Miami-Dade County

Carlos Curbelo, Rep. Joe Garcia ratchet up attacks in debate

Carlos Curbelo, left, and Rep. Joe Garcia, right, faced off Sunday on This Week in South Florida.
Carlos Curbelo, left, and Rep. Joe Garcia, right, faced off Sunday on This Week in South Florida. MIAMI HERALD FILES

Accusing each other of trying to scare voters, Miami Rep. Joe Garcia and competitor Carlos Curbelo appeared in a pointed live television debate Sunday, a day before early voting begins in the close political contest.

Garcia, a freshman Democrat seeking reelection, charged Curbelo with misleading voters by referring to Social Security and Medicare as a “Ponzi scheme” that might not be around for future generations.

“He talks about turning the page, but what he’s turning the page to is fear tactics and scare tactics,” Garcia said.

Curbelo, a Republican Miami-Dade County School Board member, threw the accusation back at Garcia for running advertisements that claim Curbelo would end Medicare benefits for seniors.

“That is the ultimate hypocrisy,” Curbelo said.

The exchange was one of several cutting ones in the debate on WPLG-ABC 10’s This Week in South Florida, the first one between the men in Miami-Dade broadcast in English. They faced off last week on a Spanish-language station.

“Mediscare” claims are nothing new in American partisan politics. Democrats have attempted this year to motivate their base — which tends to vote in far fewer numbers in midterm elections — by stressing support for federal entitlement programs.

But the issue didn’t become campaign fodder in Florida’s 26th congressional district until a Democratic “tracker” secretly recorded Curbelo’s remarks last month to a group of college Republicans in Washington, D.C. The fact-checkers at PolitiFact Florida rated Curbelo’s “Ponzi scheme” claim False.

They gave the same rating to a Garcia statement that Curbelo wants to “end the Medicare guarantee,” though that was before Curbelo said he would support measures such as means testing, which could require wealthier seniors to pay higher premiums or qualify for fewer benefits.

On Sunday, Curbelo reiterated that he didn’t mean the comment literally and was not suggesting Medicare and Social Security amount to criminal operations.

“Of course not,” he told Glenna Milberg, one of the debate hosts.

“I believe in preserving and protecting these programs for current beneficiaries as they exist today, and also for those near retirement,” he added. “What I was expressing is the concern that a lot of young workers in this country have today that they’re paying into programs that may not exist for them.”

Challenged to explain his own proposals, Garcia made no mention of altering benefits.

“When you grow the economy, these programs grow. When you pay better salaries, these programs grow,” he said. “When you take caps away from contributions — when you don’t exempt millionaires and you allow everyone to contribute into the system — it can go further.”

The only other policy discussion was around the future of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives Cubans special immigration privileges afforded to no other foreigners. Curbelo advocates for tightening the policy to apply to victims of political persecution and not just so-called economic refugees, who travel frequently back to the island. Garcia counters the law couldn’t survive a political debate to change it.

The rest of the 30-minute debate featured the opponents flinging mud at each other over ethics, which has become a central campaign issue.

Curbelo unleashed a new attack on Garcia, chiding him for soliciting the business three years ago — before the Democrat was in Congress — of Ecuadorean brothers from Miami who needed immigration help. Garcia offered, in writing, to represent Roberto and William Isaías for $10,000 in April 2011, Curbelo said.

The Isaíases never hired him, Garcia said. But the brothers’ relatives have been generous Garcia campaign donors, and the congressman acknowledged earlier this year that while in office he made an immigration call on their behalf — even though they don’t live in his Westchester-to-Key West district.

“What it is, is unethical,” Curbelo said. “You’re only supposed to do constituent-service work for your constituents.”

“That is completely untrue,” Garcia said. “What we’ve done — and we’ve done for everyone who come to us, whether you live in our district or not — is represent them.”

A few moments earlier, Garcia had said, “I represent 850,000 people in South Florida, that’s it,” referring to his district.

The Isaíases came up because they are among the few publicly known clients of Curbelo’s government and public relations firm, Capitol Gains. Curbelo, who set up meetings for the brothers in Congress, has refused to make a full client list public — and doesn’t have to, because the firm is under his wife’s sole ownership.

“Let’s open a phone book and start at ‘aardvark’ and end up with ‘zebra,’ and ask him who the clients are, because he won’t tell us,” Garcia said. Then, picking what would have been a particularly unpopular example, he asked: “Do you represent the Marlins?” Curbelo said no.

The Republican challenger got in a jab earlier when, pivoting off his comment about Garcia’s Medicare “hypocrisy,” Curbelo added that Democratic ads calling him a tea-party conservative were also deceptive.

“The only tea-party candidate that has run for office in this district is Roly Arrojo,” Curbelo said. “That’s the candidate that your campaign recruited and very likely illegally financed.”

Garcia’s 2010 campaign is under federal criminal investigation over Arrojo’s suspected straw candidacy. Arrojo was a former business partner of Garcia’s then-campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, who last year pleaded guilty to attempted absentee-ballot manipulation in the 2012 campaign.

Curbelo said Joe Garcia should have fired his campaign manager in 2010, as soon as the Arrojo connection was revealed by the Miami Herald. Milberg and co-host Michael Putney then asked the congressman why he didn’t know about his campaign’s absentee-ballot shenanigans in 2012.

“The ways these campaigns are run, they’re wide, they’re large,” Garcia said. “I had no idea about this.”

Related stories from Miami Herald