Rubios on-campus office serves many, attracts few

Nestled in the Business Partnership Building, among hallways of local research and technology companies, lies an office meant to foster a different kind of partnership.

Outside of Suite 106 is a buzzer, a speaker and a solid wooden door that opens to the little-known constituency office of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

“The Tampa office is to be an office where local constituents in the area and the region can interact with Senator Rubio’s office, whether it’s to express opinions (or) solicit help with issues involving federal agencies and departments,” said Alex Burgos, spokesman for Rubio.

Burgos said constituency offices are located across the state in populous areas and are paid for with a budget set aside by the Senate.

Yet, Regional Director for Rubio’s office Matt Mucci said the Tampa office only sees about three to four walk-in visitors per month.

Across the hall, Sarel Botha, an employee of electronic document management company Docuvantage, said he sees people going in and out of the closed door “every now and then.”

He said he’s never seen the senator, but probably wouldn’t recognize him if he did. There are no pictures outside the office.

When Rubio took office in January, he inherited the suite from former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who saw a similar amount of traffic to and from the office, Botha said.

On any given day, the Tampa office is usually occupied by two people, Mucci said – a staff member and an intern who changes with the semester.

Current staff members declined to comment.

Josh Schulnick, a senior majoring in political science who interned at the Tampa office last spring, said his experience was fruitful.

“My overall experience was so helpful when I look at my future that may involve public policy,” he said. “I had an understanding of how the local political system works in relation to Washington’s role in protecting and enforcing constituent beliefs.”

Schulnick said his duties involved answering phone calls, creating databases of newly elected local officials, sorting mail, writing proposals, and responding to constituent concerns – something that took up much of his time.

The issues brought to the office’s attention are made note of and sent to Rubio’s Washington, D.C., office, where a few concerns are picked for the senator to personally address on his YouTube video series, Marco’s Mailbox, every week.

Though Rubio does have his own office in the suite, characterized by a University of Florida welcome mat, Schulnick said he never met Rubio during his spring internship. Rubio’s one visit to Tampa during his internship was for a speaking event – an occasion Schulnick couldn’t attend. The other time Rubio was supposed to speak in Tampa, the event was cancelled, he said.

When they are not meeting walk-in visitors, Mucci said the suite’s inhabitants answer phone calls and reply to emails on a daily basis.

Edwin Benton, a political science professor, said the low turnout at Rubio’s office isn’t too surprising.

“When I was an undergrad in the late 1960s to early ’70s, students were a lot more politically energized and engaged than they are today,” he said. “Young people have always been less active in politics, but this generation is not really turned on to politics.”

Benton said the Republican senator’s on-campus office may be an attempt to connect with younger voters, who typically favor the Democratic Party.

Yet to do that, Steve Johnston, a political science professor who teaches modern political theory, said the office would need a more centralized location. Johnston said he was not aware that the office even existed.

“If they wanted to locate it anywhere, they’d have to locate it in the Marshall (Student) Center or Library or someplace students actually go that’s more easily accessible,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s an office designed to attract many students.”

But for some, the office has proven to be a place to voice dissent.

Jackie Horwich, a senior majoring in women’s studies, has participated in three protests outside of the office since she learned of its existence last spring. Yet, despite having access to the office, Horwich said she is uncertain whether her concerns were heard.

“Protesting outside Marco Rubio’s office was kind of difficult because it’s tucked inside such a huge building, so they don’t really see you,” she said. “I’m sure if I made an appointment, I could go and talk to them, but it’s not very accessible, and they don’t seem to be very open to the public.”

Johnston said constituency offices offer students a valuable opportunity to become politically engaged during non-election times.

“I wouldn’t want to think that political activity ought to be restricted to things that are institutionally sanctioned or institutionally channeled,” he said. “It’s just as important, in fact even more important, to work outside of those institutions.”

Though having accessibility to a senator on campus is good, Horwich said accessing the office is difficult.

“Even if students did want to know about it, it’s really hard to find,” she said. “You have to go inside this really huge building and his door doesn’t have any sort of label on it. It’s very well hidden.”