When Marco Rubio announced his bid for president in April, he delivered a message of opportunity. He lamented the increasingly hollow promise of the American Dream, as small-business owners find themselves crippled by “the weight of more taxes, more regulations, and more government.” He walked off the stage to thunderous applause and into the embrace of Jose “Pepe” Fanjul, the billionaire sugar baron who for years now has helped bankroll Rubio’s political career.
It’s another relationship between Rubio and a top donor that could raise eyebrows. Back in May, the New York Times penned an exposé on Norman Braman, who has donated $10 million to the super PAC supporting Rubio’s campaign, and whose charitable foundation has employed Rubio’s wife. The revelations were embarrassing for Rubio, but carried no implication that he’d adjusted his political positions to serve Braman’s interests.
Rubio stayed mum.
After the debate, Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan dismissed the significance of Cruz’s veiled attack on Rubio’s support for sugar subsidies, telling reporters that “.0000001 percent of the American people” would understand it. He may be right, but Rubio’s support for the subsidy raises questions about whether his relationship with a top financial supporter is pushing him into positions that contradict his broader policy platform.
Rubio’s relationship with the Fanjuls began during his time in the Florida legislature and deepened during his Senate race, when he was battling establishment favorite Charlie Crist. He wrote in his memoir, American Son, that the “crown jewel” of his fundraising efforts during the 2010 race was an event headlined by the Fanjul family in the Hamptons, where Rubio and his wife joined the Fanjuls over Labor Day weekend, and where Pepe introduced him to Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani would go on to enthusiastically endorse Rubio over Crist, and Pepe Fanjul and his son each doled out the maximum contribution of $2,400 during the campaign.
Before these fundraising efforts, Rubio had attacked Crist for promoting a bailout of U.S. Sugar, the Fanjuls’ principal industry rival. In an interview with Glenn Beck on March 8, 2010, Rubio slammed Crist for “ramming down the throats of taxpayers a bailout of a sugar company.”
That number doesn’t include the family’s itemized individual contributions to Rubio’s Senate race and to his presidential bid or the dollars the Fanjuls have bundled from others. This spring, just eight days after Rubio announced his candidacy, Pepe Fanjul Jr. and his wife, Lourdes, hosted a fundraiser for Rubio at their Palm Beach home, where tickets ranged from $1,000 to $2,700 a pop.
“They have supported Rubio for a very long time,” confirms Gaston Cantens, vice president at Florida Crystals. “And there’s a lot of ethnic pride they have in Rubio’s accomplishments.” (Both Rubio and Pepe Fanjul are Cuban-Americans.)
Rubio hasn’t been shy about expressing his gratitude. “My thanks . . . to the Fanjul family for believing in me when few did,” Rubio writes in the acknowledgements to American Son.
Rubio has remained a consistent, vocal supporter of the sugar subsidy during his rise to national prominence.
Rubio has remained a consistent, vocal supporter of the sugar subsidy during his rise to national prominence. Defenders compare the sugar industry in Florida to the ethanol industry in Iowa and the Midwest more broadly, and say that just as lawmakers from Iowa, including Republicans are virtually obliged to support the controversial Renewable Fuel Standard, so lawmakers from Florida are expected to support sugar subsidies.
And Rubio has. At a Koch brothers’ Republican summit in August, Rubio gave a defense of the federal sugar program that left many in the audience of staunch free-marketeers scratching their heads. If the U.S. eliminates the program, he argued, “other countries will capture the market share, our agricultural capacity will be developed into real estate, you know, housing and so forth, and then we lose the capacity to produce our own food, at which point we’re at the mercy of a foreign country for food security.”
Writing for National Review, Windsor Mann was among those stumped by Rubio’s logic. “Let’s try to untangle this,” he wrote following Rubio’s remarks. “If we get rid of sugar subsidies, Americans will turn their sugar farms into condominium lots and start buying sugar from foreigners, who will starve us until we surrender to ISIS. Or something like that.”
“We have as much reason to grow our own sugar as Lithuania does to make its own cars: none,” Mann added. “The fact is that other countries produce certain things more cheaply and efficiently than we do. That is why we trade with them.”Edward Tuddenham, a lawyer who once battled the Fanjuls in a lawsuit over their alleged mistreatment of migrant workers, says Rubio’s insistent defense of the subsidy, in the face of much opposition from the right, is proof positive that the brothers’ political influence is “staggering.”
Indeed, the Fanjuls have long reaped the benefits of their political alliances. They’ve maintained a cross-party dominance of the sugar lobby by splitting allegiances: Alfred “Alfy” Fanjul has steadily given to Democrats and Democratic organizations, while his brother Pepe donates to Republicans. Their cozy relationship with the Clintons is such that when President Clinton was ending his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he halted their meeting to take a 22-minute call from the sugar baron, who was enraged about Al Gore’s proposal of a “polluter’s tax” on the sugar industry. The bill was quietly dropped.
Rubio has staked his candidacy on empowering the middle class, and has denounced the Export-Import Bank as a bastion of “taxpayer money” for “corporate welfare.” His support for sugar subsidies, and his tight relationship with their largest beneficiaries, flies in the face of that position, which may pose problems as the primary season develops.
“One of the best ways to attack Hillary Clinton is on crony capitalism and corporate welfare, and any marks that the GOP candidate has on his record where he’s in favor of these things will weaken him,” says Tim Carney, visiting fellow at AEI. He adds that it makes Rubio a “worse nominee” to tout his belief in free trade, “except for sugar,” as well as a “protectionism that helps some of his earliest fundraisers.”
When reached for comment, Rubio’s team pointed to statements the candidate made on Good Morning America following the Milwaukee debate, in which he said “I’m not going to wipe out an American industry that happens to have a lot of workers in Florida.”
They declined to comment on Rubio’s relationship with the Fanjuls.
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.