Miami’s newest congressman benefited from absentee, Election Day votes

Carlos Curbelo embraces a supporter after announcing his victory over Miami Rep. Joe Garcia.
Carlos Curbelo embraces a supporter after announcing his victory over Miami Rep. Joe Garcia. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

South Florida’s 26th congressional district lived up to its label as a swing seat Tuesday, changing political party hands for the second time in two years.

Florida lawmakers redrew the boundaries of the state’s southernmost district in 2012 so that it’s almost evenly split among registered Democrats (35 percent), Republicans (33 percent) and independents (32 percent).

Low turnout in Tuesday’s election, particularly among Democrats, benefited Carlos Curbelo, the Republican who ousted Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia of Miami. Garcia spent only one term in office, having defeated Republican David Rivera in 2012.

Granted, Garcia was tainted by campaign scandals. So was Rivera. But the back-to-back victories by opposing parties in the district suggest it could remain competitive for years to come.

On Wednesday, Curbelo said he’s not worried that the frequent turnover, depending on the composition of the electorate in a given election, could affect his future chances.

“If I work hard and do a good job for this district, and I represent the community with effectiveness, I think I’ll get another shot at it,” Curbelo said. “It is certainly too early to start thinking about the next election.”

The day after his victory, Curbelo, 34, was up early to appear on Univision’s nationally televised Despierta América morning show. He had been up for 18 hours on Election Day, he said, visiting seven polling places, awaiting results and celebrating his win.

Results updated Wednesday showed Curbelo won with 51.5 percent of the vote over Garcia’s 48.5 percent. That amounted to 4,822- vote difference. Overall turnout in the race was 38 percent.

In Miami-Dade, Curbelo won more votes than Garcia in ballots cast by mail and on Election Day. Garcia won the early in-person vote, but that was the least popular voting method. Sixty percent of Miami-Dade voters in the race voted early or by mail.

“We had a really strong showing among Hispanic voters,” Curbelo said Wednesday. “And it was a coalition of Hispanics — this district isn’t majority Cuban-American.”

The Miami-Dade County school board member maintained his position to keep secret the private clients he has represented in his government and public relations firm, Capitol Gains. He was not required to disclose them because the company is owned by his wife, though she doesn’t work there.

“I make the same commitment I’ve made from Day One when the Garcia campaign started pushing this, which is: I’m committed to following the law and filing all required disclosure forms,” Curbelo said.

As a member of Congress, he will be prohibited from privately representing anyone. His campaign has said Curbelo intends to cut ties with the firm, though it was unclear Wednesday what that would entail.

Next for Curbelo is meeting with Garcia. When the Democrat telephoned to concede victory, the two spoke about arranging a smooth transition, Curbelo said Tuesday night. New members of Congress will take the oath of office in January.

Between now and then, Curbelo will have to resign from the Miami-Dade school board seat he has held since 2010. He was reelected in 2012 to a four-year term.

Curbelo said Wednesday he had gotten “a couple of messages” since from people asking about it, he said, though he declined to name them.

“This is not my decision,” he said.

It will be up to newly reelected Florida Gov. Rick Scott to name a replacement to serve out the two years left of Curbelo’s term. But there’s no knowing when the school board will get a new member.

Curbelo doesn’t have to resign until he’s sworn into Congress on Jan. 3, according to school board attorney Walter Harvey. Since Curbelo ran for a federal and not state office, Florida resign-to-run laws did not apply.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist took two months to pick a new school board member in 2007 after Robert Ingram died while in office. He picked former state Rep. Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, who was facing term-limits in the state Legislature. Holloway ran for and won the seat in the next general election. He’s been on the board ever since.

Whoever the replacement is this time around, it will almost certainly be a Republican like the governor.

“That’s just the way it’s been the last several years,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

Scott has made 17 school board appointments during his time in office — including three to the Broward County school board. All three were Republican women.

Whoever it is, the appointment isn’t likely to change much for the Miami-Dade school board. Issues tend to pass or fail unanimously, and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho enjoys outsized support from the board.

The mood now is a far cry from when Holloway was tapped for a school board seat some seven years ago. Infighting was rampant and support for then-Superintendent Rudy Crew was fading.

“We had a board that was primarily political in nature, and they represented political thought more so than coming together to focus on education, I thought,” Holloway said. “But through the years that has changed. Our superintendent’s leadership has changed. We have a more cooperative spirit.”

School board member Raquel Regalado said the new appointee isn’t likely to stir up controversy if he or she wants to go on to run for the seat.

But, she said, the Republican governor may look for a replacement who is more sympathetic to charter schools or voucher programs that the party has supported, but that others say drains money out of the public school system.

“In an ideal world, they would be considering someone who’s interested in education. But I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Regalado said. “I think they’re going to find someone who’s interested in a future in Tallahassee.”

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