Downtown Miami's Freedom Tower, where Marco Rubio will inaugurate his presidential campaign Monday, is steeped in symbolism for Cuban exiles even if they didn't arrive there from the island to get processed by the U.S. government. The tower on Biscayne Boulevard was also where exiles would pick up food for their families.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado remembers being 12 or 13 years old and lining up at the building.
"They'd give out cheese and butter and powdered milk," he said. "I used to go with my mother. There'd be canned meat and everyone would share recipes so we wouldn't have to eat the same breaded Spam every day."
Of course, Rubio's family doesn't share the typical exile story. His parents left Cuba in 1956, before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, and briefly returned to the island before settling in the U.S. in 1962.
Rubio still refers to his family as "exiles." Miami Cuban Americans generally agree that any of their countrymen who couldn't return home was exiled. But Rubio had embellished his family history on his official Senate website and was forced to revise it after news reports about his parents' immigration records. That's hardly the incident Rubio's campaign wants people to remember during Monday's launch.
Rubio has long been a protector of the Freedom Tower. In 2003, Miami-Dade County lawmakers in the Florida House of Representatives tried to secure $7 million in state funding to help Miami Dade College (then community college) purchase the building. Rubio was House majority leader, and the funding didn't go through the usual budget process.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who will now have to jostle with Rubio over the presidential nomination, opposed the earmark, known in the Florida Capitol as a "turkey."
"It is certainly not a turkey," Rubio countered at the time. "Just because a project maybe didn't go through the proper channels doesn't mean that it is unworthy of state funding."
Bush prevailed. The college didn't get ownership of the historic building until 2005.
The incident speaks to Rubio's interest in the building, but also to his history earmarking dollars for local projects, something that has fallen out of favor in Republican political rhetoric and been banned in Congress.
Still, it's what the Freedom Tower represents -- a beacon for people seeking a better life -- that Rubio will be channeling Monday. And with an older generation of Cuban Americans such as Mayor Regalado giving poignant recollections about the building's meaning, it's likely that's the message outsiders will remember.