WEST MIAMI, Fla. — The meeting at city hall was in its grueling third hour when the fresh-faced 26-year-old newcomer started to lose his cool.
He fidgeted in his seat. He rocked back and forth. He buried his head in his palms before grabbing the microphone in exhaustion.
“Can we do something?” he said. “I don’t care what we do. Let’s do something.”
Long before Marco Rubio emerged as a national Republican star and a top-tier White House contender, he began his political career with a brief, frustrating tenure in the smallest of small-time jobs. From April 1998 until his February 2000 debut in the Florida legislature, Rubio endured hours of monotonous debates about car wash regulations, inadequate bus stop benches, the relative merits of oak vs. black olive trees, and what snacks should be allowed in city park vending machines.
Rarely has a major presidential candidate begun at such a low rung of elective politics. Two years out of the University of Miami’s law school, Rubio was elected with 744 votes, becoming the junior-most member of a five-person city commission in West Miami, a predominantly Cuban and working-class community of about 6,000, not even a square mile long.
This article is based on a review of 63 hours of recorded city commission meetings from that time and more than 200 pages of meeting minutes the city of West Miami provided to The Washington Post through a public records request.
The videos show how Rubio used his first job as a public official to begin nurturing the communication skills that have become one of his biggest assets in a meteoric rise through state and national politics. They also provide a look at an unfiltered Rubio, before he would be flanked by media aides, consultants and speechwriters — when his political calculations were largely his own.
It was a time when an awkward sip of water wouldn’t go viral, as it did when Rubio delivered a nationally televised speech years later. In relative obscurity, he experimented with the occasional issue, such as how much residents should have to pay for government services, that would begin to define his ideology. He showed flashes of a thin skin.
But, for the most part, he looked bored.
On the night in July 1998 that he pleaded with the commission to do something — anything — the group had been engaged in a long discussion about how to handle public hearings on the city budget.
Other commissioners seemed amused by Rubio’s irritation. One joked, “It only gets better.”
Rubio stared straight ahead — stonefaced.
Rubio, now a 44-year-old U.S. senator, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed about his city commission experience. In his 307-page memoir, he devotes only one paragraph to his West Miami work and calls it “mostly uncontroversial.” He left the job less than halfway through his term.
Now, he makes his time in city hall into a punch line, saying the commission was “like a condominium board — but without the power.”
When he first envisioned a run for local office, Rubio wrote in his memoir, he considered the West Miami job a small first step toward a more fulfilling life.
He had not enjoyed being a litigator at a Miami law firm, but he had loved leading Robert J. Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign operations in Miami-Dade and the Keys. It was his chance to map out his own career.
By the time he filed papers to run for the commission, Rubio already had ingratiated himself with the city’s mayor and matriarch, Rebeca Sosa.
Sosa liked to tell people that back then, the city commission was a “family.” Her approach echoed the small-town feeling of West Miami, the humble neighbor to tony Coral Gables, home to Jeb Bush, Rubio’s mentor and eventual GOP presidential rival. Visitors to city hall are greeted with, “Buenas tardes,” good afternoon.
When Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, ran for office, residents recognized him as a young man who shot hoops or tossed footballs at the local rec center. Sosa said she thought he was so cute that she called him “Marquito.” She thought he had good ideas, an uncanny eloquence and was a bit hyper.
As residents invited them into their homes during campaign season, Sosa recalled, Rubio was too polite to turn down voters’ frequent offers of Cuban coffee — to his detriment.
She looked at him on a particularly caffeinated day and noticed his eyes were unusually wide. “If I have another cup of coffee, I won’t sleep for a month,” she recalled him saying.
Rubio’s initial excitement was obvious on the night he was sworn in. When it was his turn, he leapt in front of the commission chambers. He fumbled over the oath. He used his hand to wipe sweat from his forehead.
Other officials sworn in that night thanked their children and spouses. Rubio waxed poetic about the power of small government — calling it “more important than virtually any other type of government you can imagine.”
“Sometimes it’s tempting in a small city to believe that what you do is not important,” he said.
“We’ll make decisions that will affect real people in real ways, and I take that responsibility very, very seriously,” he added. “I know in our streets, somewhere in our city, an elderly man or woman is spending their last days lonely or afraid; somewhere in our city in the morning, a mother will send her children off to school, afraid that this might be the day that they’ll fall prey to things that go wrong in our schools today.”
The crowd applauded. Rubio nodded and reached for a glass of water.
At his first full meeting, he offered two proposals — that $3,500 be spent on a plan for police officers to patrol on bicycles, and that space be used in the rec center for free citizenship classes.
Rubio’s approach was unusual. Typically, agenda items would come from the city manager, not from other members. When the city clerk announced that the second proposal also came from “Commissioner Rubio,” Commissioner Carlos Diaz-Padron blurted out, “Again?”
At times, when personalities clashed, Rubio tried to play the role of peacemaker.
As tempers flared during one especially nasty dispute among his colleagues over whether a county commissioner should be able to keep an office on city property without paying rent, Rubio broke in with a soothing, measured tone.
“I have tremendous esteem for everyone here today, people who are incredible professionals,” he said. “I want to be clear about what the item is here today, which is a way to help our city. . . . But I believe we need to work out a way that the costs [of your office] are not imposed on the city. If there are costs, I believe we need to be reimbursed. That’s my position.”
The county commissioner, who had angrily contended that he was being targeted for political reasons, calmed down and complimented Rubio for making a “fair statement.” Diaz-Padron, a lawyer, marveled that he wished he could speak like Rubio “in front of a jury, because then I’d win a lot more cases.”
Months later, Rubio clashed with Sosa over a plan to double garbage fees from $125 to $250.
Rubio supported the increase, passionately. He argued that the city, which was emerging from a steep deficit, needed to stop losing money on garbage collection.
The higher fee would be “painful, but we know it works,” he said. “It’s like a vaccine. . . . I could not rest if I have not done what I was elected to do, which was to tell you the truth, even though it’s not popular.”
Sosa took off her glasses. She thought the increase was too drastic, and pleaded with commissioners to increase fees gradually.
“You are attorneys,” Sosa told Rubio and two of his colleagues who had sided with him. Her voice was quivering. “You have personal businesses and income in your house that is higher than the average income in the city. And you need to think of the ones that are under.
Rubio shot back, warning that the commission may not feel the political freedom to act in the future.
“The one-step-at-a-time idea?” he asked. “I’ll tell you what troubles me about that. Reality. I know it’s going to be hard for some of us to face any reality next year, in an election year.”
The commissioners eventually agreed to a compromise — increasing the garbage fees by $25.
The mention of the election prompted a question from Sosa, who sensed an opportunity to gauge whether Rubio might be thinking about running for a higher office.
“Are you making a decision?” she asked.
“I haven’t made up my mind about anything,” Rubio said quickly.
If there was anything Rubio had decided, it was that he did not want to work in a courtroom. “I hate litigation,” he said during a discussion about a lawsuit affecting the city. Rubio later wrote in his memoir that he had predicted that he would be on the West Miami commission for about 10 years.
But by the end of 1998, his positive feelings appeared to be diminishing.
In the last meeting of the year, an angry colleague accused him and two other commissioners of breaking the law by meeting among themselves to vote on a replacement for a fifth commissioner who had resigned.
The one commissioner not present for the vote was Enrique Gonzalez. Like Rubio, Gonzalez was young and ambitious, and he considered himself as disrupter of the political establishment.
He had been scheduled to fly to New York on the evening of the vote. But when he heard about the plan, he called off his trip and rushed to city hall to confront his fellow commissioners.
Gonzalez alleged that his three colleagues had colluded to pre-select a nominee, which he called an “outlandish, outrageous” violation of the state’s open government laws. He called the meeting a “sham” and a “farce.”
“Marco, from what I’ve seen so far, you’re an individual with integrity,” Gonzalez said. “But that has been called into question, in my opinion, for all three of you.”
“Point of order!” Rubio yelled.
Sosa banged the gavel.
“We’ve never seen in this city such a low-class accusation,” she said to Gonzalez. “You know what? You need to grow up.”
“No, no,” Gonzalez retorted. “You need to stop being a fake to the public.”
In the midst of the argument, the grainy tape cuts off.
Gonzalez walked out of the meeting, only to return two weeks later.
All had denied the allegations, and Gonzalez seemed to have dropped the issue. But Rubio said he wouldn’t let it go.
“Your integrity and your honesty is the basis upon which everything else that you do on this commission relies,” Rubio said. “I don’t appreciate it. And believe it or not, I’m out of words, I guess.”
“I enjoy public service,” Rubio continued. “I wanted to change the way things were and I thought the best place to do it was in a small place.”
Still he said he couldn’t handle the assault on his integrity, even when his colleagues told him these allegations were just normal politics.
“If other people and other communities, on other commissions, hurl these kind of accusations at each other and move on and ignore them,” he said, “I don’t want to be like them.”
“But Marco,” Diaz-Padron said, “to a certain degree, you can’t control it.”
In an interview, Sosa recalled that she had asked the county’s ethics commission to investigate and that the inquiry found nothing improper.
Gonzalez now calls the episode “embarrassing,” and said it was the moment he realized he could not stay in politics. He eventually reconciled with Rubio, moving to Washington in 2013 to work on Rubio’s Senate staff as a temporary adviser during negotiations over a proposed immigration overhaul.
But the incident also seemed to have an effect on Rubio. Gone was the assertive commissioner pitching new ideas. The city manager recalled that Rubio was engaged behind the scenes. But from that point on, Rubio stayed mostly silent through meetings, shuffling through papers, rubbing his eyes, occasionally asking questions.
When a seat in the state legislature opened up in a nearby district, Rubio went for it.
“He called me to ask if he should take the opportunity,” Sosa said. “I said, ‘Absolutely go for it.’ The city was too small.”
Rubio left his West Miami seat without any recorded flourish or ceremony. His last recorded statement from the dais was to congratulate Sosa on being elected second vice president of the Miami-Dade League of Cities.
“That’s a very nice honor,” he said, “for a city this size.”