MIAMI — When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announces his plans to run for president next week — as expected — he'll launch his formal campaign and be limited in how much money he can raise.
But he'll have the help of a new super PAC, Conservative Solutions, which formally launched Thursday under the leadership of J. Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina Republican operative.
One of the biggest financial backers of the PAC is expected to be Norman Braman, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who runs auto dealerships across South Florida and in the Denver area. He's the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and a major history buff — his Miami office, on the second floor of one of his downtown dealerships, is adorned with framed letters written by Colonial and Civil War-era generals and lawmakers. He keeps a treasure trove of Abraham Lincoln swag at his home, he said.
Braman is not only a Rubio backer and donor, but his family's philanthropic foundation also employs Jeanette Rubio, the senator's wife, on a part-time basis — making theirs a unique donor-politician relationship.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Braman, 82, discussed his relationship with Rubio — including the time they traveled to Israel in 2010, and why he's not supporting former Florida governor Jeb Bush — and, why he doesn't regret giving up his team.
A transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, appears below:
Question: You first met Rubio when he was in the state House?
Braman: Yes, indeed, I’ve tracked him and watched his growth, watched him become speaker of the House ... and saw him enter what became an impossible situation and to run for the Republican nomination against the incumbent Republican governor of the state — and all the odds that he encountered there. I think the odds were far more formidable then than they are now.
What was it that drew you to him? It’s obvious, I suppose, in hindsight.
I was incredibly impressed with his intellect, his gift of communication, he was somebody who dealt with solutions, which is what he was then. Everybody runs for political office knocking somebody and very few run on ‘This is what I stand for. This is what I believe will solve these problems.’ That’s what Rubio did when he was speaker of the House in a position of leadership here in Florida. And that’s how he’s been and how he'll be in his candidacy. It’s not enough just to criticize – it’s easy to criticize – the challenge is to come up with something to deal with a specific problem. That’s what Rubio has going for him.
And as I’ve said, he also represents the future, not the past. We're in 2015 – it’s not 1988. We have unique problems now. I just believe that Senator Rubio is the one that can best deal with those problems. That’s really where it all comes from.
When was it that he became less of an associate and more of a personal friend? When or how did that happen?
I think more than — it’s not a personal friend. We don’t go out socially, we’ve had dinner together with Jeanette [Rubio, his wife] and my wife at our home. But it’s not one of those – it’s a strong personal relationship, but it’s not a relationship of families getting together.
I'm 40 years older than Senator Rubio. My grandchildren are three times the age of his children. It’s a relationship of mutual respect. In terms of influencing him relative to policy – I don’t think I’ve had an influence with Senator Rubio. I’ve encouraged him on the issues that he’s taken up – the complex issues that he’s taken up. And I admire that.
What about Israel, for example? I know you share that concern.
He understood the importance of Israel way before he went to the United States Senate and was elected. I remember when he was speaker of the House, he recognized the State of Israel, the consul general went to Tallahassee, I went with him to Tallahassee.
Senator Rubio has always, always understood Israel as an important ally of the United States. As a democratic state in a very undemocratic area – the threat to Israel. But we always spoke about a trip to Israel. And basically, I told him that we would go to Israel, win or lose. We tried to do it even before he became a candidate, but it didn’t work out in terms of his time, or my time. But after he was elected, he said, let’s go before his indoctrination, before everything else was to begin.
We were going over on my plane and with my wife and my wife’s sister and Senator Rubio called – he was then senator-elect – and he said, "I'm uncomfortable flying in your plane. Even though I'm not a United States senator yet, I want to immediately abide by the rules of the Senate."
So we flew to Israel in a very comfortable way and I remember when I went to the airport to pick him up, poor Jeanette and he flew coach all the way to Israel, and I felt terrible for how he looked and so forth, but this is what he choose. And I respect that.
And he had to cut the trip short because some of the so-called schooling of the new senators was about to begin, so he jumped on that coach flight back to the United States again. But that’s the type of person he is.
You said that you're willing to give a large sum of money – perhaps up to $10 million.
I have said that I will be providing substantial funds for his campaign and I will be.
For somebody who can’t do what you're going to do, explain why you would donate such a substantial amount to one person?
I believe in him! I believe that the country needs him. I believe that we’ve had poor leadership and I believe sincerely that he represents the future.
I have four grandchildren, I care about this nation, as I told you I’m a first-generation. This country has been wonderful to me, to my family. I just believe in him.
And look, I honestly believe that Republicans face an enormous disadvantage in a presidential election. I can quantify that 200 of the 270-odd electoral votes in these large states – the Democrats have the large state. New York, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois and so forth. It takes a candidate who can appeal to independents, who can appeal to Democrats, who can appeal to all sides of the Republican Party.
What is his most formidable roadblock on his way to the nomination at this point?
Maybe being a first-term senator. His youth. I don’t think he’s the establishment choice. I think he'll have adequate funds to run his campaign. I think he'll have good funds to run his campaign. He hasn't had that national exposure – but everywhere he goes he picks up support. It won’t be an easy cruise – he doesn’t think it'll be an easy cruise.
Who’s his most formidable opponent?
I think obviously Bush is. There are a number of them, they're credible people, good people.
You mentioned that you knew Jeb Bush when he was governor and admired him, but that this is a generational, expand-the-base, look-forward kind of election?
That’s the way I feel. I don’t believe in dynasties – I do not believe in dynasties. I just feel that the Bushes and the Clintons have to get out of the way, I really do.
How are car sales these days?
Business is good.
Do you ever miss the NFL?
No. It occupied too much of my life. It was just – and I'm a very competitive individual. And I didn’t move back to Philadelphia. Sports, I found, was 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. I went through a significant illness in 1991 and had some major surgery and I made up my mind that I have to get my life in order and the first thing that I would try to accomplish was to get out of the sports business.