my generation, whether it comes to the work-life balance, or some of the doubts I had about myself when I was running for office, these sorts of things, they're instructive to people.

"But beyond that, I wanted to share my view of America and how, through my parents' experience, as the son of a bartender and a maid, how I've come to the political decisions and the political conclusions that I've arrived at."

Rubio said the book's timing was simply a function of when he completed it.

In the interview, Robert sought to draw Rubio out on his evolution from a Ted Kennedy-loving liberal as a child in the 1970s and 1980s to a conservative politician who became a darling of the Tea Party. Robert said he was unclear after reading the book whether there was an "Aha!" moment for the senator that led to an ideological break from his past.

For instance, in the book, Rubio reveals that he was disappointed as a child by his father's decision to return to work after walking a picket line outside a hotel in Las Vegas, where the family then lived. Young Rubio even called his father a scab and, in the book, refers to himself as a "committed union activist."

The senator indicated that his shift to conservatism was gradual and that President Ronald Reagan and the senator's grandfather figured in the transformation.

"Two things emerged in the 1980s during my growing up. The first thing that led me to Reagan and conservatism, specifically as it was viewed in the 1980s, was this view that America's role in the world was indispensable and that a strong America both militarily and diplomatically was key to world peace and key to other people's freedoms. And that's what my grandfather, more than anything else, deposited in me.

"As I got older, one of the things I began to appreciate was the American free enterprise system and the opportunities that it can provide people from the perspective of my parents.

"My dad was a bartender. And my mom was a cashier and a maid and other jobs. And I came to recognize that the reason that they had those jobs was because someone who had made some money invested that money, opening up a hotel where they were able to work and provide for us. And that the job of government was to create the conditions where that would be possible and encouraged in the future."

While the senator obviously wouldn't describe himself as a union activist anymore, he said he does still believe in workers' right to organize. But he criticized union "bosses" whose priority, he said, was to maintain their power.

He also chided public employee unions, saying:

"I think the problem that we're having, unfortunately across the country, with local municipal unions is that somehow they have come to believe, I mean in their union leadership, that they should somehow be exempt from the difficult decisions that local governments have to make.

"You can't have more government than your taxpayers and economy can afford. And unions and their benefits can't be held exempt from that. And I think that's where you've seen this come to a head, in terms of collective bargaining and the need to redo some of these deals — which in some states is very difficult because of the way the law is designed."

Many analysts say Rubio may have the most political potential of any Florida Republican. But before Rubio there was Jeb Bush, the former governor — as well as the son and brother of presidents — and a mentor to Rubio.

Robert put to Rubio recent criticisms Bush has made of the uncompromising positions taken by many conservatives, especially those of the Tea Party movement. Bush said Reagan or his father would have found it difficult to succeed in the modern Republican Party.

Rubio responded that he wasn't against compromises that led to effective solutions but rather compromise for the sake of compromise that failed to solve problems:

RUBIO: "I don't think he meant that as a comment on the Tea Party. And I don't think the Tea Party approach is that, by the way. I think there are some in both political parties who believe [in a] 'It's our way or highway' perspective.

"I think we should always remind ourselves that while we should never compromise our principles, particularly the principles we were elected on, there's always room to compromise on ideas about how to put those principles into practice. I think that's where the debate has to happen.

"And I constantly remind people that our Constitution that enshrines freedoms on paper also gave us a system of government that requires us to find solutions to our problems by working with people we disagree with."

ROBERT: You're facing a fiscal crisis at the end of this year, for example. You just assume you're going to have to vote for something that's going to include big elements you don't like. And Democrats are going to have to vote for things they don't like."

RUBIO: "I think we're going to have to vote for something that solves the problem. Just to say we voted on something for the sake of saying we compromised, that doesn't solve the problem — doesn't make any sense to me. We have to find a solution. And whatever we vote on has to solve things.

"And I think some of the things that people on the left propose when it comes to our economy doesn't solve the problem. For example, I don't have a moral, religious objection to tax increases. I just think they hurt growth and job creation. And that's why I don't think any solution should have tax increases. Not because I'm trying to, because I have some sort of orthodoxy on tax increases. It's because I believe by raising taxes we hurt growth, which is the only way out of this predicament."

On the day when Mitt Romney, the all-but-official Republican presidential nominee, spoke to Latino elected officials in Orlando, Robert asked Rubio (whose interview preceded the Romney speech) what the GOP message on immigration should be.

RUBIO: "We're the pro-legal immigration party. Legal immigration has been good for America. We're the most generous country in the world, even now on immigration. A million people a year come here from all over the world and millions more are waiting to come."

ROBERT: "And kids who are here who had no part of the decision to come illegally?"

RUBIO: "As I said in the campaign consistently we have to figure out a way to accommodate them that deals with it in a humanitarian way but doesn't encourage illegal immigration in the future. And that's what we're endeavoring to do."

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This has been the week of the Rubio rollout, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio's book tour.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Senator Rubio, good morning.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Good morning, guys. Thanks for having me.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Our newsmaker of the morning, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. It's great to see you.

RUBIO: Thank you. It's like ESPN for day traders.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Many in your party feel that they can sort of run out the clock.

RUBIO: I don't agree with anyone who thinks that somehow, we should wait until after the elections to deal with the major issues that...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: But everyone is. Everyone.

SIEGEL: Senator Marco Rubio, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RUBIO: Thank you. Thank you for having me on the show, to talk about the book.

SIEGEL: The book is coming out at an opportune moment; when people are wondering, is Marco Rubio a likely Republican vice presidential candidate? Do you think the book gives you a good accounting of who you are?

RUBIO: Well, it gives my perspective of who I am, but it's not just about me. I mean, the book talks about my grandfather, talks about my mother and father, it talks about growing up, and my observations on certain policy issues and how I form my opinion on them. And as far as the timing, I mean, we published it when it was ready.

SIEGEL: I felt like I missed something in your account of your salad days - which is pretty detailed. I mean, we go through a lot of football games and proms, and your growth as a teenager. But you describe - for example, when you were a kid in Las Vegas, your father was in the Culinary Workers Union. They were on strike. You walked a picket line and now, with some great regret, you blamed your father for going back to work.

You go from being a son of a Reagan Democrat, Cuban-American family to being quite conservative. Was there something that you read or experienced which made you deeply conservative, and Republican for life?

RUBIO: Well, two things emerged during my growing up. First, I think the first thing that led me to Reagan - and to conservatism specifically, as it was viewed in the 1980s - was this review that America's role in the world was indispensable. I think as I got older, one of the things I grew to appreciate was the American free-enterprise system.

My dad was a bartender. My mom was a cashier and a maid and - other jobs. And I came to recognize that the reason why they had those jobs is because someone who made some money invested that money opening up a hotel, where they were able to work, and provide for us; and that the job of government was to create the conditions where that would be encouraged, and possible, in the future.

SIEGEL: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush figures in your story. I mean, you describe him as a significant supporter and influence from the beginning...


SIEGEL: ...of your political career. Last week, he said this about his father and Ronald Reagan, and fitting into today's Republican Party. He said: Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground - as would my dad - they would have a hard time if you defined the Republican Party as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.

That was taken as a comment on the Tea Party approach of the Republican Party. Has Jeb Bush got it right or wrong?

RUBIO: Well, I don't think he meant that as a comment on the Tea Party approach - and I don't think the Tea Party approach is that, by the way. I think there are some in both political parties who believe that our-way-or-the-highway perspective. And I think we always have to remind ourselves that while we should never compromise our principles, there's always room to compromise on ideas about how to put those principles into practice. And I think that's where the debate has to happen.

SIEGEL: But you're facing a fiscal crisis at the end...


SIEGEL: ...of this year, for example. Do you just assume you're going to have to vote for something which will include big elements that you don't like, and Democrats...

RUBIO: Well, I don't...

SIEGEL: ...are going to vote for big things they don't like?

RUBIO: Well, I think we're going to have to vote for something that solves the problem. Whatever we vote on has to solve things. For example, I don't have a moral, religious objection to tax increases. I just think they hurt growth and job creation. And that's why I don't think any solution should have tax increases - not because I have some sort of orthodoxy on tax increases. It's because I believe that by raising taxes, we hurt growth.

SIEGEL: You write a good deal about religion in the book - yours and your family's. And at one point, you describe being a state legislator, working part time for a law firm, struggling to make ends meet. You, your wife and your baby have moved into your mother-in-law's house. You went to Mass, prayed, and on your way back, your cell phone rang with an offer of a better job at a different law firm.

RUBIO: An offer of an interview.

SIEGEL: Oh, an interview. Excuse me. OK.

RUBIO: That's right.

SIEGEL: You write this: (Reading) Was it a miracle? I don't know. I do know that whatever fortune or misfortune we encounter in our lives, God expects it to lead us closer to him.

When you say, was it a miracle - are you leaving open a serious possibility? Are you being ironic? What are you saying?

RUBIO: Oh, I'm talking - well, look, about faith - I mean, obviously, people that have no faith, or don't think faith worked that way, would read that passage and say it just happened because it happened. From my perspective, I think the important issue is not that I got the job. The important issue is that at a time of worry, I turned to God for a solution. And that's what he wants from us. That's what my faith teaches - is that God wants us to rely on him, not just on ourselves.

SIEGEL: But when I watched you campaign for the Republican Senate nomination, you were at The Villages - the huge retirement community. And after you spoke, we heard from a prayer circle, a group of women, who told us that God has chosen Rubio; this is the one.

There are some people who approach politics in that way. Do you?

RUBIO: God chooses all of us, and he calls us to - but the first thing we have to know about - that in my faith, teaches about God is that what he wants is a relationship with you. And he wants us to rely on him the way a child would rely on a parent.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you to lay to rest the Washington Post story that you acknowledge in the end of the book. You call it an overreach. And this was written by Manuel Roig-Franzia, who now has his book out, about you, "The Rise of Marco Rubio."

It's all about when your parents came from Cuba, in what year. He reported that despite your accounts that your parents came here after Fidel Castro took power, they, in fact, came three years earlier, in 1956 - which, I gather, is the case. When that story broke, I went back to the recording of the interview that you gave me at your home in West Miami back in October 2009, to hear what you had told me. We never put it on the air, but this is what you told me in October 2009.


SIEGEL: At that time, were you unclear as to when your parents had come?

RUBIO: Yeah. I didn't know the date - and I think you hear it in the interview.

SIEGEL: You said, I think. You said, I think.

RUBIO: I think. And - but here's the point. First of all, I discovered the date, and I stopped saying it. In fact, it had already been reported before the Washington Post did, that my parents had come before Castro. The second part of the overreach is that somehow - create the perception that my entire public image was based on this notion that my parents came after Fidel instead of before Fidel. That distinguishing characteristic is just not that big a deal in the Cuban-American community. And the evidence is in the reaction to the story, and what it's been.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, but the argument was that given the choice, the more iconic story is the family came...

RUBIO: But that's not - no.

SIEGEL: ...after Castro, and so it's a slightly better story.

RUBIO: That's not accurate. No. That's not accurate, either. First of all, there have always been Cuban exiles. My story was never the story of two parents that got on a speedboat and escaped Castro's machine guns. I never said my dad was a political prisoner that had been jailed and esca- ran for his life. All I discussed was a timeframe. Of course, I wish I'd known the date, but it wouldn't have changed their story.

The bottom line is that my parents were permanently separated from the country that they loved. My dad had to leave Cuba and never again, after the last time he went, was he able to see his brothers before they passed away, or his sister. And that was the essence of our story. And let me tell you something.


RUBIO: It was a blessing in disguise because what it did is, it forced me to go back and learn more detail about my parents, and discover things about them that made them even more interesting than I thought they were.

SIEGEL: I first heard you addressing a Florida delegation breakfast at the 2008 Republican convention, and then I met you and watched you campaigning for the Republican nomination for Senate. And now that you've been in the Senate, what would you say is the biggest thing that you've learned - and perhaps the biggest change that you've experienced - since being a senator?

RUBIO: Well, I think just the time balance that I - again, the book talks a lot about some of the worries that I have about whether I'm balancing my time between my obligations to my family, and my children - who deserve to have as much of me as I had of my dad - and the obligations I have to the public.

I think my biggest concern would be the lack of urgency in Washington about addressing some of these issues that we face, in a forceful way. And I hope that will change because the problems that we face aren't going to go away on their own. They have to be confronted. They have to be solved.

SIEGEL: Senator Marco Rubio of Florida...

RUBIO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: of "An American Son," thanks for talking with us.

RUBIO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.