Responds Garcia: "Charlie Rangel is a guy who has a Bronze Star hanging on his office wall for killing Communists during the Korean War. I've had more arguments with Charlie about Cuba than Mario has. But having a relationship with the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee would help bring federal money back to the least-funded district in Florida."
Garcia is optimistic. In 2006, Republicans had a seven-point advantage over registered Democrats in the district. Today the Republicans hold less than a one percent edge. In addition, more African-Americans have registered to vote, rising from nine percent of overall voters in the district to 12 percent. "I've got more than a good chance of beating Mario," Garcia boasts. "We've really worked hard to get non-Cuban Hispanics like the Mexicans and Central Americans living in Southwest Miami-Dade to register to vote."
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Mario Diaz-Balart with his brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart in the background
Leading the registration drive for Garcia is Eddy Garza, an energetic 26-year-old Mexican-American whose parents are migrant farmer activists in Homestead. The young campaign volunteer is in charge of coordinating and training the 40 volunteers who canvass Perrine, Cutler Bay, Homestead, Florida City, and other neighborhoods in the district. "Joe reached out to our community," Garza says, "and not just Mexicans — Central Americans too. That is why I am working so hard for Joe."
As election day draws closer, Democratic leaders have become increasingly confident that Garcia and Martinez will end the Diaz-Balart dynasty. Indeed the candidates have erased the leads the brothers shared early on in the campaign. "Joe and Raul have done a tremendous job capitalizing on voter registrations and voter discontent with our current leadership," says Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman. "We are all about winning and making gains throughout the state."
On October 14, the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter and blog that analyzes political campaigns, rated the battle between Garcia and Mario a "pure tossup." Just a week earlier, the newsletter had that race leaning toward the Republican. The blog has rated the contest between Lincoln and Martinez the same. (Several polls have given Martinez a slim lead.) A poll by Telemundo 51 earlier this month showed the brothers with less than 50 percent approval ratings.
Luis Garcia, the Democratic Party's state vice chairman and a state legislator representing Little Havana, adds that being a Democrat is no longer a dirty secret in his heavily Cuban-American district. The former Miami Beach firefighter and city commissioner, who is Cuban, notes his district now includes 1,000 more Democrats than Republicans. "There was a time when being a Democrat was to be a leftist or worse," says Garcia, who is not related to Joe. "We are proving that it is okay to be Cuban-American and a Democrat."
If the two Democrats vying against the Diaz-Balarts win November 4, Garcia continues, the focus in Washington, D.C., will shift from dealing with Cuba to taking care of South Florida. "We love Cuba and want it to be free," Garcia says. "But we are living in the United States. And we have to deal with our problems at home. Joe and Raul will do that."