Miami-Dade County

Debate between Miami congressional candidates centers on ethics

Roberto Rodriguez Tejera hosted a debate Tuesday night between Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo on Mira TV.
Roberto Rodriguez Tejera hosted a debate Tuesday night between Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo on Mira TV. El Nuevo Herald

Bickering over ethics, U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and challenger Carlos Curbelo spent half of their first debate in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday arguing over which one of them has cleaner hands to represent Florida’s 26th congressional district.

The first half of the free-flowing Spanish-language debate focused on policy issues. The candidates highlighted differences over the Affordable Care Act, the minimum wage and Cuba.

But the rest of the hour-long exchange turned into a tit-for-tat over character and integrity — a line of attack that has been chiefly deployed by Curbelo and his Republican supporters against Garcia, the incumbent Miami Democrat.

“In the last few years, three people have ended up in jail: one, Joe Garcia’s chief of staff over absentee-ballot fraud in the 2012 election; the other two, for crimes committed by the Republican campaign of ex-Congressman David Rivera,” Curbelo said. “This is unacceptable.”

Garcia acknowledged past “mistakes” but pivoted to criticize Curbelo for repeatedly refusing to disclose the clients of his government and public relations firm, Capitol Gains.

The company’s sole owner is Curbelo’s wife, who doesn’t work there. Curbelo acknowledged last week that his client list includes bankers Roberto and William Isaías, who live in Miami and are wanted in Ecuador.

“He says he owns a small business, yet it’s in his wife’s name,” Garcia said. “Precisely who are Mr. Curbelo’s clients? We don’t know because he won’t tell us. We don’t know if he represents [the late Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez’s regime, because we can’t see it.”

Roberto Rodríguez Tejera, host of WDFL-18 MiraTV’s Prohibido Callarse (Silence Banned), allowed for an unusually open debate in which the candidates for District 26, which stretches to the Florida Keys, chose their own topics and then followed up — often more than once — with little moderator interference.

As his second topic after the economy, Curbelo chose elections fraud, to underscore that Garcia’s former chief of staff pleaded guilty last year to attempted absentee-ballot manipulation, and that Garcia’s 2010 campaign remains under federal investigation over a suspected straw candidate. The challenger called on Garcia to apologize to voters for failing to live up to his 2012 election promise to avoid the scandals that had plagued his predecessor, Republican David Rivera.

“I don’t owe anyone an apology,” Garcia said. “We’ve been clear about the errors that were committed.”

He said Curbelo, a sitting Miami-Dade School Board member, may have undisclosed conflicts of interest that can only be figured out by “going through the phone book” and asking him about his clients.

“There is no conflict,” Curbelo said. “My campaign is not under investigation.”

On policy, Garcia made an appeal to middle-class voters, touting his support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.93, expanding Medicaid coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, and loosening restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.

Curbelo said he backs a higher wage if employers choose to pay it, but not if it is imposed by the government. He criticized Obamacare as a job-killer that raised some people’s insurance premiums. And he accused Garcia of promoting doing business with Cuba, pointing to the congressman’s support last year of a Havana research institute’s diabetes drug trial in the U.S.

Garcia countered that he backed the trial because it would bring dollars — not the diabetic foot-ulcer treatment — to the U.S. market. But that’s not what the Democrat said last year in a letter to the Treasury Department that noted “the lack of access to an effective treatment for this life-threatening condition, which afflicts millions Americans and results in billions of dollars of direct medical costs.”

The congressman kicked off the debate on the topic of Medicare, which has become his principal jab at Curbelo. Democrats secretly recorded the challenger, in a talk to a group of college Republicans in Washington D.C., calling Medicare and Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”

“When he’s in private, alone with members of his party, alone, he was willing to say, ‘No, it’s a Ponzi scheme,’” Garcia said.

Curbelo accused his opponent of fear-mongering aimed at seniors.

“If those programs are not reformed, they could be in danger for future generations,” he said.