That 'Car Dealer' Behind Marco Rubio
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in politics, as in art, being a true patron requires a lot more than money.
By Sean Braswell
Norman Braman has an eye for value. The Miami car magnate, 83, has a fortune worth about $1.8 billion, half of which is estimated to be tied up in the large collection of art — Warhols, Picassos — that he and his wife, Irma, have purchased over many decades. He also used to own the Philadelphia Eagles football team, an asset he sold after a decade in 1994 (netting a cool $120 million).
Perhaps the Florida collector’s favorite object of affection, however, and what might prove his shrewdest long-term investment, is not a painting, a sports team or any of the BMWs, Porsches and Rolls-Royces on his lots — it’s Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida and the man Braman may sink $10 million or more into this presidential election. The billionaire donor, who did not respond to requests for comment, has a rather unique relationship with his beneficiary: Braman is not so much Rubio’s political sugar daddy as his real-life father figure.
In fact, other than the size of his bank account and his silver hair, the lanky Braman is not at all how you might imagine a megadonor. Calm and articulate with a twinkle in his eye, Braman resembles a grandfatherly philanthropist more than a brass-knuckle political fighter. He was first introduced to Rubio in the early aughts, and as the young Miami lawmaker rose through the GOP ranks in Florida, Braman was there every step of the way, contributing to campaigns, providing personal financial assistance to the debt-ridden candidate and, at times, even employing Rubio and his wife. “There’s nothing surprising about it,” John M. Stipanovich, a prominent Florida lawyer and lobbyist, says of Braman ponying up for Rubio’s presidential run. “Marco has essentially been a financial ward of Norman Braman since he first went to the [state] legislature.” (Rubio’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
Rubio often describes Braman as a father figure.…
In some ways, the donor’s approach to political support mirrors his approach to art. Braman, who helped bring Art Basel to Miami in 2002, admires provocative artists like Lucian Freud but does not own any of his works. “They’re very difficult images to live with,” Braman explained to Forbes. “And we live with our art.” The same would appear true of favorite politicians: In a crowded race, Braman has picked the face that many find livable, somewhat moderate and palatable. Braman and Rubio not only share a love of football, a commitment to Israel and a distaste for Big Government but have also forged a deeper bond over dinners at Braman’s Indian Creek Island mansion and on a joint family trip to Israel. Rubio often describes Braman as a father figure (his own father died in 2010) and notes in his memoir that Braman’s “advice, interest in my growth … remind me of the role my grandfather and father once played.”
Braman also sees his own story in Rubio’s humble origins. Another son of poor immigrants — in his case, a Polish barber and a Romanian seamstress, who, ironically enough, never owned a car while Braman was growing up near Philadelphia and working as a water boy for the same Eagles team he would later own. “The car dealer in Florida,” as Donald Trump calls Braman, made his first fortune from a successful chain of department stores and a pharmaceutical company, briefly retiring at age 36 to help raise his two daughters.
In backing Rubio in 2016, Braman is also bucking most of the Florida donor community, who thus far have thrown their weight behind former Gov. Jeb Bush, largely, says Stipanovich, because of Rubio’s thinner résumé. But not Braman — not since Bush vetoed $2 million in state funds slated for his cancer institute in 2004. “Who the hell is against breast cancer research?” Braman recently told Politico. The incident feinted Braman even further into the Rubio camp when sonny-boy Marco helped secure the funding as well as a later $80 million grant to a genomics center at the University of Miami. Rubio, however, has been quick to play down any allegations of quid pro quo via his longtime patron, recently telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that Braman “has never asked me to do anything for his business interests.”
The bigger challenge for Rubio may be handling Braman alongside some of the other billionaires like hedge fund manager Paul Singer now entering his campaign’s VIP tent. “Billionaires demand a lot of time and attention,” says Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “Rubio will have to balance the needs of his benefactors as each of them wants to feel that he has the ear of the candidate.”
Of course, as Rubio’s stock begins to rise, so does the value of Braman’s investment, even if he has to share it with other well-heeled aficionados. And while no true collector likes to see his masterpiece hanging in another’s house, Braman may be able to make an exception if the Rubio exhibition ends up in the White House.