Miami GOP congressional candidates spar over key issues

With four days left until Tuesday’s election, differences over key policy issues emerged Friday among Republicans running for Florida’s 26th congressional district primary, as the candidates made their final pitches to primary voters.

Questions on sea-level rise, immigration and gay marriage revealed divisions among the four contenders who taped Facing South Florida, which will air Sunday on Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4. A fifth candidate, ex-Congressman David Rivera, declined to attend.

By the end of the taping, Carlos Curbelo, Ed MacDougall, Joe Martinez and Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck had agreed on plenty. But there was dissent in the very first question from investigative reporter Jim DeFede, who asked if all the candidates vying to represent Westchester to Key West would concur that — whatever the cause — seas are rising.

Yes, said the candidates — except for one.

“I’m not exactly sure,” said Martinez, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner. “I’m not a scientist, Jim.”

If that line sounds familiar, it’s because Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, has said the same thing about climate change, and has since been forced to deal with academics trying to persuade him into a debate on the subject.

Martinez told DeFede that he was speaking specifically about sea-level rise. “Is there climate change? Yes,” Martinez said.

The others shied away from saying rising seas have man-made causes and tried to focus on what to do about the problem. MacDougall, the Cutler Bay mayor, said the federal government should be more focused on energy independence and alternatives to fossil fuels. Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board member, said the U.S. should help invest in improved infrastructure.

All said they would have supported legislation passed by Congress in March that eased flood-insurance rate hikes, with Martinez being its strongest proponent. Palomares-Starbuck, a first-time political candidate, said he would have favored a lower cap on annual premium increases. Curbelo and MacDougall called the legislation a mere temporary fix.

The district’s current representative, Democrat Joe Garcia, voted for the bill.

DeFede then asked about immigration, and particularly about some of the immigrants who work in South Dade’s agriculture industry and are in the country illegally: “Are they criminals?”

No, said Curbelo. Palomares-Starbuck, who is an attorney, and Martinez and MacDougall, who are both former county police officers, said yes.

“These are hard-working people that care about this country,” Curbelo said, adding that they would be considered criminals if they committed crimes once in the United States.

The disagreement, he said, “only proves that we need immigration reform.”

On gay marriage, it was again Martinez who differed with his three rivals. MacDougall, Curbelo and Palomares-Starbuck said they support making marriages among same-sex couples legal.

“It’s the right thing to do,” MacDougall said.

Martinez, however, said the question should be left up to states — and if Florida voters were asked to repeal the state’s gay-marriage ban, he would vote no, Martinez added after the show’s taping. He does support civil unions and benefits for same-sex partners, he said.

A federal judge in Tallahassee ruled Thursday that Florida’s gay-marriage ban is unconstitutional, though he stayed his own order pending appeals.

Two exchanges in the show didn’t focus on policy.

DeFede asked Curbelo if he would release a list of clients for Capitol Gains, his media and public relations firm. Since 2009, the company has been under the name of Curbelo’s wife, Cecilia. At the time, Curbelo worked for then-Senator George LeMieux; Curbelo says U.S. Senate attorneys advised him to divest from the firm.

But he still runs it, raising questions as to whether any clients have overlapped with companies that do business with the public school district.

“That would be a violation of the law,” Curbelo said. He called the client-list request “arbitrary.”

“I don’t feel compelled to go beyond what anyone else does,” he said.

That created an opening for MacDougall, who has hammered Curbelo on the issue. “I’ll answer for Carlos: The answer is no,” he said.

“It is an absolute conflict of interest,” Palomares-Starbuck chimed in.

“I think you should,” Martinez added.

Curbelo concluded: “If someone thinks I’m doing something wrong, they can file a complaint.”

DeFede then turned to MacDougall, who lives outside the District 26 boundaries, and asked him why he didn’t run for office in his own congressional district. Federal law doesn’t require him to live in the district, only in the state of Florida.

MacDougall blamed district lines redrawn in 2010 for keeping him out.

“I live closer to the middle of the district than anyone sitting in this room,” he said.

But the others got in their jabs.

“We should live in the districts that we seek to represent,” Curbelo said. “By the Constitution, someone that lives in the Panhandle can run for this district. That doesn’t mean it’s right.”

DeFede tried to move on — but not before Martinez quipped, “I live in the district.”

Watch the debate

Facing South Florida with Jim DeFede airs at 8:30 a.m. Sunday on WFOR-CBS 4.