“She is a religious woman, a member of Christ Fellowship, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. She hosts a weekly Bible studies class in their West Miami home.“ By Carol Felsenthal, contributor
Jeanette Dousdebes Rubio, now 41, was a Miami Dolphins cheerleader and posed for the team’s first swimsuit calendar in 1997, the year before she married the exceptionally ambitious politician, Marco Rubio, now 44.
They met in 1990 at the West Miami Recreation Center when she was 17 and in high school — they both attended South Miami Senior High — and he was 19 and in college. They dated on and off for seven years before he proposed. Knowing she loved the movie “Sleepless in Seattle,” on Valentine’s Day 1997, he took her to New York to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, the 1993 movie’s most tear-jerking scene, and gave her the ring (but temporarily took it back, afraid she might drop it from the building.)
When they married at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, Fla., he was 27, she 24. Among the groomsmen was Puerto-Rican-born pop singer and actor Carlos Ponce, then married to Rubio’s younger sister Veronica. (She was also a Miami Dolphins cheerleader, as was Jeanette’s younger sister, Adriana.)
Unlike her gregarious husband, who sang “My Way” at their wedding in front of 200 guests, Jeanette is a shy woman who dislikes crowds and the glare and hustle of the campaign trail. She has never given a speech, is not particularly interested in politics — according to one report, she often skipped voting — and, as a conservative blogger noted in the Tampa Bay Times, “I get the sense she would rather him be home cleaning up the dog poop and helping her out with the [four] kids and just working a 9-to-5 job.” Born to parents who were immigrants from Colombia, and who divorced when she was six, Jeanette longed in vain for a stable, conventional family life.
She is a religious woman, a member of Christ Fellowship, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. She hosts a weekly Bible studies class in their West Miami home.
Marco remains a Roman Catholic, but, in some respects, his religion seems to be politics and football. A rabid Miami Dolphins fan — he likes to say that he would have been in the NFL “had it not been for my lack of size, speed and talent” — he played high school football as a cornerback, earned a football scholarship to the now-closed Tarkio College in Missouri as wide receiver and defensive back, then spent a year at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla. before enrolling at the University of Florida, where he earned a political science degree. His last stop was the University of Miami School of Law.
Jeannette worked part-time as a bank teller while attending Miami-Dade Community College. According to Lois Romano, who wrote a profile of the couple for Politico, Jeanette enrolled at the International Fine Arts College, intending to get a degree in fashion design. “I had only one semester left, and then I got pregnant.” She never finished college.
In the presence of reporters, Jeanette prefers to let her husband do all the talking, but she does volunteer that she is, in effect, a single mother, having stayed home and raised the kids while Marco quickly climbed Florida’s GOP ladder — from a $100-a-month West Miami city commissioner position, to state representative, to Republican majority leader in the Florida House, to Speaker of the Florida house (the first Cuban-American to hold that post), to Republican U.S. senator from Florida and, he hopes, to president of the United States. He is often touted as the most likely winner of the Republican nomination battle, assuming that primary voters get over their infatuation with outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
In 2010 when Rubio, against all odds, became Florida’s junior U.S. senator, the Tampa Bay Times’ Adam C. Smith noted “a big change”: “Jeanette Rubio, his normally low-profile wife, was at his side,” but “did not speak.”
Rubio announced his run for the White House last April at Miami’s Freedom Tower. Jeanette and their children were on stage with him, but, wrote the Tampa Bay Times’ Alex Leary, she “did not speak and appeared eager for the show to end.”
Both Rubios hail from humble roots, but Marco especially. The son of Cuban immigrants — his father, Mario, worked as a bartender; his mother, Oriales, as a hotel maid — the younger Rubio never lets voters forget his only-in-America story. The couple still lives in the little working-class city of West Miami, crowded with one-story bungalows, many with cars parked in front yards for lack of carports or garages. A population of 5,800 contains 5,000 Cuban-Americans. Although the Rubios now live in one of the grandest house in town, Marco’s mother still owns the same small house, about three blocks away, in which she raised him and his three siblings.
In some respects, the Rubios are pillars of the community; in other ways, they have lapses in their lives that will provide plenty of fodder for the opposition.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that, since 1997, Marco and Jeanette have accumulated 17 traffic tickets, 13 of them Jeanette’s “infractions”; for the couple, included were instances of “speeding, driving through red lights and careless driving”; for Jeanette, specifically, speeding in 2010 and 2009 and carless driving in 2000. Earlier this year, Jeanette, driving her husband in his Ford F-150 to a “Team Marco 2016” donor event at the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach, sideswiped a $78,000 (base price) Porsche Panamera belonging to one of Marco’s donors.
She has figured prominently in stories questioning the family’s messy finances in general, and, in particular, her husband’s use of a Florida Republican Party credit card to pay for personal expenses. Questions also arose, during his race for Florida House Speaker, about payments made to family members. The source of some of the problems was, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Leary, a committee Marco created to “fund his travel. … Records show the bulk of the money went to office and administrative costs. His wife managed the books from home in West Miami.”
According to a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald investigation published on March 12, 2010 and headlined “Marco Rubio’s lavish rise to the top,” “Rubio and his wife failed to disclose more than $34,000 in expenses over an 18-month period.” Campaign adviser Todd Harris — now a key strategist on Rubio’s presidential run — seemed to blame Jeanette, telling reporters, “The bookkeeping in (that) committee was not always perfect.”
Questions have also arisen about large sums of money paid to Jeanette by Norman Braman, a billionaire auto dealer, former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and huge (reportedly, he might contribute as much as $10 million) supporter of her husband’s. In 2013, Braman’s family foundation, which parceled out just $250 that year, paid Jeanette, who works part time, $54,000 for advice on which causes and organizations deserved support.
During the third GOP debate, Rubio, who named his wife treasurer of the aforementioned committee, seemed to make fun of her lack of financial acumen when he joked, referencing his repayment of college loans, “I tried … explaining to my wife why someone named Sallie Mae was taking $1,000 out of our bank account every month.” (His loans, since paid, topped $150,000.)
If Marco seemed to trivialize his wife in that anecdote, he also credits her with persuading him to run in the 2010 Republican Senate primary against popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. She was tired of hearing him complain and suggested he do something about it. She also persuaded him to remain in the race when he was down by 20 percentage points in the polls and wanted to quit. (Rubio ended up beating Crist by almost 20 points.)
Writing in 2012 in the Boston Herald about the possibility that Marco could be 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, Jennifer Braceras described Jeanette as “gorgeous” and warned, “If you think attacks on Ann Romney have been harsh, just wait until the liberal media get their hands on Jeanette Rubio.”
As much as she dislikes politics, Jeanette is, dependably, a good sport. Her husband recalled for a reporter his race for a seat in the Florida House: “My lasting memory of that race is my seven-months pregnant wife, Jeanette, who hates politicking, standing at a precinct in Hialeah, handing out pledge cards.” Struggling to support his family on his Florida House salary and a modest income practicing law part-time, Rubio decided to sell their car and move his family in with Jeanette’s mother. “I had never been so despondent,” he later wrote. He would quit politics, he decided, and work full-time as a lawyer. Just in the nick of time, a headhunter called about a law firm job that would pay him much more. On his way to the job interview, he found a note attached to his wallet. “Don’t be nervous; make sure you’re on time; break a leg and remember I love you!!!”
Marco must feel good that, according to The Hill, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s people see Rubio as the Republican with the best shot to beat their candidate in the general election, and are revving up the opposition-research machine to slow his momentum. And, in Rubio’s own party, a super-PAC that supports rival candidate Jeb Bush is reportedly spending $20 million to weaken Rubio.
How Jeanette Rubio feels is a different story, but were they to make it 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she, like Michelle Obama — a woman who disdained politics and described herself as a “single mother” as her husband climbed from the Illinois Senate to the U.S. Senate to the White House — would quickly figure out that living in the White House has its advantages. Because the president, in effect, lives over the store, family dinners are much easier to make happen.
Felsenthal is a political blogger and contributing editor for Chicago magazine. She has written biographies of Katharine Graham and President Clinton and profiles on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Roger Ebert, among others. Contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @cfelsenthal.