The ghost of David Rivera lingers over the fierce race for Florida’s southernmost congressional district.
Engulfed in scandals, he lost the seat two years ago and came in fourth place this year when he tried to win the Republican Party’s nomination again.
But his tainted legacy is never too far from his former opponents.
The man who won this year’s GOP primary, Carlos Curbelo, is campaigning as the anti-Rivera. The man Curbelo wants to defeat, Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, is seeking reelection without having the vulnerable Rivera to use as target practice.
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Garcia’s own 2012 political advertising — hammering Rivera as corrupt — has come back to haunt him.
The Democrat’s chief of staff pleaded guilty last October to attempted absentee-ballot manipulation. And Garcia’s 2010 campaign has been under federal criminal investigation for more than a year over a suspected straw candidate — the same offense that handed prison sentences to two people linked to Rivera.
Prosecutors cleared Garcia in the state case. He said he has not been contacted in the ongoing federal investigation, but in an unusual move hired a criminal defense attorney to monitor his campaign’s compliance this year.
“I think they’re going to get to the root of this. They’re going to continue interviewing people,” Garcia recently told the Miami Herald’s editorial board about federal prosecutors. “I’m not worried.”
Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County school board member, has been happy to call for a clean slate.
Yet that strategy has given Garcia a chance to highlight that Curbelo, a former registered lobbyist, refuses to disclose the clients of his government and public relations firm, Capitol Gains. The Republican has avoided disclosure by putting Capitol Gains, the company he founded and manages, under his wife’s ownership. Some — but not all — of his clients have been public knowledge because he’s been their spokesman.
“This is an arbitrary request pushed by the Garcia campaign,” Curbelo said during a debate last week. “All the work I’ve done over the years I’ve done in front of the camera.”
The prize in the tough race is to represent Congressional District 26, a swath from Westchester to Key West that became one of Florida’s most competitive districts when state lawmakers redrew political boundaries two years ago. It’s also the most competitive district in the country, where a majority of registered voters — 59 percent — are Hispanic.
What keeps the seat up for grabs is an even split of registered voters: 35 percent Democrat, 34 percent Republican and 29 percent without party affiliation. Democrats’ odds are better in presidential-election years, when more of their supporters turn out to vote. The same is true for Republicans in midterm-election years such as this one.
Polls have shown the two Cuban-American candidates running neck-and-neck. Both parties have poured millions of dollars into the race, as have outside political groups, especially conservative ones. Without taking the outside money into account, Garcia has raised nearly twice as much as Curbelo.
Garcia, 51, lives part-time in Key West and is the divorced father of a teenage daughter, Gabriela. He graduated from the University of Miami’s law school, though he never practiced as an attorney, working instead on the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and as director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. He ran for Congress twice before being elected in 2012.
The Democrat has portrayed himself as a middle-class champion and bipartisan voter in Congress who was not afraid to disagree with President Barack Obama over proposed cuts to Medicare. He has focused much of the race on his support of federal entitlement programs, going after Curbelo for referring to Medicare and Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.”
Garcia has tried to appeal to each demographic in his diverse district, touting passage of legislation to reverse many flood-insurance rate increases (to help Florida Keys residents), a recent visit from the agriculture secretary (to meet with South Dade farmers), and sponsorship of stalled immigration-reform legislation (which would affect many non-Cuban Hispanics).
Among his accomplishments, he trumpets bringing federal dollars to the district, rattling off a list of grants for public universities, water projects and Everglades restoration.
“This is a fascinating area where there is a lot of room to do stuff,” said Garcia, who calls being a congressman “the coolest job I’ve ever had.”
His opponent has used Garcia’s immigration bill as an example of Democrats’ ineffectiveness in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. If party leaders were serious about the reforms they would not have given the sensitive legislation to a freshman, contends Curbelo, who finds little to disagree with in the bill itself.
Curbelo, 34, a longtime Kendall resident, is married to Cecilia, with whom he has two young daughters, Sylvie Marie and Carolina. He graduated with a master’s in public administration from the University of Miami. Over the years, his firm has represented Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, as well as former presidential candidates Fred Thompson and Rick Perry. Curbelo also worked for former Florida Sen. George LeMieux.
The Republican has made a point of appealing to young voters like himself, saying they are too often left out of the political process. He supports reforming entitlements and replacing the Affordable Care Act, which he calls “deeply flawed.” Like Garcia, he backs gay marriage.
His overarching message has been that he’s a pragmatic moderate free of any of the political baggage that weighed down Rivera and Garcia. He has promoted public schools’ recent successes, taking credit for a “team” effort — between board members and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s administration — to shrink the school system’s budget.
“We did not lay off a single teacher due to economic constraints,” he said during a recent television interview. “That is a great example of what limited, efficient government can do.”
Garcia has countered that the school system has shed hundreds of other jobs, suggesting that Curbelo doesn’t care about the working class and is more conservative than he lets on. Curbelo would be unwilling to buck GOP leadership in Congress, Garcia has said.
Outside of the school district’s budget, for which Curbelo represents one of nine board votes, Curbelo touts his legislation that saved school lacrosse programs and got the Florida Legislature to make it a third-degree felony to litter schools with pornographic materials, as happened in one in West Kendall.