S n the foyer outside Ike Rubio, Braman is a second-generation immigrant.
INorman Braman’s office, above his BMW showroom in downtown Miami where he sells Bugattis, Bentleys, and Benzes as well as BMWS, there’s an impressive GOP power wall— of a certain era. There’s a photo of Braman sprawled on a couch in the White House, opposite Gerald Ford. There’s Jack Kemp, Henry Kissinger. Two shots of Braman shaking hands with Reagan, both inscribed, “To Norman Braman, with best wishes, Ronald Reagan.”
It’s not because the 83-year-old auto magnate has retreated from politics that the people on his wall are mostly in their 90s or deceased. In Miami, where until recently Braman was suing the city to block construction of a 1,000-foot-tall entertainment complex that looks like a giant toenail clipper, he remains a formidable tormentor and occasional ally of local politicians. But nationally, he said, nobody’s been worth taking pictures with.
“I haven’t had a cause, a political cause, since Kemp passed away,” Braman said, referring to the former New York congressman, presidential candidate, and Compassionate Conservative 1.0. We were sitting in a conference room decked out in Revolutionary War memorabilia: a 240-year-old American flag, a framed letter by George Washington. Braman (BRAY-MIN) is tall, lean, and a bit creaky. His hair, formerly curly and sumptuous, is mostly white tufts now. “You’re not going to find any major dollars in the [George W.] Bush campaign, and you’re not going to find any major dollars in the Romney campaign from me,” he said.
Then came Marco Rubio. The first-term Florida senator, Braman said, is “the first politician that has inspired, truly inspired” him in decades. Whereas Braman’s local activism, which is mostly about defeating tax hikes, has a bloodless quality to it, his support for Rubio feels paternal. Braman has flown his protégé to Israel and has funded a university teaching gig. He also employs the politician’s wife, Jeanette, at his family foundation. After Rubio’s father died in 2010, Braman called him almost every day.
Their bond originated in 2005, when Rubio, a state representative, backed a favored Braman project that then-florida Governor Jeb Bush had ignored. But beneath the transactional component of their relationship is a kind of May-december bromance. “I think Norman just really likes him personally,” said former Florida House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, a Miami Democrat who’s friends with both men. “Thinks he’s charming. Likes his family.” Braman, who’s donated $6 million to Rubio’s super PAC, is the senator’s most generous benefactor. While Rubio’s other moneyed friends skew reclusive—hedge funders Paul Singer and Ken Griffin are also major contributors— Braman maintains an unusually high profile for a megadonor worth an estimated $1.87 billion. His decades of Miami electioneering, combined with his close personal ties to Rubio, provided fodder for a New York Times piece last May that probed his influence on the senator’s career.
In the season of The Donald, though, $6 million from your favorite benefactor is only table stakes. Without it, there’s almost no way Rubio would have survived his face-plant on the New Hampshire debate stage, where he came off like a talking Ken doll with a battery issue, much less the series of brutal disappointments in primaries since then. Some predict he’ll quit
before the Florida
His father, a barber from Poland, and his mother, a seamstress from Romania, lived in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. After college at Temple University, Braman worked as a market-research analyst for Seagram’s distillery. He made his first pile of money selling his share of Keystone Discount Stores, a vitamin chain he co-owned. Rich and bored, he retired to Miami at 36. Gradually he grew less rich and more bored. He also made inroads in GOP circles.
In the early 1970s, with help from friend- of-gm Gerald Ford, he got into the Cadillac business. By 1980 “the Baron of Biscayne Boulevard” was among the biggest luxury- car dealers in Florida and was the vice chair for Reagan’s Florida presidential campaign. When Reagan won, he rewarded Braman by nominating him to head the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services. Braman’s first act, before he was confirmed, was to storm the INS offices in Washington and announce his plan to fire 500 employees and computerize the whole
father figure, though, has a good deal to do with his personal agenda. At the start of this century, when Rubio was a freshman Florida legislator, Braman had a semiregular e-mail correspondence with then-governor Bush. A typical message began with some patter about current events before giving way to an ask.
“Dear Governor,” Braman wrote in December 2003. “First I want to wish you and your family a wonderful holiday and a happy and healthy New Year. The final part of the year is something we can all rejoice in with the capture of Saddam Hussein, the revival of our economy, and the general positive feeling in the country.” He proceeded to ask Bush to restore an extended school-year program that was in place at a Miami public school Braman supported financially. “Thank God the philosophy of the school is one that believes in the principles of Booker T. Washington rather than Jesse Jackson,” he wrote. Bush instructed an aide to “please respond to Norm Braman who is a good man,” but he didn’t restore the funding. The pattern persisted. Braman would send long, cordial e-mails, requesting that some worthy cause be funded or that some acquaintance of his be appointed to a minor post, and he would usually get a polite response from Bush or from a staffer—but often no dice on the request.
After 2004, the e-mails stopped. The likely explanation is that Braman had lobbied Bush and the Florida legislature to approve a $2 million grant for the University of Miami Health System’s Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute. (Braman’s sister-in-law would die of breast cancer a year later.) Bush vetoed the funding, and Braman went apoplectic. “As a very active
Republican,” Braman said at the time, “I’m ashamed of him.” A year later, the funding was restored. “Marco strongly wanted the Braman Cancer money,” Bush wrote in an e-mail to a lobbyist. “And out of deference to his leadership, we let that stay as a one-time deal.” Braman said he can’t quite remember when or how he met Rubio, but he believed they were introduced more than a decade ago by Republican Florida Representative Mario Díaz-balart. From an ideological perspective, there aren’t obvious reasons he’d prefer Rubio to, say, Bush. When I asked him to elaborate on his support for the senator, he got a little gauzy. “Marco,” Braman said, “has always believed that the best way to solve the problems of poverty was to give people the opportunity to advance out of poverty through the beauty of the system that we have in this country.” The statement could apply to any of the 16 other Republicans who’ve tried to run for president this year. Then there’s the Florida GOP spending scandal of the mid2000s, a spell of almost absurd public-sector profligacy. Among Rubio’s greatest hits, while serving as House speaker: bringing his minivan to—where else?—braman Honda for repairs and charging the $1,000 bill to the Florida Republican Party. Braman, fiscal hawk, doesn’t appear to have disapproved. In 2006, after the Miami Herald dinged Rubio for spending $2.5 million on renovating the House chambers, Braman responded with a letter chiding the paper for “tearing him down just as he begins his new challenge.” Florida election law prevented Braman from depositing super Pac-style lump sums into Rubio’s state House campaign kitty, but he found other ways to contribute. From 2005 to 2008, Braman, his companies, and his wife, Irma, donated more than $560,000 to the Florida Republican Party. In 2007 and 2008, as Rubio laid the groundwork for his U.S. Senate run, Braman gave more than $255,000 to Floridians for Property Tax Reform, an outside group Rubio used to push his agenda. That agenda seems to have hewed closely to Braman’s. In 2007, Rubio fought then-governor Charlie Crist to weaken a climate change proposal that would have penalized auto emissions, then embarked on a separate fight to kill a Crist casino plan—combating casinos is another Braman pet cause. In 2008 he helped secure $80 million Braman wanted for a genomics institute at the private University of Miami. As the New York Times reported last year, Rubio was initially skeptical of the outlay. “But when Norman Braman brings it to you,” he said, “you take it seriously.” Braman said he’s never asked Rubio for a political favor. The senator has said the same thing in the past. Alex Conant, Rubio’s spokesman, declined to comment on their relationship, and his campaign didn’t make the senator available for this article. Either way, that particular concern misses the point of their connection. However useful Rubio is to him, Braman has provided far more in return. Beginning in the period when Rubio left the state House, in 2008, and entered the U.S. Senate, in 2011, Braman went from providing political support to direct cash transfers. In 2009 he made a $100,000 donation to Florida International University to fund a seminar Rubio taught with FIU professor Dario Moreno, his regular pollster. In 2010, Rubio did seven months of legal work for Braman’s auto business. Braman said he paid him $51,315.38 for “employee situations” and franchise agreements. “I can tell you none of it, not one dime, was political,” Braman added. A year later, he hired Jeanette Rubio, an event planner and former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, to work at his family foundation. It’s entirely plausible, as Braman insists, that his patronage stems only from warm and fuzzy feelings. As Gelber, the former Florida House minority leader, said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’d see Braman, and he’d ask me how I’m treating Marco, like he’s telling me to be nice to his favorite child.” He added: “I think that’s very appealing to someone like Marco, whose parents are working-class, to have someone who can talk about politics, and art, and culture.” This sort of personal bond only makes Braman closer than your average megadonor. Former Mayor Ferré has a story. In 2010 he’d been invited as a guest to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. While waiting in line at a VIP entrance, he saw Braman and Rubio enter together. “It’s a luncheon, thousands of people go to this thing. Bibi Netanyahu was speaking,” Ferré recalled. “Braman knew exactly who he wanted Rubio to talk to and to meet. He literally grabbed him by the arm and pushed his way through. We were all waiting in line, and they went right past us. It was amazing.” Jacob Solomon, one of Braman’s successors at Miami’s Jewish Federation, said Braman has a special knack for political bond-building. “He would chair a mission every January for several years, and on one of them we wanted to meet with Ariel Sharon. He was able to pick up the phone, call the prime minister’s office, and immediately we were in,” Solomon said. “He’s had relationships with these people. Candidates, elected officials. He’s very respectful of the democratic process. He’ll often chide me if I say, ‘politicians.’ He’ll say ‘elected officials.’ ” Braman is paradoxical in that way. He bemoans the “catastrophic waste of money” that our presidential elections represent, yet defends the intentions of fellow Citizens United beneficiaries Sheldon Adelson and Charles and David Koch. He’s said to worship “the democratic process,” yet, as a private citizen, arguably wields more power than any pol in Miami. In other words, he’s a little ambivalent about the proper role of money in politics. And now he can’t decide whether his largesse will backfire on Rubio. Talking in his office one afternoon, a few days into Art Basel, he launched into an unprompted comparison of Rubio and Kemp. When I pursued that thought, he cut me off. “This interview isn’t about Marco Rubio,” he said curtly. Braman is certainly aware of the political danger to Rubio surrounding his personal finances. Braman has suffered some embarrassing reversals himself, losing more than $27 million in the Bernard Madoff fraud. Last year it came to light that Rubio held between $450,000 and $1 million in mortgage and home-equity debt, took a loss on a bad real estate investment in Tallahassee, and, in an unconventional move, liquidated $70,000 in retirement funds. Trump has seized on this, taunting Rubio for the “disaster on his credit cards.” Which bring us back to the election. Braman said Rubio, like him, a child of immigrant parents, has borne personal witness to the wonders of free-market enterprise. That narrative, which underpins their two-man mutual adoration society, begins to look less convincing if one man is propping up the other. “I’m a very small cog,” Braman insisted back in December. “I’m a very small factor in this.” Then he insisted some more. “No one’s going to swoop down from heaven. No one anoints a political leader, no one does. No one does. No one does.” <BW>
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