UBIO’ R

S n the foyer out­side Ike Ru­bio, Bra­man is a se­cond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant.

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Focus On/Security -

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>

an and Irma orm Bram N a n

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