Why Marco Rubio Is Villaraigosa Lite

Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s announcement this week that he will not accept the No. 2 spot on the Republican presidential ticket didn’t surprise anyone outside the Miami confluence of affluent but conservative Latino power brokers.

Florida Junior Senator Marco Rubio

Many Latino leaders outside Florida, both Republicans and Democrats, privately feared that Rubio as a vice presidential nominee could prove a disappointment nationally — and possibly an embarrassment — not unlike the Sarah Palin disaster of 2008.

Some supporters have sought to portray Rubio as the East Coast version of Antonio Villaraigosa: A charismatic rising star who could emulate for the Republican nominee the Los Angeles mayor’s 2008 national campaigning for Hillary Clinton prior to Barack Obama’s nomination and then for Obama presidential candidacy.

Many credited Villaraigosa for Obama capturing two thirds of Latino votes cast in 2008 — 25 percentage points more than John Kerry got four years earlier.

Rubio, though, does not have the political maturing and Machiavellian sense that Villaraigosa posses and which sometimes leads to him being underestimated. Several Latino political figures who know both men spoke of Villaraigosa’s “cojones” and “ganas”  — specifically Antonio’s ability to have persevered politically despite the direst of circumstances at times.

And they aren’t talking about Villaraigosa simply overcoming the humiliating scandal of his highly publicized affair with a television reporter/anchorwoman in 2007 that cost him his marriage and led to the end of his honeymoon relationship with a fawning news media. The New Yorker wrote an unflattering portrait, and his hometown Los Angeles magazine labeled him a “Failure” on its cover.

Persevering through that crisis was trying but did not come close to breaking Villaraigosa, say people close to him. He already had a survivor’s knack for making it through adversity. And when this happened, he was a popular incumbent, having made history with his 2005 mayoral election. Villaraigosa simply dedicated himself to working that much harder to salvage his career, and he did what it took  to publicly withstand the mocking from critics and that anger from some supporters.

Politicos who know him that say the real test under fire for Villaraigosa had come in 1994 when, with the blessing of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, he had upset a candidate backed by California’s male Latino political establishment to win his first election: a State Assembly seat in a heavily Hispanic district from which he rose to Assembly Speaker.

Many do not know that Villaraigosa ultimately had to win that election without Molina’s support. She had angrily disassociated herself from him after news broke that during the primary campaign Antonio had been unfaithful to his wife who was fighting cancer at the time. Penniless politically, Villaraigosa had to scramble to convince the Latino political establishment not to challenge him with write-in challenger in the general election.

“No one thought I could win under those circumstances,” Villaraigosa said in an interview at that time. “But I proved them wrong, didn’t I?”

To his credit, Rubio has had nothing like that to overcome — but it means he has yet to be tested under fire in a grueling national campaign that can disarm even the most charismatic of people, as with what happened with Palin.

More importantly, say experienced Latino leaders, Rubio has a sketchy record as a junior senator — poor, some even say. His only piece of legislation appears to be the July 2011 Senate Resolution 236, designating September 2011 as “National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.”

Recently Rubio did offer up his own version of the Dream Act, which Latinos overwhelmingly support, though it makes conservative Republicans shudder, at best. But it was almost as if done off the top of his head. When confronted by The New York Times, Rubio said, “I don’t have any specifics to announce yet. This stuff has to be done responsibly. We’re working toward that and hopefully very soon.”