Incumbent U.S. Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo, who have attacked each other during a nasty congressional campaign, continued Wednesday when they sat side-by-side during their first debate in Key West.
Curbelo blasted Garcia on investigations into his past campaigns and for calling Republicans the Taliban on the House floor. Garcia repeatedly brought up Curbelo’s outside backing by the billionaire Koch brothers, “who don’t believe in climate change” — an issue especially important to South Florida and the Keys.
“Our community has had enough of the fraud and scandal that embarrass us as we travel to Washington, D.C.,” Curbelo told the packed ballroom at the Marriott Key West Beachside Hotel during the debate hosted by the Key West Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve worked every single day — whenever something happens in the Florida Keys or South Florida, I’m there,” Garcia said.
After the feisty 30-minute forum over a lunch of pork, Garcia started to walk off the dais with his back to Curbelo. But Curbelo stuck out his hand and tapped Garcia’s shoulder to get his attention. The two men awkwardly shook hands.
Curbelo said that his campaign has requested more debates, but that Garcia has not agreed to them. “I’m eager for Mr. Garcia to stop stalling,” he said.
Garcia said that is not the case, pointing out that two debates are already lined up in the Keys and three are in the works on the mainland. Curbelo’s campaign later confirmed that there are two forums lined up. Both men will be at the Hometown PAC candidate’s forum Sept. 29 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre on the campus of the Florida Keys Community College in Key West and at a Marathon Chamber of Commerce event Oct. 6 at the Marathon Government Center.
During Wednesday’s debate, both outlined their stance on a broad range of issues that have emerged in the tightly contested race for the 26th congressional district seat, a tossup contest that has drawn the attention of both national parties. The district stretches from Kendall to Key West.
On flood insurance, Garcia touted his work on a bill that “saved us” when skyrocketing rates were hurting the local housing market. He was an original co-sponsor of the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which put a cap on how much insurance companies can charge and got refunds for homeowners who were charged exorbitant rates before those caps went into place.
Curbelo’s rebuttal: “So Mr. Garcia goes around town saying he solved the flood insurance issue. We know that is not true. Congress did what it does best: Apply a Band-aid to a serious problem.”
Curbelo said he wants a comprehensive solution that stops Florida, with its more stringent building codes, from being a “donor state” to the National Flood Insurance Program. He said he’s also in favor of more private sector access to the insurance market.
On sea-level rise and climate change, Garcia said: “We should not stick our head in the sand. We don’t have a margin for error. We live at sea level.” He added that his opponent has received “80 percent” of his campaign funds from the Koch brothers, “who do not believe in climate change.”
Curbelo responded: “His comment about the financing of my campaign is an absolute lie. But that’s not the first lie he’s told on this campaign. PolitiFact already has rated two of his claims in his ads as false.
“On sea-level rise, we need to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame, and what we need to do is invest in infrastructure that we will need to prepare for climate change.”
The men also had a testy exchange regarding the outside money pouring into their campaigns.
“It is regrettable, but the reality is that the [U.S.] Supreme Court ruled that all groups can get involved,” Curbelo said. “But I give the incumbent credit, he does not discriminate on campaign contributors. He takes money from Exxon Mobil’s PACs and takes money from the most radical union PACs.”
Curbelo said his campaign will not conduct absentee-ballot fraud “as happened to Mr. Garcia’s 2012 campaign” and that his campaign will not recruit straw candidates as was done by the former Republican Congressman David Rivera and, allegedly, Garcia’s 2010 campaign.
Garcia responded: “I imagine you were tired of it when you contributed to that candidate [Rivera] and his run for Congress.”
On immigration, both men say they are in favor of comprehensive reform.
“No community on earth would be more benefiting,” Garcia said. “Whether it’s the Eastern Europeans working on Duval Street, the guys working on fishing boats, people harvesting [crops] in Homestead or a banker driving around in a Mercedes, it’s all about us solving the problem.”
Garcia touted his sponsorship of a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, which tea party Republicans have blocked from coming to the House floor for a vote.
“I’ve criticized people in my own party who stood in the way of this law,” Curbelo said. “Ms. [Nancy] Pelosi’s mistake is when she gave the law to Mr. Garcia. Again, we need people that can get things done and work across the aisle.”
On the Affordable Health Care Act, Curbelo said the law has resulted in employers forced to turn hard-working people with low incomes into part-time employees.
“We have to get rid of the 30-hour workweek,” he said. “We could have achieved the same goal of giving people with pre-existing condition access to the healthcare market without wreaking havoc on the entire healthcare system and our economy.”
Under the federal healthcare law, anyone working 30 hours or more a week is considered a full-time employee.
Garcia responded: “Everyone is for puppy dogs and kittens, but when it actually comes to healthcare, what he is saying is: ‘No.’ No in an area in the state of Florida where people are uninsured, one out of every three. That hurts us.”
On education, Curbelo, a member of the Miami-Dade School Board, said he is a strong supporter of high education standards. But he said that immigrant children who do not speak English should not have to take standardized tests only one year after enrolling in U.S. schools.
“What he supports is massive cuts to our education,” Garcia said. “When he was on our governor’s advisory board, he put forward $43 million in cuts. The [state] Legislature does pretty crazy stuff, but they would not follow Mr. Curbelo and our governor down that road.”
Garcia added that it was the Republicans who cut federal Pell grants, which help about 50 percent of the area’s students go to college.
On the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS or ISIL, both men say they support the Obama administration’s efforts to bring together an international coalition and use airstrikes to destroy the terrorists. Both men say they also are against using U.S. ground troops.
Both men also are in support of gay marriage.
“I support the freedom to marry and have done so even in a Republican primary where some were in disagreement with me,” Curbelo said. “On this issue: Live and let live.”
Garcia responded that Curbelo is backed by the Christian Family Coalition, “that doesn’t agree with a single thing he just said [on marriage equality].”
There were several questions about the environment, which is especially critical to people who live in the Keys, an island chain surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that has several state parks and national wildlife refuges.
Curbelo said he “absolutely, categorically” would not support additional no-take zones and closures in Biscayne National Park. He said they are “based on old data and pose undue burden on the commercial fishermen of the Florida Keys.”
Curbelo said it was partly based on a conversation he had with Capt. Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association. “He likened it to fishing at the sandbar off the Tiki Bar [in Islamorada],” Curbelo said.
There is no fishing at the sandbar. It’s a party spot.
Garcia said the issue requires working with the government to come up with solutions that are good for the environment and for those who make a living on the water.
Both men were asked how they would help secure funding for restoration of the coral reef, which provides habitat for fish but has been decimated over the past few decades by a variety of issues, including rising water temperatures.
Curbelo answered: “I support the acquisition of land by the federal government to continue protecting the environment and infrastructure here in the Florida Keys.” Then he went on to say the big problem is that the federal government is bankrupt, and that until the budget is balanced, “we won’t have the resources to invest in these important programs.”
Garcia, who said he has a residence in the Keys, responded that Curbelo did not answer the question because he believes: “We got to take care of everything else first, then we’ll get to you.”
Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.