MIAMI — Off an unassuming street, a 20-minute drive north of Miami Beach’s spring break central, are the gates to a man-made island populated by America’s richest—and a cluster of GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio’s wealthiest donors.
Rubio’s political fortunes have been boosted by GOP gazillionaires who live on this exclusive island, where Beyoncé and Jay Z lived until just a few years ago.
The town of Indian Creek Village is home to the 1 percent of the 1 percent: fewer than 40 homes—all waterfront properties—exist on this small island. It has a 24/7 armed boat patrol, and its own police force to protect residents.
The small island once housed the winter retreat for J. Edgar Hoover, and now such boldfaced names as Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima, retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, and singer Julio Iglesias and his son Enrique all own homes there.
Now, 10 percent of the island has donated money to support Marco Rubio’s political career. That’s out of a total population of just 60 residents on the island over the age of 20, per the 2010 census. That’s including the owners who are foreigners (making them ineligible to vote or donate).
The broader neighborhood is fundraising heaven: In the 2014 election cycle, its inhabitants gave $1.2 million, or 24 times more than an average ZIP Code. During Rubio’s campaign for Senate, dozens in the ZIP Code gave thousands of dollars each to support him.
The most prominent Rubio supporter on the island is former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, who the Miami Herald reported was prepared to spend $10 million in support of the senator’s campaign for the White House. (Braman declined to confirm this, saying only that his contribution would be “very significant.”) Braman’s net worth is estimated at $1.89 billion.
Braman shares Rubio’s rags-to-riches story, a fact that no doubt endears the billionaire to the aspiring presidential candidate.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, he praised Rubio as “a guy who is not full of himself. He’s not overly impressed by having the title of senator in front of his name.”
In fact, the island is filled with self-made men: either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Braman, a tycoon who launched a series of auto dealerships in Florida in the 1970s, is the son of a barber and a seamstress. Rubio often makes a point to highlight his parents’ meager roots: his father’s as a bartender, and his mother’s as a maid.
“We’re both from humble upbringings. It led to my admiration [for him] and his feeling the same way I feel about how this can only happen in America,” Braman said.
The island-town’s mayor, Bernard Klepach, is the founder of a company specializing in duty-free retail, and is yet another wealthy businessman who has supported Rubio. He gave $4,800 during Rubio’s first campaign, then the legal limit.
“It’s very early in the process, but I am a supporter of his. He comes from the same background that I have. Immigrant, Cuban parents who came here because of the American dream,” Klepach told The Daily Beast. “He’s the one who appeals the most to me because I can identify with him.”
Klepach said that he had met with Rubio “countless times” since the lawmaker started in state politics, and supported Rubio early in his Senate race.
Island resident Robert Diener, who founded Hotels.com in the early days of the Internet, was so excited to give to Rubio that he donated more than federal contribution limits allow.
In a letter to Rubio’s campaign in March, the Federal Election Commission flagged Diener’s $5,100 in donations as excessive and illegal, reminding the campaign in a letter (PDF) that it needed to be refunded or adjusted.
The Rubio campaign has had consistent problems with excessive contributions. In 2012, after that year’s successful Senate campaign, the FEC issued an $8,000 fine for excessive contributions totaling more than $210,000 and did not properly address it.
Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant told the Beast the campaign is taking care of the problem.
“We take compliance seriously and fully understand the limits. We have reviewed our filings and responded to the FEC,” he said.
Florida home construction magnate Itzhak Ezratti, an Israeli immigrant who has traveled with Florida Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist on delegations to Israel, gave Rubio $3,400 during his Senate campaign. Braman’s wife, Irma, and Klepach’s wife, Juliette, have also given to Rubio’s campaign in the past.
“I know some have helped him,” Braman said, referring to the island’s inhabitants. But he said that the island’s residents weren’t inherently political. “We don’t sit down in the community and talk about it. There’s no Indian Creek activist group… it’s not a sociable island in that sense.”
But neither is the island asocial, Klepach said.
“Everybody knows each other here,” the town’s mayor told the Beast. “I know pretty much everybody on the island, it’s a small island.”
Beyoncé and Jay-Z sold their Indian Creek Village home in 2010, and neither has a history of political donations. And Braman estimates that 30 percent of the island’s residents are foreign and can’t even vote.
However, the island’s other American homeowners represent a ripe opportunity for Rubio to raise money. Many who own property on the island have given money to Republicans in the past, but not yet to him: investor Carl Icahn, worth more than $20 billion; mutual fund titan Charles Johnson, worth some $6.5 billion; hedge fund manager Edward Lampert, worth $3.2 billion. The list goes on.
At the center of the island is the exclusive Indian Creek Country Club, established in 1928. It features a $150,000 initiation fee and $16,000 in annual dues, according to the Miami Herald.
If Rubio wants to raise money one afternoon, maybe he could set up shop in the choosy, 300-member club. Paul “Mr. Tomato” DiMare, the largest grower of fresh-market tomatoes in the U.S., is a known club member and has donated $7,900 to Rubio. Automobile dealer and club member Gus Machado, a Cuban emigre, has given $2,400.
One downside: The invitation-only country club has something of prejudiced political past.
The Orange Bowl Committee held its annual party at the club, which then allowed Jews and African Americans in only as guests, the Miami New Times reported. Under pressure, the committee found a new home for its party in 1986.
In 1999, former village mayor Leonard Miller, who is Jewish, refused to meet with Bill Clinton after the president golfed at the club. And former Governor Jeb Bush canceled plans to golf there in 2000 after speaking with Miller.
Asked Wednesday about whether there was a discriminatory admittance policy at the club, club general manager Leon Crimmins said “It’s simply not true.”
In any case, donations from the ultra-wealthy could be crucial for the Rubio campaign’s longevity—just ask Newt Gingrich, whose 2012 campaign was given a boost through the millions donated by Sheldon Adelson, or Rick Santorum, who benefitted from millions in donations from businessman Foster Friess.
The Rubio campaign is not prepared to tip its hand about where it will seek out donors. Asked if they planned to rely on big-dollar donors, as opposed to grassroots activists, spokesman Conant replied, “We do not discuss fundraising strategy.”
The island is a locus of self-made millionaires and billionaires, many of whom have sympathy for Rubio personally and his party more broadly. And he already has a big booster there in Braman—so it might be a good place to start.
“Marco Rubio is a candidate for the future,” Braman said. “He can lead the country forward, [he] can get things done. He’s acutely aware of the problems.”