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The Rise of Marco Rubio: Manuel Roig-Franzia on the Emergence of GOP, Tea Party’s Rising Latino Star

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Florida Senator Marco Rubio is known as one of the Republican Party’s rising Latino stars. The 41-year-old tea party favorite was a former top pick to be Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate in this year’s election. Now he is slated to deliver a key speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday, introducing Romney just before he accepts the Republican Party nomination for president. We’re joined by Manuel Roig-Franzia, a Washington Post reporter and author of “The Rise of Marco Rubio,” a biography that tracks Rubio’s extraordinary personal story and political career, and exposed that a key part of Rubio’s story — that his family left Cuba as exiles forced off the island — was untrue. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, We are “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” broadcasting from Tampa, Florida, from the Republican National Convention, inside and out, as we turn now to look at one of the Republican Party’s rising Latino stars, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

The 41-year-old tea party favorite was a former top pick to be Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate in this year’s election. Now he’s slated to deliver a key speech at the Republican National Convention introducing Mitt Romney just before Romney accepts the Republican Party nomination for president. Marco Rubio is Cuban American, well liked by Florida Republicans, notably Cuban Americans in South Florida, crucial voters for Romney’s bid to win the swing state.

The senator went on Face the Nation Sunday to defend the Republican Party’s stance on Medicare, a key issue to a wide swath of voters across the country and a program Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan has attacked.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: [Well, I’m not sure] it’s a referendum on Paul Ryan and Medicare. I do think it’s a referendum on whether we’re willing to confront the big issues that our country faces. Or are we willing to let our children inherit our problems? And here’s the bottom line for Medicare. I’ll speak for myself on this. I represent about three million people here in Florida that have Medicare. One of them is my mom, 83 years old. And I don’t know what—I can’t imagine what her life would be like without Medicare. So I—on a personal level, but also as a senator from a state with so many people that are on Medicare, I want Medicare to be saved. And I want to do it in a way that doesn’t change Medicare at all for people that are currently on it, like my mom, but also ensures that it doesn’t bankrupt itself, so it exists when I retire. Paul Ryan is the only one in Congress, together with Senator Wyden, because they worked together on this, that have come up with a serious plan to address it. Mitt Romney has a plan to address it. Where’s the president’s plan? Where’s the Democrats’ plan?

AMY GOODMAN: Marco Rubio, first-term senator from Florida. From national television to here at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, he is a newsmaker the Republican Party hopes will help to galvanize Latino voters.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Manuel Roig-Franzia, author of The Rise of Rubio, a biography published earlier this year. The book tracks Rubio’s extraordinary personal story and political career, and exposed that a key part of Rubio’s story—that his family left Cuba as exiles forced off the island—was untrue. [Manuel Roig-Franzia] joins us from New Orleans now, where he’s covering how the city is bracing for a possible hit from Hurricane Isaac on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

We’re going to talk about what’s happening in New Orleans in a moment, but, Manuel Roig-Franzia, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Marco Rubio. Talk about who he is. Give us a thumbnail sketch of his rise here in Florida. Go back to how his family came to this country.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: Yeah, well, Marco Rubio is a real comment in the Republican Party, somebody who sort of leaped out of Florida in that 2010 Senate race. He is the product of a community of political exiles in South Florida. His family came from Cuba. It was fascinating for me to sort of trace their journey here. His grandfather was born under a thatched-roof hut in a rural town in Cuba. His mother was illiterate. Marco Rubio’s mother and father came to the United States in 1956. They were immigrants. They came prior to Castro. And this was this key point that came out last year, when I came across it and a few other reporters also came to find out that even though he had been saying that his family was pushed off of the island by Castro, they had actually come two-and-a-half years before he took over the island.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about his grandfather and, first, the significance of saying he was fleeing Castro, but actually leaving under Batista, the U.S.-backed dictator in Cuba.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: It’s important. Being a part of the exile community that was forced to leave the island is different than being a part of the exile community that can’t return to the island. It get downs to this definition of really who you are and your political identity. And he has, in the past, distinguished between, quote-unquote, “regular migrants” and political exiles. And so, when the story came out, it was—it kind of undercut one of the main things that he was identifying himself as.

His grandfather, who you asked about, was named Pedro Víctor García. I became very fascinated with his grandfather because I think his grandfather’s story is a real interesting migrant tale of somebody who came to the United States in 1956 legally, and things did not work out. See, that’s the thing about immigration. It doesn’t work out for everybody. He went back to Cuba after Castro took over, thinking that the island would get better. It didn’t. He tried to come back in again, and that’s where he ran into trouble. He was stopped at the airport in Miami. He was detained. He was ordered to go through a immigration proceeding. I found a 50-year-old audio recording of that proceeding. And it ended with him being ordered deported. So, here you have the grandfather of a United States senator who will play a big role in helping define U.S. immigration policy, and specifically what we do about deportations, and in his very own family, he had the experience of someone who was ordered deported.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there are a couple things here. One is, you’re saying that he went back under Fidel Castro, thinking things would get better, when, as you point out, Senator Rubio’s original story was so different of why his family came here.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: Yeah, it became a very tangled story when the real documents came to light. I found things in the National Archives. Other reporters came across documents that made it very clear that they came in 1956. And his grandfather’s situation, also fascinating because not only was he ordered deported, but he did not leave the country as ordered. So, he ended up spending five years in this country as an undocumented immigrant—an “illegal alien” would be the term that some would use—until he was able to reapply in 1967. So here you have a perfect example of the complexities of American immigration policy, even going back to the 1960s. And you can see how a person who has all the best intentions—his grandfather had seven daughters who lived in the United States, and a wife, and he was still ordered deported. These sorts of things happen every day in America.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Marco Rubio’s view on immigration, which this goes to, of course. In his new memoir, American Son, Senator Rubio appears to defend immigrants who move to the United States even if they arrive without the proper paperwork. Rubio writes, quote, “Many people who come here illegally are doing exactly what we would do if we lived in a country where we couldn’t feed our families. If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn’t give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn’t a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here.” Talk about what his views on immigration are.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: I’d say they’re still being defined. He has played a significant role in this election season in urging Republicans to change their tone on immigration. And it’s clear that that has had some effect. He also had suggested that he was interested in an alternative DREAM Act, rather than the original DREAM Act. For those of your listeners who aren’t familiar with the DREAM Act, it’s a proposal that would give a path to citizenship to young people who had lived in the country for a fair amount of time and had attended school or gone into the military. And it was Senator Rubio talking about this alternative to the DREAM Act—the difference for him was that he did not want to include a clear path to citizenship, but it would give a legal status to these children—that many feel in Washington prompted President Obama to announce his change to American deportation policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your exposé, what Manuel Roig—what you, Manuel Roig-Franzia, exposed that Senator Rubio was then forced to admit, or at least say he was learning for the first time.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: There have been a series of things that I’ve either reported for the Washington Post or written in the book that the senator has said are new to him. One was this question of when his family came in—whether they came in 1959 or in 1956. He says he did not know. This was in his official biography in the second line. He changed the biography after my piece came out and after some other people started writing about it. And he has also said that he did not know that his grandfather was deported. These seem like two very key points in his family history. And some, I think, are skeptical about what his explanation for that has been, saying that he did not know exactly when they came, since it’s such an important part of the Cuban-American experience in South Florida. But that’s his story, and so we’ll have to respect him for saying that.

You know, I try to present a nuanced picture of this very significant young Republican politician, because I think that, both for Democrats and Republicans, it’s interesting to look at how the national conversation circles around a Hispanic politician who has realistic prospects of being on a national ticket someday. Latinos are making up a larger part of the electorate. Fifty thousand Latinos, by some estimates, turn 18 and become eligible to vote every month. So, moving forward, I think we will be talking more and more about the significance of this population. And here we have a test case, a test case for how the country interacts with a Hispanic politician of great prominence.

AMY GOODMAN: The religion of Marco Rubio, very interesting, the changes, the conversions of his family, and what he, in fact, has in common with Mitt Romney.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: Yes, this is very interesting. I would say that his religious history falls under the category of “it’s complicated.” He grew up Catholic. The family moved to Las Vegas. And it’s interesting to look at why they moved to Las Vegas, because it has an application for our discussion about immigration. Many people who migrate to the United States follow family members. His family moved out to Las Vegas because one of his aunts had moved there with her husband. They were devout Mormons. And when Marco Rubio’s family moved to Las Vegas and joined up with his aunt and uncle in the same city, they converted to Mormonism, all of them except for his father. His father worked as a bartender and didn’t want to convert to Mormonism because of the prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco. And the family practiced Mormonism. They—the young Marco Rubio, between the ages of about eight and 13 or so, became fascinated with the Osmonds. At family gatherings, he and cousins would sing Osmond songs. He traveled out to see where the Osmonds filmed their television show.

But then there was another conversion after the family moved back, or shortly before they left Las Vegas, to Catholicism. Then he embraced Baptist tenets and self-identified as a Baptist. Then he kind of self-identified as both. And now he says that he attends Catholic church every day in Washington and, at the same time, a Protestant evangelical church when he is home in Miami. It’s unusual to regularly attend two different churches of different faiths—different denominations, I should say. But it’s—I found out in the research for this book that it’s not completely unheard of in America. Somewhere around 9 percent of Americans who attend church go to two different denominations on a regular basis, and many others occasionally attend services at different denominations. So he fits into that little-discussed slice of American.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you begin your book with the saving of Nancy, the saving of Nancy Reagan. Very briefly explain, before we move to New Orleans.

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA: Yeah, great moment. As I describe in the book, political careers that take off oftentimes benefit from good timing. And Marco Rubio was invited to give a speech at the Reagan Library in California. Part of the honor is to escort Nancy Reagan down the aisle. And while he was doing that, she tripped, and she was about to fall. And while cameras were rolling, he reached down and grabbed her and was able to pull her up before she fell onto the ground. And that became a huge generator of excitement on conservative blogs. It was on the mainstream media. There were newspapers that put frame-by-frame sequenced photographs of this, and people were writing things like, “Marco Rubio saves the Republican Party.” Symbolically, it was a big deal, because he really presents himself as a product of a Ronald Reagan-type of Republicanism.

You know, it’s interesting, though. I spoke with Ron Reagan, the son of Ronald Reagan, who had watched the whole thing happen afterwards on the internet, and he had a completely different take on it. When I told him I was working on a book about Marco Rubio, his first—the first words out of his mouth were, “Oh, he’s the guy who dropped my mom.” So, it was interesting to see the different perspectives.

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