Congress

Joe Garcia wins, will face Republican Rep. David Rivera

 

Joe Garcia won the Democratic primary and now squares off again against Rep. David Rivera, who beat him in 2010.

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

The Democratic race to face one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress ended Tuesday when Joe Garcia fended off three challengers to capture his party’s nomination.

Now the tough work begins for Garcia: Taking on Rep. David Rivera, a popular Republican who narrowly escaped a multi-count state indictment for campaign finance violations and still faces a federal investigation.

“No one should turn on their television, open up their newspaper or listen to the radio to find out their congressman is under FBI investigation," Garcia said to loud applause from supporters Tuesday night at La Casona restaurant. "It’s time to turn the page and leave these scandals behind."

But Rivera is no easy foe.

Popular in Miami’s vocal Cuban-exile community, Rivera is a fixture on Spanish-language radio and has never lost an election. Rivera bested Garcia in 2010 by double digits. And he faulted Garcia for opposing Cuba sanctions, supporting President Obama’s agenda and working for “Big Energy” companies after he regulated utilities on the Public Service Commission.

“Joe Garcia is the single-most corrupt career candidate in America,” Rivera said. “Joe Garcia wants to go to Congress to promote the failed economic policies of President Obama and Nancy Pelosi. I look forward to contrasting my vision of creating jobs with his record of cronyism and corruption.”

In another congressional race, Republican Karen Harrington faces an even tougher incumbent now that she won the Republican primary: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the popular chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

A third South Florida incumbent, Democrat Frederica Wilson, easily beat Dr. Rudy Moise and will head back to Congress with no general-election opponent.

Former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel beat fellow Democrat and Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, and faces former state Republican House leader Adam Hasner in November.

That race could be close, pitting two longtime Palm Beach County figures against each other.

But it’s unlikely to be as hotly fought as the Garcia-Rivera matchup in the Kendall-to-Key West district.The bad blood and tough tactics between Garcia’s campaign and Rivera’s operation could be felt throughout the Democratic primary, where Garcia faced three political newcomers: Gloria Romero Roses, Gustavo Marin and Justin Lamar Sternad. Roses dumped $425,000 of her own money into the race.

During the primary, Rivera stepped in and accused Garcia of leaving his cancer-stricken wife, even though she divorced Garcia. She contributed to her ex-husband’s campaign and also hosted a fundraiser for him.

Then, the attack was repeated in mailers from Sternad, whom Garcia accused of being a ringer candidate doing Rivera’s dirty work.

Sternad and Rivera denied a connection. But Sternad used a Hialeah mail operation once used by Rivera and he used a Rivera associate as a campaign advisor.

Also, like Rivera, Sternad had questionable finances. A self-funded candidate, Sternad’s campaign finance reports indicated that he had just $822 to spend on his campaign after he paid the state’s hefty qualifying fee to run.

Yet Sternad sent out six mailers, which would cost far more money.

When contacted by a Miami Herald reporter via email, Sternad refused to talk about his campaign finances.

Rivera and Garcia are about equally matched in cash on hand when Rivera’s debt is included in the totals.

While Garcia has struggled to win races in the district, Rivera is struggling to stay ahead of prosecutors.

Rivera faced 52 charges for potential campaign finance violations as part of an investigation that began into a secret dog-track contract. But prosecutors said some of the potential charges would be too tough to prove in court and the statute of limitations had expired for the others.

After the state case ended, federal investigators began examining Rivera’s finances. His fundraising has been anemic for an incumbent and Republican party support has been weak as well.

Rivera also faces the challenge of campaigning in a competitive district that was redrawn by the Legislature and now includes the 50,000 voters of the Florida Keys, which is only about 11 percent of district voters. The Keys tend to favor liberalizing trade with Cuba compared to Miami-Dade’s exile community, Rivera’s base, which supports more crackdowns on the communist dictatorship.

“It’s time to normalize trade with Cuba,” said Robin Smith-Martin, a Monroe County School Board member who voted for Garcia. “Joe’s got the best shot to beat the disgraced David Rivera.”

Follow Marc Caputo on Twitter @MarcACaputo.

Miami Herald staff writers Scott Hiaasen, Laura Isensee and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.

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