Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life
Illustration by Mike Ray
On a Wednesday evening in early October, Congressman Joe Garcia strides through the empty lobby of a Key Largo community center, his black dress shoes clacking against the marble floor.
Garcia is both affable and imposing. He has a large body and a broad face, with small dark eyes set above a prominent nose. His gray curls, once an unruly mop, are styled neat and short.
For months he's been under siege over scandals related to his former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation), and an apparently phony candidate named Roly Arrojo. But on his way out of the building after a debate, he's in good spirits, relieved after a long day of campaigning. In the lobby he walks past an abandoned tray of roast beef sandwiches. His young spokesman, Texas native Miguel Salazar, trails behind him. Without speaking, the two men slip through the building's glass doors and into a warm South Florida night.
"How's Jeff Garcia?" an aggressive male voice suddenly barks through the darkness. "Are you paying his legal defense bills?"
Three men and one woman, all neatly dressed 20-somethings, emerge through the lobby door behind the congressman's back. They hoist cell phones to eye level, aiming cameras at Garcia's face. They approach until they're threateningly close -- maybe five feet from the congressman.
"Have you ever met Roly Arrojo?" heckles the boldest one, a College Republican type with short gelled hair and a plaid shirt. "Has the press asked you if you've ever met Roly Arrojo?"
Garcia and Salazar huddle close and try to ignore the heckling, but any attempt at conversation is drowned out.
"Jeff Garcia went to jail! You don't care?"
The congressman and his aide hurry toward Salazar's parked red Mini Cooper, but the four young people follow, cameras rolling.
"He's your best friend! You lived with him in Washington! You don't care that he went to jail?"
Garcia's smile is long gone. He's clearly annoyed but says nothing.
"Did your criminal defense attorney, David Markus, tell you you could not speak?" a young man provokes. "He represents criminals!"
Eventually, the hecklers retreat. "They do this all the time," Garcia says. "All the time... The idea is to get you to freak out, to say something nasty. You can't respond."
Garcia, who represents an area from Westchester to Key West, is a rare Cuban-American Democrat. After three decades in public service and two losing congressional bids, he was elected in 2012 as an honest antidote to the district's scandal-plagued Republican incumbent, David Rivera.
But now Garcia's own re-election bid has become engulfed in controversy. Last year his former campaign manager, chief of staff, and close friend, Jeffrey "No Relation" Garcia, pleaded guilty to absentee-ballot fraud during Joe Garcia's 2012 campaign. And for more than a year, federal prosecutors have also been probing claims that, in 2010, Garcia's campaign covertly funded the highly suspicious candidacy of Roly Arrojo as a way to siphon votes from Rivera.
Garcia, best known in Congress for his sponsorship of a spectacularly failed immigration bill, has repeatedly denied personal involvement in the scandals. He emphasizes he was cleared in the absentee-ballot probe and hasn't himself been identified as a target in the Arrojo investigation.
But for months his congressional seat -- highly sought after as both parties seek to bolster influence in the nation's most important swing state -- has been considered among the Democrats' top priorities. Just days before the November 4 election, and after a nasty and expensive race, polls show Garcia and his opponent, 34-year-old school board member Carlos Curbelo, virtually tied, with some observers actually giving the edge to the challenger in a district weary of political scandals.
Garcia campaigned hard in September, meeting with local Miami-Dade leaders.
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
"I don't think Garcia survives," says David Custin, a Florida political analyst, "because his guy went to jail!"
It was a hot spring day in 1982, and an 18-year-old Joe Garcia and his grandfather Nicolas leaned against the bumper of Nicolas' old white van, parked somewhere in Miami's Westchester neighborhood. In Cuba, Nicolas was a guaguero, a bus driver, ferrying passengers back and forth along Route 7 between Havana and nearby El Cotorro. But in Miami, he had struggled to find work. He ended up cutting neighborhood lawns to scrape by, and Joe tagged along to help with the jobs and translate.
"We'd be walking down the sidewalk and he'd say, 'See that guy over there?'" Garcia remembers. "'Go tell him his yard is ugly and we'll mow it for him.'"
Tired after just finishing a lawn, the pair guzzled water. Then Nicolas, a tough old man who later lost the tip of his middle finger in a mowing accident, asked his grandson what he planned to do after high school. "Bueno, abuelo," Joe replied, "I'm going to finish college. Then I'm going to go to law school. Then I think I'm going to go into politics."
Nicolas' eyes welled with tears, Joe thought from pride. "And he said, 'Son, politics is only for the lowest people.'"
Not that Garcia could be deterred. Ever since he was a know-it-all, Afro-sporting teenager, he seemed destined for a life in public service. He was a precocious kid who didn't get the best grades but impressed everyone around him with his outsize personality and intelligence. "Everybody liked him. Everybody knew him," says Hector Formoso-Murias, a former high-school classmate who's now a Miami attorney. "He was a leader."
In Cuba, Nicolas had gone to school until only fourth or fifth grade. His wife, Angelica, had continued through ninth. The couple had a daughter, Carmen, who fell in love with a handsome young man named Jose Garcia when both were just 13 years old. It was the late 1950s, in the middle of Castro's communist revolution. Jose fled to Miami in 1961. Carmen soon followed, and the couple was married a week after she arrived.
On October 12, 1963, Jose and Carmen's first child, Jose Antonio Garcia Jr. -- who would later Americanize his name to Joe -- was born at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach. The family initially struggled and for years crowded into a house with various relatives while Jose Sr. worked at a car wash and Carmen waited tables. Seven years after Joe was born, another son, Mo, joined the family. Gaby, another boy, arrived seven years later. By then, Jose Sr. had found a career as a banker, Carmen ran her own hair salon, and the family of five settled into a four-bedroom ranch house with a pool in the back and a small screened front porch in Westchester.
"It was a nice, middle-income house," says Edward Iturralde, a high-school friend of Joe's and now an attorney in Tallahassee. "We would watch MTV or Miami Dolphins games or whatever."
In seventh grade, Joe's parents enrolled him at Belen Jesuit Preparatory, an elite private school that, like nearly all of its students' families, had migrated to Miami from the island after the revolution. In Havana, Belen had produced generations of young political leaders, including Fidel Castro, whose government troops later seized the school. When it relocated in 1961, the all-boys academy became the breeding ground for South Florida's new Cuban-American elite.
But even at Belen, Garcia stood out. He was big for his age, both in size and personality, with a brash confidence, endearing wit, and voracious energy. In high school he played defensive tackle and defensive end on the football team for three years. He served on the student council for four years, was president of both the philosophy and chess clubs, and was also a member of the Tombola Committee, which organized the school's signature three-day spring festival.
Garcia was best known as co-editor of the school's yearbook his senior year. It was a huge responsibility for which he spent countless hours poring over photographs in the school's darkroom and managing a staff of a dozen students. "To carry the helm of being editor in chief," Formoso-Murias says, "it was a big deal."
The book Garcia produced is, most notably, thorough. It includes 246 pages of uncaptioned black-and-white photographs; generic, occasionally witty sports season and event recaps; and a full page dedicated to each senior. In Garcia's senior photo, he wears a dark suit, big glasses, and a wide smile while standing in front of a full-length mirror. His right hand is tucked into his jacket pocket, and his left holds a silver camera -- Garcia was a photography buff, and he took the portrait himself. "I think Joe may have been the originator of the selfie," says Iturralde, who co-edited the book.
As a teenager, Garcia was captivated by history and biographies (Teddy Roosevelt was a favorite subject), and he displayed a passion for government and social studies. In Pat Collins' 11th-grade government class, Garcia's large hand was always in the air, his deep voice often leading class discussions. Collins organized class trips to Washington and government shadow programs; it was this teacher, several Belen alumni would later say, who instilled in immigrant kids like Garcia a lifelong love of their new country's government.
"I thought our job," Collins explained to New Times in 2001, "was to bring these [Cuban] boys into the political mainstream as expeditiously as possible."
Garcia wouldn't waste any time. After Belen, he put himself through Miami-Dade Community College using saved lawn-mowing money; then he transferred to the University of Miami, where he studied political science and public affairs. During his senior year, he was elected student body president.
Garcia sits down with Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace.
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
And he was a fighter. Once, when the university announced a controversial new residential housing policy that didn't provide dorm space for all freshmen, Garcia called a meeting with UM President Tad Foote. He presented his own, alternative plan to preserve the housing, complete with elaborate dorm room measurements and financial calculations. When he finished, Foote and a provost who was present glanced at each other, awestruck, and a few days later the university decided to roll back on the controversial policy.
"It was a huge victory," remembers Bill Barzee, a member of Garcia's student government who was at the meeting. "When Joe feels passionately about something, he is on fire. He is in a zone. And that's how he was that day."
It was at UM that Garcia also planted the seeds for the connections that would lead to a rapid political rise. After a chance meeting with a student named JC Mas -- the youngest son of the iconic Cuban exile leader and millionaire Jorge Mas Canosa -- the young men became extremely close. Soon Garcia found himself playing pickup basketball with the world's most powerful Cuban exile leader. "I was a horrible player," Garcia recalls, "but he liked the fact that I was tall."
During Garcia's senior year, Mas Canosa invited him to a dinner event at his home. The student body president was excited at the prospect of mingling with politicians and businessmen. "I'm thinking, Wow, he's recognizing the fact that I'm student government president, you know," Garcia remembers.
When Joe and JC showed up, Mas Canosa handed them a couple of valet jackets. They'd be parking the guests' cars. But after the work was done, Mas Canosa invited them to the party.
"We sat at the table," Garcia says, "just like everybody else."
On May 31, 1994, a 36-year-old single mother named Maria Romeu, who worked as an assistant at MTV Latino in the company's office on Lincoln Road, let a friend use her station's office fax machine. The friend sent out an itinerary for an upcoming trip to Havana to see a concert by the Cuban rocker Carlos Varela.
Less than a week later, Romeu lost her job. "Oh my God, I still can't believe it," she told the Herald at the time. "They fired me for sending a fax."
Romeu had been terminated after Joe Garcia called the station to complain. The trip to see Varela, he explained to the Herald soon after, was "morally repugnant" and akin to attending a concert in Hitler's Germany. The trip also violated the strict Cuban travel restrictions in place at the time. He said he never intended for Romeu to be fired -- "I just take offense at using MTV for political purposes for a trip I imagine violates the embargo." (Garcia still stands by the call. "My whole point," he says now, "was to say, 'Look, you can't go to Cuba to party.'")
Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
TicketsSun., Oct. 1, 6:00pm
UberTailGate: Hard Rock Stadium Dolphins v Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Dolphins vs. Tennessee Titans
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
TicketsMon., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 11, 7:30pm
Garcia was just 30 years old then, but he was already well established as a South Florida Cuban leader. And on Cuba he was a hardliner, just like the man he had parked cars for eight years earlier. But he wasn't a Republican, like most Cuban-Americans, although it would still be years before he would identify himself as a Democrat. "I've migrated across the political spectrum," Garcia says. "I consider myself pragmatic."
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1987, Garcia worked briefly at the Salvadoran American National Foundation, a humanitarian organization, and then enrolled in law school at UM. But his studies took a back seat to the career that was already in motion: In 1988, Mas Canosa tapped him to run the newly created Cuban Exodus Relief Fund, a foundation division dedicated to resettling exiles in South Florida. Garcia would go on to help more than 10,000 Cubans reunite with their loved ones in Miami. "We ran out of refugees," he would say years later.
Garcia also embraced hardball politics. After the Miami Herald published an editorial opposing a proposed tightening of the U.S. embargo, on January 18, 1992, Mas Canosa started a war. He compared the Herald to Granma, Fidel Castro's propaganda machine, and decried the paper on local Spanish radio. "These are unscrupulous people, people who chop off heads, destroy people, families, put people in jail."
In the following months, newspaper boxes were smashed and bomb threats were recorded at the Herald's headquarters. A catch slogan was splattered across billboards, buses, and bumper stickers: "I don't believe the Miami Herald," the signs read in bold black letters against a yellow background.
The media war was directed by Garcia. "The Herald wants to cover Fidel -Castro as if he were the president of a Latin American country," Garcia explained at the time. "You can't be objective."
In 1993, a 29-year-old Garcia decided to run for public office. In a county commission race to represent District 11, a new seat on the western edge of the county, Garcia faced off against the dashing future state senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who had graduated one year ahead at Belen.
The race grew rancorous. In one debate, Garcia said Diaz de la Portilla's ads were abusive and insulting, "typical of the kind of campaign run by his family." (The Diaz de la Portillas were fast becoming a Cuban-American political dynasty.) In November, Garcia lost by only 243 votes.
The next year, when a seat on the state's Public Service Commission opened up, Garcia applied. Soon he found himself face-to-face in an interview with Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. "He looked me straight in the eyes and asked, 'Joe, can you vote your conscience?'" Garcia recounted later. "Yes, governor," Garcia replied. "I think I can."
Garcia attends a Homestead church service. He has been under fire for controversies surrounding his former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia.
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
Chiles had announced he was looking for another Hispanic to replace the outgoing Luis Laredo, who had been the first Hispanic on the five-member board. Garcia got the job and its $92,000 salary. But he didn't move to Tallahassee. Two years earlier, he had married Aileen Ugalde (who would become general counsel of the University of Miami). They had met in law school, and Garcia flew back to Miami every weekend, a tradition he still maintains. "If I go too long without arroz con frijoles," Garcia joked then, "I go through withdrawal."
Garcia quickly established himself as an authority on utilities and energy regulation. He voted in favor of some rate hikes but more often was a consumer advocate, especially for the poor. In 1999 he became the commission's first Hispanic chairman and fought repeatedly for funding to advertise a federal program, called Lifeline, that gave poor families home telephones. But the funding was denied, and Garcia soon moved on -- there was an organization in Miami that needed a new leader.
Two years earlier, Jorge Mas Canosa had died at the age of 58, leaving the Cuban-American community reeling. And then, in 2000, a 6-year-old Elián González was rescued off a boat and turned into an ugly international diplomatic flash point. The Cuban American National Foundation had staked its political future on the boy's fate, but Elián was returned to Cuba, and the once-mighty foundation was in crisis.
Just weeks after federal agents seized Elián from his relatives' house, Garcia was hired as foundation executive director, serving under board chairman Jorge Mas, oldest son of Mas Canosa. "It had slipped after [Mas Canosa's] death," Garcia says. "It had become very conservative, very Republican."
By then, Garcia's own politics had changed. While serving under the Democrat Chiles, the longtime independent had begun to drift toward the governor's party. But it was only when he returned to lead the foundation that he planted himself firmly in the Democratic camp. He was repelled by the Republican Party, he explains, after working with politicians like George W. and Jeb Bush. "I was just so turned off," he says. "The things they believed in and I believed in were very different."
Garcia and the younger Mas steered the foundation toward a more moderate approach. It supported more engagement with dissidents and, in 2001, bringing the Latin Grammys to Miami. The support invoked enormous backlash because Cuban musicians such as Issac Delgado and Omara Portuondo were among the nominees. For hardliners like Ninoska Pérez Castellón, the foundation's longtime radio voice, it was the last straw.
"Mas Canosa was the kind of person that wherever he spoke, the exile community felt he was talking for them," Pérez Castellón said at the time. "I don't think that applies to the foundation anymore."
Garcia stayed on as executive director for four years. In 2004 he stepped down to become an adviser to the New Democratic Network, a group dedicated to raising money for moderate Democrats. Two years later he was elected chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Garcia, once again, had seized a leadership role through his boundless energy and engagement.
But he had also burned bridges. "He became a different person after Jorge Mas Canosa passed away," says Carlos Manrique, who knew Garcia in the early '90s, when Manrique was a state representative and Garcia frequently lobbied for the foundation. "His views were a lot more conservative back then. He's sort of like a Charlie Crist."
By 2008 Garcia was eyeing a congressional seat. But he'd have to run without the campaign manager he wanted. Eight years earlier, when the foundation was hosting an event with then-vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, Garcia had met a young political strategist named Jeffrey Garcia. Joe, who always saw himself more as a policy guy, was immediately impressed with Jeff's passion for nitty-gritty political mechanics. But when Joe decided to run, Jeff was already committed to another candidate. "Jeff was the guy," Garcia said, "that I wanted to run my campaign."
He was also the guy who would become Joe's greatest liability.
The evening of November 6, 2012, Joe Garcia and more than 100 of his supporters packed into Casa Vieja, a lively Colombian restaurant in West Kendall. On an improvised stage, in front of a blue campaign banner, the tired-looking candidate addressed the crowd. Finally, after three tough congressional runs, he gave a victory speech: "Thank you, South Florida!" he said. "You've decided to turn a new page, move forward."
But just weeks after defeating David Rivera, one of the most infamous candidates in South Florida's corruption-filled history, and taking his seat in Congress, Garcia found himself embroiled in a scandal that seemed to be pulled from the same dirty book. Jeff Garcia, by then Joe's chief of staff, would soon head to jail for absentee-ballot fraud, and another investigation swirled. "Call Joe Garcia today," began a Spanish-language radio ad in June 2013. "Tell him that we are tired of the corruption and the fraud. If he can't tell us the truth, the right thing to do is resign."
Jeff Garcia, a short man with a square face and jet-black hair, was born in Miami in 1972, the son of a Cuban-American father and Irish-American mother. At Belen, from which he graduated in 1990, eight years after Joe, he was a serious, well-liked kid who played on the basketball team and spent four years with the school's community service program visiting elderly and children's homes. "It has helped me grow as a Christian, serving my fellow man," he said in his senior year.
Garcia speaks to student volunteers at his campaign office in Kendall.
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
After high school, Jeff Garcia enrolled at Creighton University in Omaha, a Jesuit school like Belen. But he wouldn't graduate until December 2002, according to the school, when he received a degree in marketing. Not that he needed it -- by then he had already earned a reputation as a brilliant Democratic strategist who had directed the congressional campaign of Miami Beach Democrat Elaine Bloom, among others. "He was the smartest guy in politics," Joe Garcia says. "At least I thought."
In 2008, Jeff Garcia ran a campaign for former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez against Lincoln Diaz-Balart in the 21st district, which included the west Miami suburbs. It was actually Jeff Garcia, Martinez tells New Times, who persuaded Martinez to enter the race. And once Martinez jumped in, Jeff took the lead. "Very honest," Martinez says. "Very smart."
But it was during that campaign that Jeff got his first real taste of -- and perhaps for -- South Florida corrupt politics. After numerous reports that absentee-ballot fraud was being committed by the Diaz-Balart campaign, at one point Jeff actually hid inside an 84-year-old voter's home with a video camera to try to confirm the cheating in action. It didn't work, but he and Martinez were still convinced their campaign had fallen victim to fraud.
"It is disturbing," Jeff Garcia said then, "that in a win-at-any-cost election, the congressman's campaign may be resorting to breaking the law."
Martinez lost. So did Joe Garcia, who was challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart's little brother, Mario. Joe then served briefly in the Obama administration, in a Department of Energy position, but resigned in April 2010 to make another run at Congress, this time with Jeff as campaign manager. Joe's opponent was Rivera, a hardliner who painted Joe Garcia as a Castro sympathizer. And when Joe announced he was holding a fundraising brunch in Hialeah with then-Democratic House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Jeff had to defend his candidate against charges of consorting with an unpopular Washington insider.
"Only a fool would deny his friendship with people," he said.
It was a curious choice of words.
Less than two weeks earlier, it had been disclosed that a third candidate in the race, ostensibly from the Florida Tea Party, was actually an old friend of Jeffrey Garcia's. Jose "Roly" Arrojo, who had played high-school basketball with Jeff at Belen and later partnered with the campaign consultant in a real estate management company, had suspiciously filed his candidacy as a Democrat before switching to the Tea Party. Arrojo also failed to file campaign finance reports, had no website, and sent out mailers attacking Rivera as a "liberal taxpayer nightmare."
It didn't matter. Rivera beat Garcia by nine points. But two years later, Joe ran a third time. The district had been redrawn to include all of the more Democratic-leaning Monroe County, and by then Rivera was drowning in scandal: In April, one investigation found he had used a labyrinth of credit cards, campaign records, and dubious loans to live lavishly off political contributions; another questioned whether he had a secret $700,000 consulting contract with Flagler Dog Track while he was serving in the Florida House; and sources had already revealed him to have connections to another suspected phony candidate from the same year's Democratic congressional primary, Justin Lamar Sternad.
"I don't know what goes through his mind," Joe Garcia told a Washington Post reporter three weeks before the election. "But he's a guy facing a really ugly future."
Garcia won by six points. But on February 23, 2013, less than two months after he got to Washington, the Miami Herald reported that in the previous year's primary election, more than 2,500 requests for absentee ballots had been sent by people who hadn't actually requested them, a clear case of ballot fraud. Three months later, on May 31, Miami-Dade police and state prosecutors raided the homes of John Estes -- Joe Garcia's 2012 campaign manager -- and a cousin of Giancarlo Sopo, Garcia's communications director.
Jeffrey Garcia immediately copped to orchestrating the scheme. Joe fired him and denied any knowledge of the plot. "This is something that hit me from left field," Joe Garcia said. "Until today, I had no earthly idea this was going on."
Jeff's fall from grace was swift. Four months later, in September 2013, an FBI investigation was launched into whether he had funded the suspicious Arrojo candidacy. The next month, Jeffrey Garcia was in handcuffs, being led into jail after agreeing to a 90-day sentence as part of a plea deal for the absentee-ballot fraud.
"It is painful to watch a friend go through this," Joe Garcia said. "[But] it must be noted that while these actions were wrong, no ballots were touched or manipulated in any way."
In Congress, Garcia has been an engaged representative. He's been the lead sponsor on 11 bills, including H.R. 15, the House version of comprehensive immigration reform, and he boasts of his leadership on important local initiatives like controlling flood insurance rates and Everglades restoration. But he has also missed 34 votes, the seventh highest among 76 House freshmen, and, with the exception of one bill renaming a post office, none of the bills Garcia introduced as lead sponsor has actually made it out of the hostile House.
"I think he's done a credible job as a first-term member of the House," says Bill Leogrande, an American University professor and congressional expert.
In August, Garcia took to the House floor to defend his immigration bill. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator and a fellow Cuban-American, had strongly opposed the reform, and in Garcia's rebuttal he launched into one of the year's most fiery political displays. "And to think, Mr. Speaker," Garcia began, his voice rising, "that a fellow Cuban-American sits in the other house, dictating to this house that we should strip away rights! Strip away rights from children! It's unacceptable! It's un-American!"
But a month later, on September 8, Garcia was back on the floor. This time his tone was muted. "The president signaled that he would not move forward on comprehensive immigration reform, and we are deeply disappointed."
For Garcia's political future, the announcement was only more bad news. Five days earlier, the Herald had reported that federal prosecutors were intensifying the investigation into the suspicious Roly Arrojo candidacy. A grand jury had issued at least four subpoenas, the newspaper reported, and at least one witness had testified that Jeffrey Garcia was behind the scheme. "Congressman Garcia has done nothing wrong," said David Markus, Joe Garcia's criminal defense attorney. "We've never been told that he's the target of any investigation."
Carlos Curbelo, who had just won the Republican primary, had another conclusion, one that would become a mantra for his campaign: "Joe Garcia is corrupt."
In the campaign commercial, Joe Garcia, wearing a clean white shirt, stands before a bright fruit market. "Here at home, we've seen what happens when a politician breaks the public trust, when they are dishonest and corrupt," he says. "Our community is being neglected because our congressman is busier covering up his lies and working on his legal defense than serving his constituents."
But as Garcia speaks, the screen fills with images of cutouts from real headlines: "Voter Fraud Scheme Falls on Rep. Joe Garcia," "Ex-Aide to Miami Rep. Joe Garcia to Head to Jail," "Feds Intensify Investigation on Rep. Joe Garcia's Former Campaign Manager."
The commercial is paid for by Carlos Curbelo's campaign. Curbelo, a baby-faced 34-year-old first-term school board member who also graduated from Belen, has repeated the corruption allegations at every conceivable turn. But Joe Garcia's camp has had plenty of its own ammunition: For months Curbelo has refused to disclose the client list of Capitol Gains, the lobbying company he founded in 2002 but then transferred to his wife's name in 2009.
In early October, five weeks after Democrats filed a lawsuit pressing Curbelo to release the list, the challenger admitted that Roberto and William Isaias, local millionaires wanted in their native Ecuador for embezzlement, were clients.
"Precisely who are Mr. Curbelo's clients?" Garcia pressed at a recent debate. "We don't know if he represents Chávez's regime because we can't see it."
As of September 30, Garcia's campaign had raised $3.3 million, and Curbelo's $1.8 million. Garcia's federal reports show his campaign accepted two $1,000 donations from Exxon Mobile's PAC and one $1,000 donation from BP's even though he opposes offshore drilling. He has also come under fire for taking a contribution from Bill Delahunt, a lobbyist who has met with Venezuelan socialist -president Nicolás Maduro.
Garcia, in turn, has repeatedly thrown accusations of Curbelo's campaign being dictated by conservative magnates like Charles and David Koch, whose super PACs have pumped millions into ads bashing Garcia. "I'm not running against Curbelo," the congressman says. "I'm running against the Koch brothers."
On a recent Saturday, the candidate happily strolls around after judging a rib fest in Florida City. Garcia is impressively talkative, eager to dive into detailed policy analyses or narrate old stories, but asked about Jeffrey Garcia, he becomes brusque. "I've had the same position that I have now that I had two years ago," he says. "I've been cleared by the state attorney. I wasn't involved. And when we found a problem in our campaign, we corrected it." But it is still sad, he acknowledges, to have lost a longtime adviser and friend. "It is," he repeats three times, "it is tremendously sad."
If Joe Garcia loses November 4, it will be in large part because of his ties to the disgraced former staffer. "There's no way you could ever make me believe that he didn't know what Jeff Garcia was up to," says Ed MacDougall, the longtime mayor of Cutler Bay, who came in second in the Republican primary.
Garcia and Ugalde divorced in 2012. Since then Garcia has been a bachelor, but he and Ugalde share a 16-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and she, in particular, is often hurt by the nasty campaign, sometimes even to tears. "She doesn't like it," Garcia admits. "She says, 'Dad, why do you go through this?'"
The congressman has an answer: Politics is a tough life, he says often. But it's also a noble calling, and if he's not willing to get roughed up in the name of service, who will?
"You choose to get into the ring," Garcia says. "You're expecting to get cut."