In the anxious weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Florida House hurriedly assembled an elite group of lawmakers to develop plans to keep the state safe.
A spot on the Select Committee on Security was a mark of prominence in Tallahassee. Some of the airplane hijackers had acquired Florida driver’s licenses and trained at flight schools in the state, and legislators lobbied furiously behind the scenes in hopes of being named to the 12-member panel tasked with addressing the state’s newly exposed vulnerabilities.
It came as little surprise that Marco Rubio, a promising and charismatic young lawmaker from Miami, secured a coveted position on the committee.
Rubio did not give the job the attention that legislative leaders expected. He skipped nearly half of the meetings over the first five months of the panel’s existence, more than any of his colleagues, according to Florida legislature records. He missed hours of expert testimony and was absent for more than 20 votes — prompting the state House speaker who had given him the assignment to express concern, the committee’s chairman said.
At times, Rubio befuddled his colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. After apologizing for arriving late to a debate in February 2002 about a proposed system to track foreign students, Rubio argued passionately that the proposal would unfairly target law-abiding immigrants, such as those who had entered the country as refugees or to seek political asylum. But he quickly backed down in the face of opposition and, then, despite his publicly stated misgivings, went ahead and voted for the proposal.
“I hope nobody here goes home tonight thinking that we’re Captain America and that we’re saving the world by filing this legislation, and I don’t mean that with any disrespect,” Rubio, then 30, said moments before the committee vote, according to a recording of the meeting.
Rubio’s role on the panel foreshadowed many of the traits that he has been criticized for during his rise to the top tier of the Republican presidential field. The first-term U.S. senator, who has missed more votes than any of his colleagues, has been attacked by some of his rivals for not doing his job. At a debate in October, former Florida governor Jeb Bush charged: “You should be showing up for work.”
Rubio’s positions on the student-tracking proposal followed the same arc as his high-profile role on immigration reform in the U.S. Senate. In both cases, he initially took on his colleagues in favor of immigrant rights, only to publicly wrestle with the issue, then pull back.
Rubio’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview or to answer written questions about his service on the Florida committee.
A spokesman referred to remarks Rubio made earlier this year on the campaign trail in which he expressed his view that Syrian refugees and others fleeing violence in the Middle East should not be granted entry “if we don’t know 100 percent for sure who you are.”
When Rubio served on the Florida security committee, he already had begun to cement an image in the capital as a young man in a hurry, a lawmaker who wanted to be everywhere at once.
The post-9/11 mood among state and federal lawmakers was tense, and there was an added dimension of anxiety in Tallahassee because then-Gov. Bush was the brother of the president, George W. Bush. Jeb Bush’s security detail was beefed up, and roads around the capital were barricaded. Tighter security procedures were enforced at college football games. Officials feared terrorists might plot to kill Americans at the state’s tourist attractions, such as Walt Disney World.
In Washington, the USA Patriot Act had been passed within weeks of the attacks and there was pressure on states to do something.
“There were anthrax scares,” said J. Dudley Goodlette, a longtime Republican lawmaker who served as chairman of the Florida committee. “It was high alert. We wanted to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.”
The panel was formed in September 2001. By February 2002, when members heard testimony about the bill to create the system to track foreign students, Rubio had missed six of 14 meetings that had been held, records show. Rubio was an outlier on the highly watched committee. Only one other lawmaker had missed more than two meetings. At the meetings Rubio did not attend, witnesses testified about a range of threats, including potential disruptions of power, water, phone service and corporate computer systems, according to committee records and news accounts.
Rubio’s attendance record drew the attention of then-House Speaker Tom Feeney, a Republican from suburban Orlando. As Rubio’s absences piled up, Feeney raised concerns with Goodlette, the committee chairman.
“There was some concern about whether or not he was able to commit the amount of time that members of the committee were expected to commit,” said Goodlette, who has not endorsed a candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign but is a longtime ally of Jeb Bush, now one of Rubio’s chief rivals. “The committee composition was carefully constructed by Speaker Feeney. He emphasized that it would be a heavy lift. He emphasized that everybody should be vigilant and focused.”
He added: “Attendance was a high priority.”
Feeney did not respond to an interview request.
When Rubio did show up, he demonstrated a seesaw approach on one of the issues that most divided his colleagues.
He arrived late to the Florida House office building hearing room in Tallahassee for the committee’s meeting on Feb. 21, 2002, when the foreign student bill came up for debate.
Rubio’s tardiness meant he missed important testimony. Among those who spoke were the sponsor of the student-tracking system, a Republican House member named Aaron Bean, and a key supporter of the measure, the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). Bean was asking the legislature to require Florida schools to provide to the FDLE visa information about foreign students older than 18 for a database that would be used in counterterrorism efforts.
“What I envision FDLE doing with this information is keeping track of potential bad guys,” Bean said, according to the archived recording. “It would be helpful to our law-enforcement community if they had a list of those that came from foreign countries.”
Citing the terrorists’ ability to enroll at Florida flight schools, Bean argued that a tracking system might prevent future attacks.
“We had folks that came and learned to fly jets in our state,” he told the committee.
Michael Ramage, the general counsel for the FDLE, called the database part of a “cutting-edge” plan to coordinate with federal authorities on tracking foreign students.
Ramage had finished answering questions when Goodlette noted that Rubio had entered the hearing room.
“I apologize. I walked in late,” Rubio said. “I missed some of the testimony.”
Once he arrived, though, Rubio became deeply enmeshed in the debate. He said he worried that refugees and immigrants who are permanent residents of the United States would be unfairly targeted. And he channeled the worries of representatives of several Florida colleges who testified about the costs of the tracking system amid tight budgets and funding cuts.
“Where I come from, there are large numbers of people who are refugees, asylees — people who’ve sought political asylum in this country, et cetera, who are here to better themselves,” Rubio said, drawing on the emotional power of his Cuban American roots in Miami. “And certainly some of the great leaders of my community were people who entered this country many, many years ago as foreign students.”
Rubio, however, did not argue for killing the bill. Instead, he opted to try to narrow it, offering an amendment to limit the reporting requirement to foreigners who were in the country to study but planned to return to their homelands.
His suggestion seemed to surprise some of his colleagues, who argued that he was stripping the measure of its heft. They asked him questions, and his answers gave an inkling of how he viewed the roles of the state and the federal government.
Rubio, who has frequently told campaign audiences that the American public does not trust the federal government to enforce immigration laws, made a vigorous argument in favor of letting the federal government handle the tracking, instead of Florida law enforcement officials. Rubio touted the impending implementation of a shareable federal student database, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.
His amendment, he said, “narrows the scope” of the Florida tracking system for two or three months until the federal system was expected to come online, and would focus the schools’ reporting requirements on the “types of individuals” involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I want to narrow it to the most specific group possible to allow them to be able to handle the work we’re giving them, since there is a national thing at the worst case a year away,” Rubio said.
Rubio’s assertion drew a direct, but polite, rebuke from Randy Ball, a Republican lawmaker on the committee who had served in the Marine Corps and had been a homicide detective. Ball, who has since left the GOP and become an independent, said the federal system had been promised for years.
“It’s questionable when it will be here and how long it will take,” he told his colleagues. “No objective person can reach the conclusion that its arrival is imminent or its effectiveness will be all that great.”
Some of Ball’s concerns were later borne out. When the federal system began the next year, it was beset by problems. A scathing 2003 inspector general’s report detailed numerous problems, including inadequate oversight and record-keeping flaws, as well as delays in fully implementing the tracking system.
When the visa bill was being debated, it might have been expected that some conservative, hard-line immigration-policy lawmakers would push back against Rubio’s proposal, but he also took incoming fire during the February 2002 debate from the committee’s top-ranking Democrat.
“I disagree with the premise we’re only looking for the people that were like the people that did 9/11,” said Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami, a former federal prosecutor who served as the bipartisan committee’s vice chairman.
As the debate drew to a close, Rubio spoke in a frustrated tone. He was trying to “make the bill better,” he told the panel, “not to weaken it in any way.”
With that, he withdrew his amendment. But he was not finished.
“I don’t believe that this legislation, whether we pass it today, and even if it’s passed in its final form, is going to do very much to make this country any more secure than it is today,” he went on to say. “And in fact, it’s just a part of what appears to be a pattern of legislation after legislation that unfairly targets a group of people that quite, by vast and overwhelming majority, statistically speaking, is here to make their lives better and to contribute to the well-being of this country — not the other direction.”
It sounded like an impassioned argument against the bill.
A few moments later, the committee took a vote.
Rubio, who had just said the measure would not make the country safer, voted “yes.”
But the bill went down to defeat.
Alice Crites in Washington and Steve Dollar in Tallahassee contributed to this report.