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“But I can't tell you where he stands on any issue,” Morse adds, more soberly. “I've never seen him come up and say, “This is how I feel.'” Morse also confesses she has a hard time figuring out Garcia's political philosophy. Although he is a Republican, she says his public pronouncements are more consistent with the PTA or UTD point of view -- which often contradicts conservative ideology.
Cobo likes to say his opponent's first name should not be “Firpo” but “Flippo,” because of his tendency to flip-flop his position on crucial issues. No area illustrates this phenomenon better than that of vouchers. In 1996 Republicans often championed a system that would, among other things, subsidize private school tuition for students attending poorly rated public schools. Back then Garcia supported vouchers. Now, perhaps in an effort to curry favor with the UTD, he has reversed his position.
He says political expediency had nothing to do with his change of heart. “When [vouchers] first came out, they were experimental,” Garcia says. “There had been little research, but they sounded good. Has it worked? No. If you take a child from a failing school and give him the choice of going to another school, you'll probably deplete the failing school down to empty.”
What Cobo tries to spin as political malleability, others see as political maturity. “To his credit he's spent the last four years learning about the school district, and he's been a good student,” says Annette Katz, a UTD spokeswoman. “He spent a lot of time speaking with us, and we got to know who he really is and what he stands for.”
Even before their union officially backed Garcia, teachers and administrators were contributing to the dentist's campaign in droves. How come? “You'll find out it's called respect,” Garcia declares, his gaze steady, his upper lip sweating. “I've earned it. I was an unknown entity [in 1996], and people didn't take me seriously. But by having a work ethic and showing my true intentions, I earned people's respect. Having school board members and administrators contribute to my campaign shows that I've earned respect.
“I'm sure they're encouraging their friends, as well,” he adds. “With Dr. Stinson, the fact that he contributes to my campaign is a statement in itself, and I'm sure he has talked to other people about my campaign.”
Few of Garcia's contributors replied to calls from New Times about their contributions, but his campaign forms speak volumes. Garcia has received at least $8800 in donations from no fewer than 140 school employees, mostly in small increments. As of March 31, he had received $75 from associate superintendent Rose Barefield-Cox, $75 from deputy superintendent John Johnson II, $25 from deputy superintendent Carol Cortes, $25 from assistant superintendent Joyce Annunziata, $25 from now-retired assistant superintendent Carrie Mickey, and $25 from district director Ruby Johnson. New public information officer Alberto Carvalho gave $25. From the personnel office alone, he's raked in $25 from deputy superintendent Nelson Diaz, $25 from assistant superintendent Gwendolyn Jennings-Kidney, $25 from assistant superintendent Patricia Parham, and $50 from administrative director Vera Hirsh.
Of this group only Carvalho and Cortes would comment for the record. Carvalho says he met Garcia at “political events over the years,” emphasizing that he gave the candidate money as a “private citizen,” and not as a school board employee. Cortes says she first met Garcia through the PTA, adding, “I believe he really cares about the school system and the children.” She says she bought a $25 ticket to one of Garcia's fundraisers, though she can't recall where or when she bought the ticket, or whether or not she attended. During an election year, “I can't remember one [fundraiser] from the other,” she chuckles.
Add to these givers a parade of principals and a torrent of teachers giving similarly modest amounts (largely through ticket purchases), top them off with $500 chunks here and there from school district vendors and potential vendors, sprinkle in a handful of $100 shots from dentists, and you've got a substantial early lead for the driven dentist from West Kendall.
School district employees have a right to participate in the political process, but when politicking and authority mix, the potential for abuse is obvious. Consider the following example: One school principal, who asked not to be named, confirms receiving an invitation to a fundraiser for Firpo Garcia, by phone, during working hours, from Region 5 superintendent Neyda Navarro. The event took place at Navarro's home. Though nothing about the substance of the call was intimidating, being invited to an event at the home of one's immediate superior sure sounds like an offer you can't refuse.
Garcia says he became friends with Navarro while he was PTA treasurer. “She was gracious enough to hold a fundraiser for me,” he allows. Navarro did not return phone calls seeking comment.
According to Florida law, no state employee can campaign for anyone while on the job. Nor can officials bully subordinates into supporting a candidate. In a June 13 memorandum, just in time for this year's election season, deputy superintendent of schools Henry Fraind provided administrators with a friendly reminder to employees of “their rights and the limitations imposed by state law and school board rules.”