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Rubio stops for a photo op at a New Hampshire sporting goods store in January.

National Rifle Association

In Florida, Marco Rubio Got Himself Stuck Between Business Interests and the NRA

Guess which one he picked?

Following his surprise third-place place finish in the Iowa caucuses this week, Florida Senator Marco Rubio delivered a rousing speech to a roomful of supporters. After dismissing detractors who said that his “hair wasn’t gray enough” and that his “boots were too high,” he zeroed in on one of his campaign’s recurring themes: gun rights. “This is a time for a president who will defend our Second Amendment rights,” he said. “Not a president who undermines them.” Rubio spoke for another ten minutes, but he never mentioned “the economy,” “business,” or “job creators,” the lingua franca of Republican candidates.

It was a conspicuous omission. Marco Rubio is the establishment favorite precisely because he is not a demagogue like Ted Cruz, or a pseudo-populist like Donald Trump. He is supposed to stand for the traditional conservative virtues of limited government and supply-side economics. The top 20 contributors to his campaign consist mostly of banks and big businesses, such as Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, and Wells Fargo. With the exception of Citizens for Prosperity in America Today, a political action committee, absent from the list are ideological advocacy groups, like the National Rifle Association (NRA). Throughout most of his political career, Rubio’s chief benefactor has been the Florida auto magnate Norman Braman, an 82-year-old billionaire who once owned the Philadelphia Eagles.  

Yet, like all of this year’s Republican presidential candidates, when it comes to guns, Rubio has adopted the persona of the crusading Second Amendment warrior. Over the holidays, for instance, Rubio made headlines when he purchased a handgun on Christmas Eve. “If ISIS were to visit us or our communities at any moment,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “the last line of defense between ISIS and my family is the ability that I have to protect my family from them or from a criminal or anyone else who seeks to do us harm.” The firearm was the second in his personal arsenal. The first was a .357 Taurus revolver, a weapon that screams “novice” to gun enthusiasts.

Even so, behind the scenes, Rubio has demonstrated ambivalence about doing the NRA’s bidding when it pits him against the business community. One particular incident, when he was a state lawmaker, is illustrative of the concessions that mainstream Republicans are required to make to a special interest group whose electoral capital can be worth more than money.

Rubio was Speaker of the Florida House in the mid-aughts. During that period, the so-called “guns-to-work” bill made its way through the legislature. A vague, expansive piece of legislation, it allowed Florida gun owners to leave a firearm in their car when they went into their workplace.

“It was the marquee bill at the time,” says Dan Gelber, Rubio’s Democratic counterpart when the measure was introduced. “It was radioactive to Republicans, who didn’t want it to pass, but also didn’t want to be credited with killing it.”

Virtually every company in Florida was fiercely opposed to the bill, including Disney World, the biggest single-site employer in the United States. They thought the presence of guns at shopping centers, theme parks, and offices would create a dangerous situation. Randy Miller, a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation, told the Orlando Sentinel, “It is the most anti-business piece of legislation that has been filed in [the] recent history of the state of Florida.” In a press release, Mark Wilson, the executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, voiced the standard conservative point of view. “Florida voters feel safer when businesses are deciding the terms of their property, not government,” he said.

Marion Hammer, then the NRA’s powerful Florida lobbyist, vehemently disagreed. “Think about women who work late hours as cashiers at supermarkets, about employees at all-night facilities, nurses, lab technicians who work late nights,” she told the Sentinel. “And some anti-gun business owner wants to tell her that she can’t have a gun in her car for protection when she’s traveling to and from work?”

Publicly, Rubio avoided discussing the legislation. According to Gelber, he privately hoped that Democrats, ideologically opposed to the bill, would vote against it in committee, killing the measure so he and his members wouldn’t have to weigh in.

“Republicans were stuck at the intersection of guns and business, their two favorite things,” Gelber says. “It put Marco’s caucus in a really tough spot. They wanted us to do their dirty work because they were afraid of the NRA.”

The Democrats understood that Republicans were in a double bind. Some of them made the strategic decision to not show up to their committee meetings. By playing hooky, they would not have to vote, forcing Republicans to take a position on the legislation. The GOP, the majority party in the statehouse, would have to defy either the NRA or the business community.

“I thought it was pretty funny,” Gelber says. “The Republicans were so angry. I was getting these threatening calls from the leadership. They said the Sergeant of Arms was going to round up my members and escort them to the committee room.”

By the end of the 2007 legislative session, the bill had been defeated, tarnishing Republicans in the eyes of the NRA.

The next year, guns-to-work came up for a vote again. New language was added to the bill: Now, only concealed carry permit holders would be able to leave their guns in their cars.

Rubio equivocated, telling the St. Petersburg Times that “it was a much better piece of legislation than it was just a year ago. I think individuals who have concealed weapons permits are by and far very responsible gun owners.”

In a letter to lawmakers, the state’s business leaders, including Mark Wilson, expressed their disagreement.

“Attempts to water down constitutional property rights and employer/employee contract negotiations in favor of gun owner rights can only be viewed as an attack on the business community and the jobs it creates and sustains,” the letter read. “We have seen no egregious examples of gun rights being denied. No problem currently exists in Florida worthy of the proposed big government solution mandating less freedom, less property rights and more regulation.”

Despite their efforts, the bill passed. Even so, the struggle over the legislation briefly cost Rubio. In 2009, after he’d left office, Marion Hammer told the Tampa Bay Times that Rubio had been a “big disappointment to us” as Speaker. “He talked the talk, but he didn’t walk the walk.” In 2010, when he made his run for the U.S. Senate, the NRA downgraded him from an A to a B+. That was the year he bought his first gun, the .357 Taurus, and began to reform his image as an ardent defender of gun rights.

After he was elected, Rubio spent the next five years trying to make amends with the NRA. In the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, he voted against expanding background checks, and in 2014, he gave a passionate speech at an NRA conference. “The safety of our families is not something people should hope government can provide,” he told the crowd. This spring, he introduced the “Second Amend­ment Rights in the Dis­trict of Columbia” act, which would make it easier for city residents to procure guns. A month later, the NRA returned Rubio’s grade to an A.  

“If you sometimes go against business, while otherwise being in their pocket, your donations aren’t going to dry up, and you’re not going to find a target on your back,” says Norman Ornstein, a political observer at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you go against the NRA where it matters to them, you will get a target on your back, at least in a primary. Not to mention a black mark with a group of constituents who care deeply about the issue.”

[Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke]