For the third and final time, incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo and his challenger, Democrat and former incumbent Joe Garcia, traded jabs in a debate Tuesday night— this time entirely in Spanish.
In a debate aired live on Spanish-language America TeVe, Curbelo and Garcia largely replayed the well-rehearsed barbs and talking points of two previous face-offs, though it took a while before the first cross was swung.
And unlike at the previous debates, which echoed the issues and personalities of the presidential campaign, the looming elephant in the studio was not so much Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — though they came up, for sure — but Garcia’s former campaign manager.
The two candidates are locked in a rematch of their 2014 contest for the seat representing the diverse, sprawling 26th Congressional district, which stretches from Westchester to Key West, one of the most competitive in the nation this election year.
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The district was since redrawn and now leans left, forcing Curbelo into a tricky balancing act, highlighting moderate positions on some issues that have at times put him at odds with his GOP colleagues. Curbelo has repudiated Trump, saying he won’t vote for him — nor for Clinton.
The sure-handed moderator, veteran TV news personality Pedro Sevcec, at first kept the back-and-forth on an even keel, interlacing his own queries about Curbelo’s controversial effort to curb some benefits for Cuban refugees — which Garcia has sharply criticized — with man-on-the street questions about what the candidates would do to boost jobs and maintain American values.
For the record: Curbelo, a former Miami-Dade School Board member, talked up education as the route to improving employment, while Garcia called for a higher minimum wage, increased infrastructure investment and lower student-loan interest rates.
The way to protect American values, Garcia said, is to ensure people have good jobs.
And then Curbelo used the values question to swing at Garcia: He mentioned popular disenchantment with U.S. politics, and quickly pivoted to remind viewers of the involvement of Garcia’s 2012 campaign in an unlawful scheme to submit mail-ballot requests online on behalf of unsuspecting voters. Garcia fired his then-chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, who served time in jail. Joe Garcia was not charged.
It was a theme Curbelo returned to twice during the hourlong debate.
Sevcec’s producers played a tape of a woman on the street declining to ask either candidate a question because she said she does not trust Congress, and the moderator asked both men for a response. Garcia, who has tried to link Curbelo to Trump to dent his image of moderation, brought up the GOP nominee for the first time.
He said Curbelo needs to repudiate the politics of attacks on immigrants and minorities that he said Trump represents through legislative action, not words.
“Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Curbelo says one thing and votes for another,” Garcia said.
Curbelo in response unloaded on Garcia, calling his 2012 campaign “the most corrupt in Miami-Dade County history.”
Then he posed a blunt question: Curbelo noted that Garcia’s former campaign manager, now out of jail, attended a previous debate between the two candidates at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School. Curbelo, who also knows Jeff Garcia, said that he spoke to the disgraced operative and learned that his former boss had not spoken to him since the case erupted. Why not? he asked his opponent.
Garcia did not respond, instead reminding viewers that he was not charged in the case.
Curbelo lashed back: “Ambition and thirst for power is what motivates Mr. Garcia,” he said, suggesting his opponent turned his back on a longtime friend in the quest for elected office.
“I was absolved, we fixed what had to be fixed in the campaign, and we moved on,” Garcia said.
In a closing statement, Curbelo said he has tried to work to bring more comity to politics, bringing Republicans and Democrats together to solve problems.
Garcia scoffed, suggesting that’s just a pose.
“Curbelo won’t even answer who he’s supporting for president,” he said. “He’s not for God or for the Devil. He is just for Mr. Curbelo.”
Tuesday’s face-off was the third debate between the candidates, and the only one conducted entirely in Spanish. The second, a taped debate, aired on WPLG-ABC 10’s “This Week in South Florida.” The first, streamed but not televised, took place before an invitation-only audience at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, which is the alma mater of both candidates.