Joe Garcia’s voting history as a maverick who broke ranks with his party more often than most other lawmakers might not be a bad record to run on as he tries to reclaim his congressional seat in a political season of anti-Washington venom.
The Miami Democrat is running against Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Cuban-American Republican who defeated him in a close race two years ago.
Garcia had taken out scandal-plagued Republican Rep. David Rivera in November 2012 in a 26th Congressional District that has been reconfigured since then following a successful court challenge to Florida’s redistricting maps. It changed from being slightly Republican to being one of Florida’s few truly swing districts, with party loyalists equally divided.
During his single term in the House of Representatives, Garcia built a reputation as an iconoclast who voted against a president from his own party on some of Barack Obama’s keynote issues, from the Affordable Care Act health-insurance program to his bid to shutter the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
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“While I’m a proud Democrat and have been for a while, they didn’t send me to Washington to vote along partisan lines,” Garcia told the Miami Herald.
In 2013 and 2014, Garcia’s years in Congress, Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike voted with the majority of members from their parties an average of 94 percent of the time.
Only 84 percent of Garcia’s votes, however, were in line with most fellow Democrats, who almost always backed Obama’s stances. Just 18 House members broke with their party more often.
Some of Garcia’s against-the-grain votes were on high-profile issues.
On Nov. 15, 2013, Garcia joined 38 other Democrats and all but four Republicans in voting for the Keep Your Health Plan Act, which allowed insurers to sell and renew limited-coverage plans that didn’t meet the standards of the “Obamacare” law, which the president had signed in March 2010.
Six months later, Garcia and 26 other Democrats voted with 223 Republicans to pass a bill that suspended the penalty on most Americans who fail to maintain health coverage for themselves and their dependents.
Neither measure passed the Senate, but Garcia thought they were important.
“The website wasn’t working. People weren’t able to sign on, so what we didn’t want was for them to be punished for trying to sign up but not being able to get on,” he said.
Politifact, a website that checks politicians’ claims, had branded as “the lie of the year” Obama’s repeated assertion that Americans would not be forced to give up their current health plans if the Affordable Care Act became law.
Florida’s 26th Congressional District was redrawn in January 2013 after the state gained two House seats because of population growth recorded in the 2010 census.
Since the law was implemented, most Americans have been able to keep their plans but a small portion have been compelled to find different coverage in order to meet the law’s policy standards.
“The president of the United States stood up on TV and gave a promise,” Garcia told the Miami Herald. “I was trying to make sure that he kept his promise. That was a promise that a lot of people I know supported Obamacare precisely because they wanted to keep their health care.”
Garcia noted, however, that he’d never voted with Republicans during the two dozen or so times they passed measures that would repeal the Affordable Care Act outright while he was in Congress. With Garcia out of office, the Senate approved a repeal bill last December, but Obama vetoed it and Republicans lacked the votes to overturn his veto.
And Garcia said he’d promoted the law to his constituents at some political peril. He said his staff had helped people sign up for coverage under it.
“We were supportive of that policy, we defended that policy and then unlike others we went out there and sold that policy in a community where you had a high amount of opposition,” he said.
Despite his votes, Garcia views Obamacare as a landmark law.
“I voted for commonplace fixes to a series of administrative and implementation snafus that had hurt,” he said. “What we can’t do is go back. What we have to do is fix what we have. I think it was a milestone. We went from health care being a privilege to health care being a right.”
On Guantánamo, Garcia cast a number of votes against Obama’s desire to shutter the prison and transfer its detainees to foreign countries or high-security penitentiaries in the United States.
On Sept. 9, 2014, Garcia joined 21 Democrats and all 227 voting Republicans in backing a bill that condemned the Obama administration for having released five senior Taliban leaders from Guantánamo to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who’d been captured after leaving his unit’s outpost in Afghanistan.
Garcia acknowledges that his stance on Guantánamo has changed over time and said he now supported Obama.
“On Gitmo, I have in many respects an evolving position,” Garcia said.
But the former congressman said he thought at the time that Obama was trying to move too fast on closing the prison and was too far ahead of where many Americans stood.
“The president in many respects was trying to move the debate forward in a rational way, but the reality is that politics is the art of the possible in some cases,” Garcia said. “So we tried to make sure that we were in line with the thinking of people who were deeply affected by this.”
780 The number of alleged terror detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since it opened in 2002. Sixty remain.
In retrospect, Garcia described Guantánamo as “an experiment in jurisprudence that was a mistake.”
He added: “I agree with the president. The American judicial system works. The greatest example of our nation is that even under very stressful, difficult situations, our system works and justice is had.”
To be sure, Garcia voted with Obama and other Democrats many times, and on many key issues.
He voted for comprehensive immigration restructuring and for the DREAM Act, which would have allowed the children of immigrants in the country illegally to remain in the United States.
He voted against anti-abortion measures and for equal pay for equal work. He voted to fund Planned Parenthood and other family-planning groups. He voted against allowing private Social Security investments. He voted for various gun-control bills, earning an F rating from the National Rifle Association.
Before joining Congress, Garcia was the executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation and the chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission. He served briefly as head of minority outreach in the U.S. Energy Department early in the Obama administration after the Senate unanimously confirmed him.
Republican attacks on Garcia as he tries to regain his House seat have focused more on ethics than on votes.
“Joe Garcia has consistently embarrassed the people of South Florida with his never-ending scandals and lewd, sexist comments,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The committee is also running a Spanish-language TV ad that criticizes Garcia for supporting the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, a stance in line with that of most Democratic lawmakers.
Two scandals that helped Curbelo defeat Garcia revolved around his former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia, who is not related to the ex-congressman.
Following prosecutions based on Miami Herald investigations, Jeffrey Garcia accepted a plea deal for having illegally financed the 2010 campaign of a ringer tea party candidate to draw votes away from Rivera, the Republican congressman Joe Garcia was trying to defeat.
U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez last year sentenced Jeffrey Garcia to two years of probation, eight months in home confinement and a $1,000 fine.
In 2013, Jeffrey Garcia had served 65 days in jail after pleading guilty to having unlawfully submitted online absentee-ballot requests for unsuspecting voters in the 2012 congressional election, which Joe Garcia would go on to win.
The “lewd, sexist comments” Pack referred to came in what Garcia thought was a private conversation before he gave a public talk last month in Key West, Florida. One of his listeners recorded him predicting that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would be a consequential president of a type similar to Lyndon Johnson.
After saying that Johnson “wasn’t a particularly charming man, wasn’t a particularly nice man,” Garcia said Clinton was “exceedingly competent” and added that she was “under no illusions that you want to have sex with her, or that she’s going to seduce you, or out-think you.”
When his remarks were reported, Garcia apologized for his “poorly worded comment about Secretary Clinton.”
Beyond Guantánamo and health care, Garcia was willing during his House term to side with Republicans on several divisive issues that received major news coverage.
In February 2013, less than a month after coming to Washington, Garcia helped Republicans pass a welfare bill with stiffened work requirements for recipients. Only 17 other Democrats voted for the legislation.
“Unless they have some health impediment or they have some family impediment, I believe that there is a dignity to work and a value to work,” Garcia told McClatchy. “People who work tend to feel better about themselves and to move forward in our country.”
In one of the most high-profile votes of the 113th Congress, Garcia voted four months later with 23 other Democrats for a farm measure that included major food stamp cuts.
Ironically, the bill was defeated because 62 Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing it. Democrats, however, voted against the legislation because of the food stamp cuts while Republicans opposed it because they didn’t think it reduced spending enough on the low-income nutrition program.
Garcia said he’d voted for the measure because his district included large agricultural tracts.
“I thought that we could fix the food stamp provisions.,” he said. “It’s something that most of my farmers knew, that I opposed that (food stamp) part of the bill, but we thought we could figure it out.”
For the first time since the Great Depression, modified food-stamp provisions were split from the farm legislation and later approved as a stand-alone measure for which Garcia voted.
In the first half of October 2013, Garcia joined small numbers of other lawmakers from his party in voting for 11 appropriations bills that the Republican-controlled House passed over Democratic objections that they short-changed key federal agencies.
“I have voted with Republicans and Democrats in Congress in order to keep the government open or to help fund programs that are important to South Florida families,” Garcia told McClatchy.