The déjà vu congressional race for Florida’s southernmost district features the same candidates, the same slogans and the same issues as it did two years ago.
Except this time it also involves a federal grand jury, a pile of ethics violations and an FBI witness on the lam.
Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera handily defeated Democrat Joe Garcia in 2010. Now the congressman, plagued by controversy, is fighting for his political survival.
His party has largely abandoned him. He has been unable to raise much campaign money. And he has had to defend himself about pending federal investigations and state ethics charges in almost all of his recent public appearances.
Rivera has tried to counter these questions with political judo. The FBI probe? An invention, he claims, of The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and other media outlets. The 11 charges the Florida Commission of Ethics filed this week? A Democratic hit job. As for his opponent, Rivera has deployed the gravest of slurs: Garcia, he insists — without offering any proof — is an agent of Fidel Castro.
“That’s what’s at stake in this election,” Rivera told a Spanish-language television station this week. “Not these false allegations: having Havana’s man in Congress.”
The day before, Garcia, who has employed a campaign strategy of getting out of Rivera’s way, accused the congressman of engaging in “a great campaign of disinformation.”
“He’s in a desperate place,” Garcia told reporters at a forum sponsored by the AARP. “This is not about investigations ... When this gentleman gets up, he stands up for all of us.”
Rivera, 47, and Garcia, 49, are vying to represent Congressional District 26, whose newly redrawn borders extend from Kendall to Key West. Neither Garcia, who is divorced and has a teenage daughter, nor Rivera, who is unmarried, lives in the district — nor are they required to. Two other candidates, Angel Fernandez and Jose Peixoto, are running without party affiliation, though they have not mounted major campaigns.
The inclusion of the more moderate Florida Keys has made the district slightly less favorable for the incumbent Rivera, whose previous district stretched from western Miami-Dade to east of Naples.
Still, political analysts widely rated the new district as leaning Republican — until after the Democratic primary, in which a little-funded first-time candidate, Justin Lamar Sternad, carried out an extensive direct-mail campaign with sophisticated voter targeting.
Two campaign vendors, who have since given statements and turned over evidence to the FBI, have said Rivera ran Sternad’s operation. The conduit was Rivera’s close friend, Ana Sol Alliegro — Sternad’s campaign manager — who delivered envelopes stuffed with cash to a printing company. Alliegro vanished after skipping a scheduled interview with FBI agents, who are still trying to talk to her.
Word of the federal investigation, which drew the attention of a grand jury, prompted Rivera to slip in the polls. Two Democratic surveys and one Republican one have shown Garcia ahead by around 10 percentage points — a lead that a few months earlier would have been unthinkable. Despite Rivera saying his internal polls show him ahead, political analysts changed their predictions to make them less favorable to the congressman.