U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and rival Carlos Curbelo risked political fatigue by agreeing to seven debates. But crisp performances in their final faceoff Tuesday made a strong case for forcing candidates to confront each other repeatedly, especially if each event appeals to a different audience.
The opponents even managed to reveal new policy disagreements in the Spanish-language exchange that wrapped up the two candidates’ busy debate season.
The debate covered new ground on education, abortion and immigration. Moderators also expanded on the minimum wage, a key issue for Hispanic voters, who make up 59 percent of Florida’s 26th congressional district. It spans Westchester to Key West.
Curbelo said last week he would prefer the minimum wage rise naturally and not by government mandate. When pressed Tuesday by one of three moderators, Univision network anchor Jorge Ramos, Curbelo said he supports a higher, government-imposed wage, but not as high as the $10.10 an hour backed by Garcia. A lower compromise would threaten fewer jobs, Curbelo said.
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The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, though it’s slightly higher, at $7.93, in Florida.
“The president’s specific plan is irresponsible,” Curbelo said, citing a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office study that said an increase could cost 500,000 jobs — across the country.
“To live in Dade County, you don’t need $10.10 [an hour], you need a lot more,” Garcia said, citing a “living wage” of $12.40 an hour.
On education, Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County school board member, decried the political left for what he described as opposing reforms to improve student learning — and accused Garcia of being in the pocket of teachers' unions.
“It was a business for all unions. It didn’t matter that students graduated from high school who couldn’t read,” Curbelo said of the education system pre-reformers. “What mattered is all public school employees were well paid.”
Garcia argued that Curbelo supported Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s $1.3 billion cuts to the 2011 statewide education budget.
“Mr. Curbelo wants to go backward,” Garcia said. “This nation has a long history of investing in public education.”
While Curbelo was part of Scott’s “education transition team,” the school board member also said in 2012 that the governor’s cutbacks represented a “colossal” budget reduction.
None of the debate’s three moderators — Ramos, local Univision radio anchor Bernadette Pardo and local Univision station anchor Sandra Peebles — asked the candidates about abortion rights. But Garcia referred to the issue in an answer about same-sex marriage, which both politicians support.
“I think marriage is something personal,” he said. “Just like the government shouldn’t get involved in women’s health decisions.”
That prompted Curbelo to mention abortion. He chided the congressman for opposing 2013 legislation that would have prohibited abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, at which point Curbelo said a fetus can feel pain.
“Each abortion is a tragedy,” he said.
After the debate, Curbelo said he supports abortion only in cases of rape or incest, or to protect a pregnant woman’s health. Proponents and opponents of abortion rights should work together to reduce the number of terminated pregnancies, he said.
The debate, held at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus, aired live Tuesday afternoon on WAQI-AM (710) AM, a local station known as Radio Mambí. Its audience is reliably conservative. But because the recorded debate, or at least a portion of it, was also scheduled to air before a more liberal television audience on WLTV-Univision 23 and Al Punto, the candidates couldn’t simply appeal to older Cuban-American radio listeners.
Both Curbelo and Garcia backed immigration reform. But Curbelo characterized Garcia’s position as support for unlimited immigration, because the congressman wants to maintain as-is the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to remain legally in the United States after 366 days. Garcia has also endorsed special immigration privileges for Venezuelans.
“Congressman Garcia is advocating for the United States to open its borders,” Curbelo said.
Garcia countered that Curbelo is a closet tea-partier who wants to close the U.S. to immigration.
“How easy it is to shut the door when one is comfortable eating pastelitos and drinking cafecitos” in Miami, Garcia said.