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"Yes, I am," Garcia says.
"Well, then you have my vote," Machado concludes. "We need to take out those Diaz-Balarts."
Garcia, a jovial, intense man who enjoys ribbing reporters on the campaign trail, was born in Miami Beach in 1963. His parents, who fled Cuba after Castro took over, sent Garcia to Belen Jesuit Preparatory School (a Miami transplant that counts Fidel Castro among its alumni) and then the University of Miami for both college and law school. Unlike many of his Republican friends, he registered from the start as an Independent. "I get along with both Republicans and Democrats," he says. "Always have."
One of Garcia's best friends is Juan Carlos Mas, whom he met at Belen. Mas's dad, the late iconic Cuban-American leader Jorge Mas Canosa, established and presided over the Cuban American National Foundation, the most important Cuban lobbying group in the nation. When Garcia was president of UM's student government, he remembers, Mas Canosa invited him to a dinner party. "I thought I had arrived," Garcia recalls, laughing. "When I got there, Jorge told me and Juan that we were going to park guests' cars."
In 1988, shortly before Garcia began law school, Mas Canosa tapped the Miami Beach native to head a foundation-sponsored three-year effort called the Exodus Project, a successful refugee resettlement program that reunited more than 10,000 families. The effort brought Cuban exiles stranded in third countries to the United States.
It was a sign that Garcia had earned the respect of Mas Canosa, whom the candidate credits for giving him his "first break in this arena." He stayed with CANF for a decade, a rare Independent in a world almost completely inhabited by conservatives.
In 1993, when he was 29 years old, Garcia lost a runoff for a new Miami-Dade County Commission seat to Miguel Diaz de La Portilla by a mere 267 votes. "That was one of the seats created to get minority representation on the county commission," Garcia explains. "There were a lot of young, up-and-coming Cuban-Americans in that race, several of whom graduated from Belen."
The next year, Garcia left CANF when Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, appointed him to Florida's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities and sets electric rates. After a five-year PSC stint, he returned to CANF as its executive director. From 2000 through 2004, Garcia led the organization in a new direction, advocating political change in Cuba by empowering the dissident movement rather than emphasizing economic sanctions.
"I was brought in to make it more bipartisan," Garcia recounts. "But some of the more hard-line members wanted the foundation to be Republican."
This caused a rift. Older members left in protest. Yet Garcia retained the unflinching support of the foundation's current leader and Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas Santos, who is a Republican and generally has supported Republican candidates. In fact the family business, MasTec Inc., has anteed up $20,000 for Garcia's campaign, the most from any corporation to any candidate in this race, according to the Center for Responsible Politics, a think tank that tracks federal campaign contributions.
During his second tour with CANF, Garcia became disillusioned with the Bush administration and Miami-Dade's Cuban-American Republican representatives. "It was all about creating the appearance of doing something to bring change to Cuba," Garcia says. "It was just about getting votes." That prompted Garcia to register as a Democrat and work for the party.
He left CANF to join the New Democrat Network — a Washington, D.C. advocacy group — and manages efforts to recruit Latinos into the party. He is still a member of CANF's executive board. Garcia complains the Bush administration has failed in its dealings with Cuba. "By the time Bush leaves office, the United States will have done $2 billion worth of business with Cuba," he says. "No administration has had harsher rhetoric and achieved less on Cuba than this one."
On the campaign trail, Garcia has assailed Mario Diaz-Balart's congressional record. "He has been in Congress for six years and has only passed one bill," Garcia says. "The only thing worse in politics than being Tweedle Dee is being Tweedle Dum. Mario's name should be one foot behind and two to the right of his brother. He has no presence."
Carlos Curbelo, spokesman for both Diaz-Balarts' campaigns, labels Garcia's remarks "disingenuous."
"For only being in Congress for six years, Mario has quite a record of getting things done," Curbelo says. "Mario has been at the forefront of Everglades restoration and secured funding for the Ryder Trauma Center." He goes on to accuse Garcia of trying to deflect attention from his own controversies, specifically pointing out the Cuban-American civic leader's relationship with U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, who supports ending the Cuban embargo and is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for, among other things, failing to report more than $75,000 in rental income from a villa he owned in the Dominican Republic.
This past April, Rangel hosted a fundraiser for Garcia in New York City. The House Ways and Means Committee chairman's PAC has also raised $14,000 for the South Floridian. "He needs to deflect as much attention away from his affiliation with Rangel," Curbelo says. "Not only is Rangel a Hugo Chávez and Castro sympathizer, he is also corrupt."