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primary. Yet as the GOP splits over Trump, Rubio may still be hoping he can pull off an upset in his home state and siphon delegates away from the front-runner ahead of a contested convention.
If Rubio has any chance at all, it’s for the same reason Braman adopted him in the first place: He’s younger, fresher, and less terrifying than his opponents. But terrifying plays well these days. And after Trump’s virtual sweep of the former Confederacy, Rubio appears to be in a win-florida- or-bust situation. Conservative Solutions, the proRubio super PAC Braman has contributed to, plans on spending $5 million in Florida ahead of the winner-takes-all- delegates March 15 primary.
When I first interviewed Braman in December, nobody really expected the Trump thing to last. “I’m not losing any sleep about it,” Braman said, sounding wise. “You always have that infatuation with a public figure who’s been on television and so forth. I mean, this country does not embody the meanness and nastiness of Donald Trump. It’s not what this country’s about. That’s why we have such great philanthropy.”
It’s unclear if Braman has begun to lose sleep over Trump’s sustained dominance. He didn’t answer follow-up calls and e-mails; he did have his secretary send me a link to an article about the $10 million he gave Georgetown last month for Holocaust research. This much is clear: The Braman-rubio dynamic carries with it a different implication than it did just a few months ago. When we spoke, Braman emphasized he wasn’t expecting a quid-pro-quo post in a prospective Rubio White House. Now he seems like a potential liability. To win the GOP nomination, Rubio has to shed his image as a sputtering, empty-suit automaton propped up by establishment cash.
“I told you why I believe in Marco Rubio, [and] I do,” Braman said. “There’s been nothing in the world personally that Marco Rubio’s ever done for me, my family, and I’ve never asked him. But I just don’t like the idea that Marco Rubio isn’t standing on his own two feet.”
operation. That instantly created problems. Complicating the process, according to an account by journalist Mark Bowden, was a false marriage Braman arranged in 1973 to save a Peruvian house maid from deportation. The Department of Justice, Bowden reported, balked at the idea of an INS nominee ripping loopholes in immigration law. Braman withdrew his nomination.
(When I asked Braman about the false marriage, he replied: “That’s nonsense. That’s the first I’ve heard of this in a very long time.” He said he withdrew “because my wife wouldn’t go to Washington with me, and also it was the height of the recession.” He needed to tend to his dealerships, he said.)
Braman, still rich, still bored, treaded water for a few years before deciding to buy his hometown football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, in 1985. His tenure isn’t remembered fondly in the city. “He bought the franchise and immediately showed himself to be the prototype of the rich, Scrooge Mcduck guy who had a lot of money, let you know it, and wasn’t going to spend it on what he considered at the time to be ridiculous NFL salaries,” said former Philadelphia Inquirer Eagles beat writer Glen Macnow, who now does sports radio in the city. “He charged his players when they would take extra sanitary socks out of the locker room. So players would get, at the end of training camp, an itemized bill.”
Braman cut some of the best players, hiked ticket prices, and paid the coaching staff the lowest salaries in the league. Ed Rendell, then mayor, used his name in opinion polls as a kind of gauge of unpopularity. Eagles coach Buddy Ryan dubbed Braman, who had a summer pad on the Riviera, “the guy in France.”
In 1991, several months after he fired Ryan, Braman paid $3.9 million for a 19,000-square-foot mansion on exclusive Indian Creek Island, which at the time was the priciest home purchase in Miami history. (Indian Creek Island is a speck of land in Biscayne Bay that has an historically anti-semitic golf club ringed by 40 homes. Jay Z and Beyoncé lived there for a while.) Braman planted a Claes Oldenburg sculpture in a children’s nursery and turned a swimming pool into a wine cellar.
In 1994, Braman sold the Eagles for $185 million, $120 million more than he’d paid nine years earlier. Following the sale, he retreated to Miami for good and remade himself anew, this time into a civic vigilante with a passion for budgetary prudence.
“The parties are bulls---,” Braman said, panning the club scene at Art Basel Miami. Braman, who was instrumental in bringing the December art fair and celebrity bacchanal to Miami 15 years ago, wasn’t eager to discuss Paris Hilton’s DJ set at the W, or Adrien Brody’s debut painting exhibit, Hot Dogs, Hamburgers, and Handguns. What gets Braman off about Art Basel is all the fiscal responsibility. “Art Basel is like having a Super Bowl here every single year without one cent of taxpayers’ dollars,” he said, sitting on a folding chair in a lounge area at the Miami Beach Convention Center. “They pay the normal rent for this facility.”
Braman has passions. He’s building a museum that will borrow from his billion-dollar personal collection, which features works by Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, and Damien Hirst. And he has causes. He used to chair the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and helped erect a Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach. (He’s also anti-hubris: When a group of local pols plastered their names on the memorial, Braman attempted to pry off the plaque with the back end of a hammer.) Higher education, medical research, opposition to casino gambling—the list goes on. “When it comes to nonelected civic leaders, it’s basically Norman Braman and everybody else,” said Miami pollster Fernando Amandi.
His fiscal monomania, though, is what’s made him a fixture in the city. “My father never earned more than $75 a week. So I find it incredibly troubling that when there are dollars that are out there to address [real] problems, that people who are worth billions of dollars steal the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “I don’t belong and give any money to Grover Norquist’s organization. I’m not in that antitax movement. It’s not my b----. My b---- is how the tax money is utilized.”
Braman waged his first battle in 1982, when Mayor Maurice Ferré proposed a 1¢ sales tax to retool the Orange Bowl. Braman heard the news, bought a bunch of radio spots, and debated Ferré one-on-one. The tax failed. In 1999, Braman jetted back from his home in France to fight another 1¢ sales tax that would have funded public transit. He won that one, too. In 2010 he initiated and bankrolled a vote to recall Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who’d supported a publicly funded, $634 million stadium for the attendance-poor Miami Marlins. Alvarez lost, badly, and was last seen competing in bodybuilding competitions. In certain ways, Braman resembles a South Beach version of Noah Cross, the John Huston character in Chinatown— an unelected tycoon who runs a city by controlling its public resources. And why not? Taxes, mass transit programs—these aren’t things auto dealers tend to support. Unsurprisingly, Braman has made enemies. “When people cross him, he does everything he can to eliminate them,” said lobbyist Chris Korge, who battled Braman during a separate stadium fight. Many Miamians, though, view him not as a villain but as a check against a corrupt political establishment. The year of the recall, a poll asked if Braman was a “principled community activist” or a “wealthy troublemaker.” Just 12 percent went with troublemaker.
The perception that he operates out of principle rather than self-interest has inoculated Braman to some degree from criticism that he’s corrupted Miami’s democratic process. “Whether you agree with him or not, he’s his own man,” said Aaron Podhurst, chairman of the Pérez Art Museum Miami board of trustees. “He does what he wants to do. If a person criticizes Norman, it doesn’t matter to him.” Stephen Helfman, a lawyer for Indian Creek Village, concurred. “He can go about his life, and live his very nice life, and he’s not affected by pretty much anything. So he lives out his principles.” Ferré called him “a very sincere doctrinaire.”