A report on the driving record of presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) drew criticism from conservatives, but was mostly met with indifference among residents of the Sunshine State. Meanwhile, on social media the story provided material for thousands of Twitter users who saw the report as an occasion for a collective online eye-roll.
The Times reported that Rubio, 44, and his wife had racked up 17 driving citations since 1997, including incidents involving speeding, running red lights, and careless driving. On four separate occasions, the Rubios agreed to attend driving school after a violation. Four of the citations were Mr. Rubio’s; the remaining 13 went to his wife. The Times noted that Mr. Rubio’s license faced suspension in 2011, while Ms. Rubio was cited at least once for lacking documentation that her car was insured.
According to the Times, the Rubios “have shown a tendency to be in a rush on the road.”
Conservative news outlets greeted this story incredulously. Writing for the National Review Online, Kevin D. Williamson noted that, “Four citations, two of them dismissed, since 1997… is the definition of unremarkable.” Brent Scher in the Washington Free Beacon alleged that the Rubios’ driving records were obtained by the liberal opposition research firm American Bridge, and then provided to the Times. The Free Beacon called the article a “Rubio hit.”
In response, The Times Washington D.C. Bureau Chief Carolyn Ryan told the Washington Post that their reporters had come across the story on their own. “Voters want to know about these candidates – not just as policy-makers, but as people,” she said in an email to The Post. “It is not at all unusual or unexpected for us to scrutinize candidates’ backgrounds and their lives through public records. It is very standard scrubbing.”
The reaction on Twitter was much more freewheeling. Using the hashtag “Rubio Crime Spree,” users provided examples of minor “crimes” supposedly committed by Marco Rubio, such as “Ordered an EggMcMuffin at 11:03 AM,” “Once ripped a tag from a mattress,” and “Once picked all of the marshmellows out of the Lucky Charms Box.” On Saturday evening, “Rubio Crime Spree” was trending on Twitter, with over 38,000 tweets on the topic.
“I read the Times story as someone who lives and drives in Miami,” said Marc Caputo, Florida political reporter for the website Politico. “It is what it is, but sometimes the police down here seem to exist to raise revenue through writing a lot of traffic tickets. Out of all the hits on Marco Rubio, this one is definitely not going to stick.”
“Remember the vast majority of people who are going to vote in the election are not monitoring things at this point,” Caputo added. “For the average Floridian, they might read or hear of this story, but I don’t get the sense that there is any particular interest or outrage that the Rubios are, potentially, terrible drivers.”
Dennis Freytes, a retired military officer in Orlando, wondered about the motives behind the Times’ story. “Did they do this type of investigation on everybody, or just Rubio?” he asked. “If it was only Rubio, then it feels like a pile-on. It might be different if he caused a major accident, but otherwise I don’t think it is a good idea to pursue this story, it seems like a waste of time.”
Freytes believes that the media needs to re-focus its priorities. “They should be tackling bigger questions, like civil rights, veteran’s affairs, and threats to our democracy.” In the future, he hopes that the Times and other outlets “stick to legitimate investigative reporting.”
Patricia Mazzei, political writer for the Miami Herald, said that the Rubios’ driving story was “not a huge deal” in Miami. “I think that the reaction from people is that what is news in New York is not necessarily news somewhere else,” she said. “In city where you don't do a lot of driving, four tickets sounds like lot; in a place where you rely on your car, it‘s not as bad, it is something fairly typical.” She pointed out that the use of cameras at intersections has led to frustration among area motorists, so the Rubio story could, in a way, make them more relatable to people.
“There is a lot of interest in the 2016 election because we have two candidates from Florida,” Mazzei said, “But for now, people want to hear more about presidential policies. Besides, presidents don’t drive themselves anyway.”
News of Ms. Rubio’s driving record came on the heels of a report by the Tampa Bay Times that she was paid at least $54,000 in 2013 for a part-time fundraising job at a charity run by a billionaire supporter of her husband. Despite having assets exceeding $9 million, the charity only gave out $250 in 2013.
“This is what happens when you run for president,” said Marc Caputo. “Everything you do gets a lot of scrutiny.”
“On the balance, this driving story is no biggie,” he said. Traffic tickets are like part of the cost of living here. It is about as shocking as people gambling at Rick’s Casino in ‘Casablanca.’”