For a few moments Thursday night, the 2016 presidential race played out — in all of its dubious glory — between two congressional candidates on the stage of an all-boys’ Catholic high school in Miami.
The first question Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo got at the debate at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School was about Donald Trump. The first question Democratic challenger and former Rep. Joe Garcia got was about Hillary Clinton.
Curbelo reiterated that no, he’s not voting for Trump or Clinton — and wouldn’t divulge who, if anyone, he will pick for president. “Join us!” said Garcia, who’s backing Clinton.
Garcia apologized, once again, for making a remark secretly caught on tape about how voters might not find Clinton sexually appealing. That’s why Garcia didn’t denounce Trump’s own, recently leaked lecherous comments, Curbelo said: “Silence.”
Florida’s 26th congressional district is so fiercely competitive that it appeared inevitable for the campaign to reflect the national political dynamic. But the debate — the first of three ahead of the Nov. 8 election — also displayed the uniquely tangled politics of the Westchester-to-Key West district.
The contest is a rematch: Garcia and Curbelo ran against each other in 2014, when Garcia was the incumbent and Curbelo the challenger. They relitigated some of the same issues they disagreed upon two years ago — including the involvement of Garcia’s 2012 campaign in an unlawful scheme to submit mail-ballot requests online on behalf of unsuspecting voters. Garcia wound up firing his then-chief of staff, who then served time in jail.
The debate twist? The ex-chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, was sitting in the audience.
Asked by the Miami Herald if he was invited to the campaign, Garcia — no relation to Joe Garcia — said he got a ticket because he’s a Belen alumnus — just like Curbelo and Joe Garcia.
On the issues, Garcia promoted Obamacare, which Curbelo says he wants to repeal and replace. Curbelo spoke movingly about immigrants in the country illegally, after having spent a night in one family’s home and then awoken at 4 a.m. to pick okra. He only lasted three hours in the sun, he said.
The meat of the debate, however, was Cuba. It seemed fitting: Belen Jesuit operated for more than a century on the island before Fidel Castro’s revolution. Castro himself is a Belen graduate.
The candidates bickered over the genesis of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 — not because either said they wanted to change it, but because Curbelo has filed legislation that would curtail federal government benefits given to Cubans under a separate law because they’re automatically treated like refugees.
“I find that difficult, coming from a Cuban American,” lashed Garcia, answering in Spanish because a student asked the question in that language. All three men on stage are bilingual, and the 26th district is majority Hispanic. It also leans Democratic.
Moderator Tom Llamas of ABC News, another Belen grad, also asked about the Cuban trade embargo, which Garcia favors lifting. Curbelo avoided a yes-or-no on the embargo specifically but derided President Barack Obama’s Cuban reengagement policy — which Garcia supports — as insufficient.
“This policy does not advance U.S. national security interests,” Curbelo said. “At the very least the president should have gotten some concessions.”
The audience, made up largely of Belen students clad in coat-and-tie uniforms, seemed to lean in Curbelo’s favor (Garcia had joked ahead of the debate that he knew he was venturing into a GOP stronghold). Several boys got to ask questions themselves; one inquired about NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence against black men.
“I absolutely defend their right to express themselves in that way because free speech is something we should never compromise on in this country, but I fully condemn the way they have chosen to express themselves,” Curbelo said.
“When we see a wrong in society, we have to step up and correct it,” said Garcia, who turned his answer into a jab at Curbelo over gun control. “I believe that when you buy a gun, you have to buy a background check.”
“How many gun-safety bills did he introduce in the Congress? Zero,” Curbelo shot back, citing his own proposed legislation.
What with the candidates debating in front of students at their alma mater, however, things ended on a more uplifting note.
“Mr. Garcia and I actually have a very civil relationship,” Curbelo said, noting Garcia hosted him at his congressional office in Washington after Curbelo defeated him and the two later spoke by phone a couple of times. “This country is being torn apart — it’s very dangerous — and we have to put an end to it.”
Garcia, who is 17 years older, said he’s watched the 36-year-old Curbelo’s political career “in amazement.”
“Even when we disagree, we have the ability and the power to do it in a civil way,” he said. “This election has put our country to its greatest test.”