By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Circus music sounds as a camera cuts to a short clip of a well-known, fuming, bearded comandante. Standing at a podium, he wears a drab military uniform and madly gesticulates with his left hand. Red letters flash: Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Next comes an equally terse clip of a handsome fortyish man with thinning black hair and a dark suit, his face contorted in anger. He makes exactly the same gestures with the same hand. More red letters: U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
A third face appears. More irate gestures. Another menacing scowl. In red: U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
The loop repeats. Then comes the kicker: This November ... lets end the family circus. Vote against Fidels nephews.
In less than two weeks, a South Florida political dynasty will almost certainly disappear. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, fierce anti-Communists who are indeed Castros nephews by a failed first marriage, will likely lose victims of the anti-Republican discontent sweeping America. They are scions of a family that has dominated politics in both Havana and Washington for more than a half-century.
Until now, the Diaz-Balarts have skated through elections. But two Democratic challengers seem to have their number. Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and onetime Cuban American National Foundation chief Joe Garcia have raised more than $2 million. Recently released polls by Telemundo 51 and the Rothenberg Report show the Republican siblings trailing the Dems or locked in a dead heat. The November 4 election will tip their way if Obama voters show in force, which is likely.
That result will forever alter U.S. policy toward Cuba. And it might signal a shift of the Republican partys staunchest South Florida allies Cuban-Americans.
Ironically, though all four candidates have roots on the island, the race will be largely decided by ballots of other Hispanics, who now outnumber Cuban voters in the state. "The biggest factor in this race," opines Dario Moreno, executive director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University, a local political think tank, "is the non-Cuban Hispanics who are not necessarily loyal to the GOP."
Ashen rain clouds darken the sky over the Miami Springs Country Club on Curtiss Parkway. A monsoon-like downpour pelts the golf course. But the dreary weather doesn't dampen the mood inside the swanky clubhouse's ballroom, where 75 guests have gathered to hear the jowly, heavy-set, and towering Raul Martinez deliver a pugnacious stump speech. It's about 10 minutes before the candidate takes the podium, and an invitee named Andres Nazario, a slim fellow with a bushy mustache, stands near the wooden bar, where two bartenders are handing out free booze.
The 46-year-old is a rarity in these parts. He is a Cuban-American Democrat. "Cuba is an insignificant issue in this election," he says. "What is important is the economy and getting out of Iraq."
Nazario represents a shift in South Florida's political landscape. Democrats began losing Cuban-Americans after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy didn't supply promised air support and the effort failed. Ronald Reagan sealed the demographic for the Republicans after his 1980 election.
Last month, the Cuban Affairs Journal — a scholarly rag published by a University of Miami think tank — found that Cuban-American voters overwhelmingly identify as Republicans, but the community's views on social issues diverge from the party's. The report concludes that once the Communist regime comes to an end on the island, the exiles' Republican identity might melt away.
The two districts ruled by the Diaz-Balarts have traditionally been the most Cuban-American in the nation. Lincoln's area runs from South Broward to South Miami-Dade and includes Miramar, Hialeah, Miami Lakes, and parts of Kendall. Mario's district encompasses Perrine, Cutler Bay, Goulds, Homestead, and Florida City, as well as small parts of Monroe and Collier counties.
Two years ago, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 218,000 to 166,000 in Miami-Dade, which makes up the bulk of both districts. Today Dems have narrowed the gap, trailing the Republicans' 227,000 registered voters by only 28,000 (as of September 5). In Mario's district, 13,000 Democrats have registered since this past summer.
Meanwhile, Republican registration is down in both districts. "The Democrats have mounted a very aggressive campaign to register new voters," the Metropolitan Center's Moreno says.
Then there's the question of so-called Republican Party fatigue. Younger generations of Cuban-Americans are less likely to follow the hard-line exile politics of their parents. According to a poll released earlier this year by the Foundation for Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations, 48 percent of surveyed registered voters in the Diaz-Balarts' districts are "more likely'' to vote for a presidential candidate who would allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island, while 36 percent stated they would be less likely to support such a person.
The Diaz-Balarts support the travel restrictions. Their challengers are in favor of easing them.
With regard to money, the races are close. Lincoln has raised $1.6 million to Martinez's $1.3 million, while Mario has collected $1.2 million to Garcia's $1 million, according to reports filed this past August 6, the most recent available.
The parties are also pumping millions of dollars into the districts, and third-party political groups, known as 527s, are playing a prominent role. One group, called the Patriot Majority, has distributed six mailers assailing Lincoln for repeatedly voting in favor of congressional pay raises. One of them shows the older Diaz-Balart's profile next to five stacks of hundred-dollar bills. "We count on our congressman to protect the American dream," it says. "Lincoln Diaz-Balart has continually voted to use our tax dollars to raise his own salary."
The Republican Party of Florida has responded with a newsletter called Ultima Noticia, chock full of spooky Cold War intrigue. It cites Martinez contributors who legally set up trips to Cuba: "The Cuban tyranny and its associates, collaborators, and defenders in the United States have concluded the only way to end the embargo ... is to remove Lincoln Diaz-Balart and replace him with Raul Martinez, who supports multimillion-dollar unilateral concessions for the Cuban tyranny."
It's October 4, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart is holding court inside a storefront campaign office in a Hialeah shopping center on West 12th Avenue. Nineteen Nicaraguans and Hondurans are here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Congress's passage of a law that granted legal residency to thousands of Central Americans.
The visitors are seated in a small conference room with a large blue vinyl campaign sign hanging on one wall and the American and Nicaraguan flags draped on another. Lincoln, dressed in a tan checkered short-sleeve button-down shirt, black slacks, and black loafers, stands in front. Next to him is Cristóbal Mendoza, a Nicaraguan with a balding pate and wisps of gray hair, who announces his community's support for Lincoln's re-election. "We are here to tell you that you have our vote," Mendoza declares. "Lincoln, you are going to win."
The smiling candidate begins his speech. "In the next 30 days, we are going to see a never-ending series of insults and attacks," he says. "But being here, seeing Nicaraguans with their naturalization certificates, is worth all the attacks my opponent is going to throw against me."
The crowd shouts, "¡Que viva Lincoln!"
"I have a strong base of support among non-Cuban Hispanics," Lincoln comments shortly after concluding his presentation. "You're seeing that today."
The Diaz-Balarts have played a significant role in Cuban politics since the Batista days. Their father is the late Rafael Diaz-Balart, who served as the majority leader of the Cuban House of Representatives from 1954 to 1958. Their aunt, Mirta, was Castro's first wife and the mother of his first child. The couple divorced in 1955, one year after Lincoln was born.
The Diaz-Balart family fled Cuba for South Florida in 1960. Lincoln attended high school in Madrid, later earned a bachelor's degree from New College in Sarasota, and then received a law degree from Case Western Reserve. With an electric smile and a booming voice, he worked as a private litigator before attempting to begin a political career in 1982. Then 28 years old and a Democrat, he ran for the state house and lost.
In 1985, enchanted by Ronald Reagan's anti-Communism and perhaps sensing a better path to power, Lincoln and Mario switched parties. The next year, Lincoln entered the state house as a Republican. Soon he won a state senate seat, and in 1992 he was elected to Congress. Two years later, he became the first Hispanic in United States history to be named to the powerful Rules Committee.
Mario is seven years younger, less shrill, and more affable than his brother. He dropped out of the University of South Florida and followed Lincoln to the state house, eventually chairing the redistricting committee that created the congressional district where he won election.
Throughout their political careers, the Diaz-Balarts have vehemently opposed Castro. Just a year after election to Congress, Lincoln axed $23 million in federal funds for the district of U.S. Rep David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, after Skaggs succeeded in temporarily killing funds for TV Martí. In 1995, the South Florida congressman handcuffed himself to a White House fence to protest President Bill Clinton's Cuba policy and was arrested for civil disobedience.
A year later, Lincoln drafted much of the legislation that strengthened the embargo, attempting to leverage freeing of political prisoners and scheduling of elections. Mario has supported his brother's Cuba policies and the Bush administration's severe restrictions on sending money and traveling to the island.
Their zealotry has sometimes caused controversy. In 1985, Lincoln supported having an "Orlando Bosch Day" to celebrate the anti-Castro terrorist shortly after his release from a Venezuelan prison. Fifteen years later, the older Diaz-Balart advocated and won the release of José Dionisio Suárez Esquivel and Virgilio Paz Romero, both convicted for the notorious 1976 car bombing that killed Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier.
In 2003, the brothers lobbied the Panamanian government to free Luis Posada Carriles, who was imprisoned there for his role in an alleged plot to assassinate Castro and has been accused of killing dozens of Cubans in an airline bombing. He was later freed.
Of course, Lincoln has done many other things. In 1997, he helped restore disability benefits and food stamps to legal immigrants who had been cut off by welfare reform. The same year, he authored a measure that granted legal residency to hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants in the United States. He also came up with legislation to stiffen penalties for stalking crimes against children.
Mario has staked out turf as a rare Republican environmentalist, win ning more than $1 billion for Everglades restoration and other local projects.
Just last week, the Miami Herald endorsed Mario (but not Lincoln), citing his dedication to environmental causes. "We recommend Mr. Diaz-Balart in this race ... for delivering resources and jobs to the district," the editors wrote.
Political problems have dogged the pair, and this could be the key to their undoing a couple of weeks from now. The Federal Elections Commission in 2000 slapped Lincoln with $30,000 in fines after an audit showed he had collected $114,000 in contributions but never accounted for them. Among other issues cited by Democrats and backed up in public records:
• In the mid-Nineties, critics say, Mario used his position as an appointed member of the Florida Entertainment Commission to gain advantage for clients — including filmmakers and production companies — of his private PR firm, Gordon Diaz-Balart and Partners.
• That public relations firm also represented Florida Power & Light in 1997, when Mario voted for a state budget that included $900,000 for FPL's campaign to promote electric cars.
• The brothers this year have collected more than $14,000 from a political action committee run by a Maryland-based prosthetics company, Hangar Orthopedic Group. They cosponsored a bill to broaden insurance coverage for products of the firm, which federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are probing over claims of Medicare fraud.
• Since 2001, Medley contractors Locust USA and Mark Two Engineering have given $67,000 to the Diaz-Balart campaigns and their PAC, Democracy Believers, according to the Miami Herald. Locust has obtained about $10 million in Pentagon research and development contracts through congressional earmarks sponsored by Lincoln.
The brothers and their representatives insist they have gone to great lengths to avoid conflicts of interest and that the claims are meaningless when compared to the good they've done for the community. Amid the celebrating Central Americans in his campaign office, Lincoln defends his and Mario's actions: "Hangar Orthopedic helped me get prosthetics for Ukrainian kids missing limbs last October." He adds that his work on behalf of Locust, which develops products with Mark Two, will put Miami-Dade at the "forefront of military technology development."
His opponent, Raul Martinez, has criticized him for accepting money from tainted sources. But Lincoln scoffs. "Raul questioning my ethics," he says, "is like Al Capone complaining about someone running a red light."
A closeup of Raul Martinez's mug shot fills the television screen. Slow-motion video footage shows the ex-Hialeah mayor entering a Mercedes-Benz. Then, suddenly, the camera cuts to an image of a judge's gavel slamming the podium superimposed with the word guilty. Headlines announce Martinez's 10-year prison sentence.
A female voice warns, "The conduct of Raul Martinez. After years of embarrassing our community through corruption and scandal, using public office to become a millionaire, convictions for bribery and extortion, Martinez is featured in the investigative documentary Cocaine Cowboys, about drug trafficking in South Florida. Now Raul Martinez wants to take his corruption to Washington. We have to stop corruption. Say no to Raul Martinez."
That's the way Lincoln Diaz-Balart wants voters to think about Martinez. And it's more or less accurate — except that the bribery charges against Martinez were dropped after an appeal and some legal wrangling. Martinez, a bear of a man with the charisma of Latin American leaders such as Peru's Alan García, likes to think of himself more as the guy he came off as during a September 30 party at the cavernous AFL-CIO union hall in Allapattah. Dozens of union workers dined on steak, corn on the cob, and other grilled fixings as the organization's president, Fred Frost, took the mike. "You all want to meet the guy who is going to kick Lincoln Diaz-Balart's ass?" Frost inquired.
"Yeah!" the crowd roared back.
Frost handed the microphone to Martinez, who was impeccably dressed in a dark navy two-piece suit, light blue dress shirt, and solid blue tie. "I made my wife a promise I wouldn't touch him," Martinez said, referring to Lincoln. "But believe me, I want to punch him."
The crowd roared again.
Martinez reminded them Lincoln had backed out of an AFL-CIO-sponsored debate this past May and thanked the union workers for giving him their endorsement.
"Raul! Raul!" they chanted.
"You are all part of my family," Martinez rattled, "and I will protect the interests of my family. You all know I can be a tough SOB, and I will fight for you."
Martinez, like his opponent, was born on the island — in 1949 in Santiago de Cuba. After the revolution, his family left for Miami, where he graduated from high school and then attended Florida International University. In 1977, he was elected to the Hialeah City Council; four years later, he snagged the mayor's job.
During 24 years of leading the so-called City of Progress, he created innovative e-libraries that were among the first in Miami-Dade to offer English and citizenship classes. Martinez is also credited with building some of the finest public parks, recreational systems, and fire and police services in the state, as well as implementing award-winning elderly living and affordable housing programs.
He also earned a reputation as a combative politician who never lost an election. His politics, which sometimes incorporated intimidation and even alleged thuggery, gained opponents' respect and fear.
Martinez sometimes came off as a bully. For instance, in June 1999, when more than 400 people blocked the Palmetto Expressway to protest a group of Cuban migrants being deported, then-Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños was hit in the head with a rock.
Bolaños called Martinez, who rushed over. A few minutes later, a crew from Univision filmed Martinez repeatedly punching a much smaller man, a butcher named Ernesto Mirabal. Despite the incriminating footage, Hialeah Police charged Mirabal with battery on an elected official, resisting arrest with violence, and inciting a riot. The charges were later dropped.
Then there's the alleged public corruption. In 1989, Martinez announced he would run for Congress. His opponent, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (who this year is likely to have an easier go of it than the Diaz-Balarts), was married to the acting U.S. attorney at the time, Dexter Lehtinen. The same year, Lehtinen — a tough former commando — initiated a criminal investigation into accusations Martinez had extorted close to $1 million from developers in exchange for zoning favors.
Two years later, a jury convicted the Hialeah pol on six counts of conspiracy, extortion, and racketeering. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Martinez eventually won an appeal and a second trial in 1996, which resulted in a hung jury. A third trial, held the same year, resulted in his acquittal on one count of extortion while the jury deadlocked on the five remaining counts. Prosecutors decided to go no further.
During an interview at his campaign office, Martinez dismisses his criminal proceedings as old news. "My past is my past," he says. "In the end, I was found not guilty. And I finished that process 14, 15 years ago."
Martinez also points out the Cocaine Cowboys ad doesn't mention the convictions were reversed on appeal. "It is very sad that a congressman of 16 years can't run on his record," he seethes. "Lincoln has to run on lies and character assassination. It shows that he has failed the people of this district."
The Diaz-Balart camp also provided New Times with a list of Martinez's dubious campaign donors. They include Hector Ortiz, a Hialeah-based contractor who was banned from doing county work for two years; Recaredo Gutierrez, convicted on a counterfeiting charge in 1998; and Alfredo Duran, a Miami lawyer and former state Democratic Party chairman, who was acquitted of federal charges that he participated in a scheme to bribe Dominican Republic officials to release seized drug planes when the feds' main witness jumped bail and fled the States.
Lincoln tells New Times he simply wants to remind people who Raul Martinez really is. "His whole record personifies corruption," he says. "People need to know that."
On the campaign trail, Martinez has focused on attacking Lincoln for being in lockstep with President George W. Bush's failed policies. "He is a Bush rubber stamp," Martinez complains. "On five occasions, he voted against expanding healthcare insurance for children." It is a theme Martinez has repeated during his stops at the Miami Springs Country Club and the AFL-CIO rally, as well as conversations with voters on the street and in their homes.
Predicting victory next month, he points out the GOP represented 44 percent of registered voters in 2006, while today that number has dipped to 39. "When Mario redrew the districts, [the Diaz-Balarts] wanted to make sure they would be there forever," Martinez says. "But they weren't counting on losing voters. And there is a tremendous desire out there for a change."
A question pops up on the television screen: "Who is Joe Garcia?" The camera quickly cuts to an image and video footage of disgraced ex-Enron chairman and convicted felon Kenneth Lay followed by still photographs of Garcia.
The last frames put photos of Lay and Garcia side-by-side, and the Democratic candidate's name is inserted into the Enron logo.
A female voiceover says, "Who is Joe Garcia? Enron's convicted CEO said Joe Garcia is on our shortlist of people we would be quite comfortable with. Joe Garcia, the utilities commissioner who supported a huge rate hike on Florida's families, cashed out to utilities special interests and begged Enron's convicted CEO to give him a job. Today Enron is a national scandal. Enron. Joe. Enron Joe has gotta go."
That's the best Mario Diaz-Balart could come up with in the TV ad wars. After easily winning re-election in 2004 and 2006, he is facing his most formidable challenger to date. And the former Dade Democratic Party chairman has concentrated on enlisting the support of non-Cuban Hispanics.On a recent sweltering Sunday afternoon in Cutler Bay, Garcia, a verbose and congenial man in blue jeans and a striped long-sleeve Ralph Lauren dress shirt, is going door-to-door introducing himself to registered voters in a lushly landscaped residential neighborhood. His bushy brown hair bouncing with his every step, Garcia has already hit tens of thousands of households since announcing his run this past February.
The Democratic candidate walks up to a salmon-colored single-story house with a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn. Soon a large-bellied Hispanic man with a dark olive complexion and a mustache answers. His name is Roberto Machado. He's a Mexican-American and a registered Independent.
"Hi, my name is Joe Garcia and I am running for Congress," Garcia says in Spanish. "I'm running against Mario Diaz-Balart."
"Oh, he's no good," Machado responds. "I don't like him at all. Are you a Democrat?"
"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."
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."
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."