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Garcia's onetime adversary certainly doesn't think the newcomer is packing the gear for the job. “To me he's a real lightweight as an individual,” says Braddock. “He's got no original thoughts. He's just going to go with the flow and play to the audience.”
Yet with less than two months before the September 5 election, Garcia is the front-runner, at least in terms of fundraising. A retracing of how he got there provides a glimpse of the strange road some aspirants to the school board must travel.
Felix and Julia Garcia moved to Miami from Camagüey, Cuba, in the Forties. Their son Firpo Howard, was born January 16, 1957, during a family visit to the island. Young Firpo, named after a famous Argentine boxer of the 1920s, Luis Firpo, graduated from Coral Park Senior High School and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Miami in 1979. He was granted one doctorate in dental medicine from la Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico in 1983, and a second doctorate in dental surgery from the University of Southern California in 1986. The next year he returned to Miami to establish his Bird Road general dentistry practice in 1987. (In 1999 he moved his office to Hialeah.)
Though he did some volunteer work during the next few years, joining groups such as the Elks, the United Way, and the Coral Park High booster club, he says he first became interested in school board politics back in 1994, when parents in his practice began complaining to him about Braddock. “People would call [Braddock's] office, and he would never return their calls,” Garcia comments. “He was abrasive. Some people went down there and saw his [now-former] board aide doing needlepoint.”
In 1996 Garcia thought it was time to do something. That year the number of school board seats was expanded from seven to nine, and for the first time, members were elected from districts rather than countywide. Garcia leaped into the fray, emerging from a crowded Republican primary to take on Braddock. The irascible incumbent won the general election with 56 percent of the vote to Garcia's 44 percent.
Today Garcia views the 1996 race as a valuable learning experience, particularly in regard to political hardball. He remembers one negative campaign piece, a mailer comparing Braddock's long record of service to Garcia's relative inexperience. (Braddock became a school board member in 1962, before Garcia entered the first grade.)
Then there was the “whisper campaign,” alleging that Garcia's ex-wife, Roddess Ekberg, had accused him of beating her. In fact Ekberg did make such an allegation, but, as an October 27, 1996, Miami Herald article detailed, there was a lot more to the story.
In fact there's a thick, three-ring binder's worth of documents, which Garcia reviewed with New Times at the second-story Kendall townhouse where he and his mother live. It goes like this: In late 1992 Garcia met Ekberg at a dental conference in Orlando. They married that December and divorced the next spring. Only after the breakup did Ekberg claim Garcia struck her. Police and court records, which Garcia gathered both on his own and with the help of a private investigator, show Ekberg, under several aliases, was a con artist, a grifter who had used various schemes to prey upon dentists and other professionals in Florida and elsewhere. Metro-Dade Police investigated Ekberg's accusations against Garcia and found her to be not entirely credible. Garcia was cleared. Garcia says he kept track of some of her subsequent hustles, but he thinks she left the state sometime shortly after November 1993. He says he has no idea what has become of her.
Leafing through the Ekberg file with a reporter makes him downright testy. “It's not a crime to be in love,” he gripes. “Who's the victim here? I'm the victim. Seven years down the road, here I am trying to do the right thing for the community, and here you are asking about this.”
The fact that this story surfaced in 1996, Garcia says, was entirely owing to Braddock's dirty tricks. Although he's running against the engineer of that machine, Frank Cobo, Garcia says he's not worried about further mudslinging. “They tried to weaken my candidacy [in 1996] by dropping off a packet [about Ekberg's charges] at the Herald, and I think [New Times] got a packet, too,” he says, “But it didn't make any difference.
“I'm sure he's going to use it in this election,” Garcia asserts. “He's from the old school of politics, where they try to weaken you however possible.”
For his part Cobo says neither he nor Braddock did any dirty campaigning. They in fact instructed now-deceased political consultant Phil Hamersmith and teachers union leaders not to use material related to Ekberg.
One thing is clear: Garcia has observed much board debate during the past four years. Board member Manty Sabates Morse remembers his regular meeting attendance with a measure of amusement. “He'd sit in the same chair every time, so whenever the [WLRN-TV (Channel 17)] camera switched to a speaker at the podium, you'd see him there [in the background],” she chortles, noting that several other school board gadflies have long used this seating strategy. “When we changed the way the stage is set up, it was funny watching him try different seats the first few times, trying to figure out where he could sit to be seen.