Published December 17, 2012
It is time for my annual pick for the year’s top member of Congress.
Last year, I chose Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) for his leadership on the issue of immigration reform. In 2011, Gutierrez drew up the Dream Act and put pressure on President Obama to use his executive powers to make it law.
That step sparked a political fire and set Democrats on their way to winning the Hispanic vote in 2012 and retaining control of the Senate and the White House.
My choice for this year’s game changer on Capitol Hill is also at the center of the nation’s political future and the immigration debate – Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Rubio did heavy lifting early in the 2012 campaign year by trying to get his party to embrace immigration reform before the election. He wanted a watered-down version of the Dream Act to reward children of illegal immigrants who enroll in college or serve in the military with citizenship.
Rubio has political scars inflicted by the GOP’s right wing, which rejected his plan.
But in the aftermath of the Republicans’ defeat at the polls, it is now clear Rubio’s vision for opening the party’s doors to young people, his own family’s immigrant story, and the diversity he represented as the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate makes him the lawmaker of the year in 2012.
Given the ongoing fight over immigration reform, he is also the man of the moment and potentially the man of the coming year for Republicans.
Rubio’s standing as a Tea Party favorite and a likely candidate for the GOP’s 2016 nomination give him the political muscle to wrestle with hard line conservatives in the House. He needs to get them and his Senate colleagues together to put a pro-immigrant face on the GOP.
If Rubio is successful he will be the new-age Republican who can put Democrats and President Obama on the defensive in the upcoming immigration reform debate.
Today the GOP is an injured party of older, white, male, wealthy, small town and southern Americans who are uncomfortable with the changing demographics of 21st Century America and resentful of economic policies that offer a social safety net to the poor. Fear and anger have come to define the GOP as a minority party.
Rubio is already at work creating a new identity for Republicans as the party of opportunity that attracts young people of all colors, educated women and people who live in big cities where the votes are to be found.
Earlier this month at a Jack Kemp Foundation dinner in Washington, he began pushing back against Mitt Romney’s dismissive “47 percent” comment about people who will never vote Republican.
“Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed,” Rubio said, “that too many people want things from government. I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had — a chance.”
That led Rubio to break with the failed rhetoric of 2012 Republicans by calling for the party to “protect our nation’s safety net programs … as a way to help those who have failed to stand up and try again … to enhance family stability, financial opportunity, education and a culture of work.”
He dared to speak about young people — including immigrants and minorities — as important Americans who want to work hard but find it difficult to get an education because they live in bad neighborhoods and have families that are often broken.
Rubio wants those young people to identify with Republicans as the party that wants to give them a hand up.
In Rubio’s new GOP, the middle class is at the heart of the party. Unlike Romney, he acknowledged the growing class divide between rich and poor that is squeezing the middle class.
“Every country has rich people,” he said at the Kemp dinner. “But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the American middle class.”
He identified education reform — including tax breaks and vouchers for parents of elementary and secondary students — as part of his reform.
But the defining fight for the future of the party is the upcoming struggle over immigration reform.
After Latino voters backed President Obama with 71 percent of their vote, the Republican Party must get control of the immigration issue, or fade away.
As Rubio told me in an interview this year for Fox News Latino, “It is very hard [for Republicans] to make the economic argument to people who think you want to deport their grandmother.”
Unlike other members of his party, such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Rubio talks about immigration in humane, compassionate terms as an issue affecting people’s lives.
“When you talk about illegal immigration, you’re not talking about plagues of locusts, you’re talking about people,” Rubio told reporters last week.
That daring, refreshing approach from a Republican makes Sen. Rubio my man of the year.
This column originally ran in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.