Friends become foes in tense Democratic primary for Miami congressional district

Annette Taddeo debates Joe Garcia the Miami Herald Editorial Board

Democratic candidates Annette Taddeo and Joe Garcia participate in a Miami Herald Editorial Board debate on Aug. 9, 2016. Taddeo and Garcia are vying for Florida's 26th Congressional District.
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Democratic candidates Annette Taddeo and Joe Garcia participate in a Miami Herald Editorial Board debate on Aug. 9, 2016. Taddeo and Garcia are vying for Florida's 26th Congressional District.

Not long ago, when Miami Democrat Joe Garcia was trying to get elected to one of the most volatile congressional seats in the country, he asked a stalwart friend if she could house a campaign worker who needed a place to stay.

That friend, Annette Taddeo, said yes.

Now Garcia is running again, this time as a former congressman two years out of office. His Democratic primary opponent is none other than his old friend: Taddeo.

And the motivation for her candidacy, as she explains it, is personal disappointment with Garcia, whose campaign got tied up in two separate criminal investigations connected to past elections shenanigans.

“That was just, to me, the ultimate kick in the gut,” she told the Miami Herald editorial board Tuesday. “I don’t care that you’re a Democrat or a Republican — it’s just not right to play with the voters’ intent and to try to rig elections.”

Garcia, whose name is so well known in the district that he hasn’t spent serious money on the primary, maintains that voters will see beyond his past legal troubles because they liked his work while in Congress.

“What you haven’t seen from me are false attacks,” he told the editorial board.

How Garcia and Taddeo went from chummy allies to tense rivals is a story about the extraordinary, often scandal-plagued politics of Florida’s 26th congressional district, a coveted prize among national Republicans and Democrats wrestling for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Taking over Congress remains a long shot for Democrats. But they’re betting that having Donald Trump’s name atop the Republican ticket in November might drag down GOP incumbents such as Rep. Carlos Curbelo — a vocal Trump critic and formidable fundraiser who has far more money in the bank than Garcia or Taddeo. As of the end of June, Curbelo had $2.1 million cash on hand, compared to Taddeo’s nearly $622,000 and Garcia’s more than $400,000.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Wednesday that its polling shows Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump in the district by 24 percentage points — which suggests potential trouble for Curbelo.

When it comes to the Democratic primary, a July poll by Emily’s List, a political committee supporting Taddeo, showed her trailing Garcia by only 2 percentage points — a tiny gap compared to earlier polls from both campaigns that showed Garcia far ahead. Garcia’s campaign said this week that its latest internal tracking poll showed Garcia besting Taddeo by 18 percentage points.

The district, which extends from Westchester to Key West, has been a perpetual swing seat: Republican David Rivera won it in 2010, in a midterm election; Garcia won it in 2012, in a presidential election, and Curbelo won it in 2014, again in a midterm. Democrats see 2016 as their year to win it back.

Garcia, 52, waited until the Florida Supreme Court forced state lawmakers to draw a new district map before declaring his candidacy in February. By then, Taddeo, 49, had long been in the race: She entered in April 2015, encouraged by the national party.

“I didn’t have to wait for a new map to run to represent this district, or for a statute of limitations to run out,” she pointedly told the editorial board.

She was referring to the federal criminal investigation into a phantom tea-party candidate planted in the 2010 Republican congressional primary by Garcia’s former campaign manager. Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, pleaded guilty last September and was sentenced to house arrest and probation.

An email prosecutors obtained in the case suggested Joe Garcia might have known about the ringer candidate, Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, who also pleaded guilty. The former congressman, though, was never charged before the statute of limitations expired last year.

Earlier, Jeffrey Garcia had pleaded guilty and served time in jail for unlawfully orchestrating an online absentee-ballot request scheme during Joe Garcia’s 2012 congressional race. Joe Garcia wasn’t charged then, either.

“We dealt with this issue, we dealt with it right from the start, and we were exonerated,” Garcia said in Key West Monday night. “We can go back and keep reliving this Benghazi retrial of this. We can relitigate all that Ms. Taddeo wants, but those are the facts.”

Garcia argued that he lost re-election because “the Koch brothers spent millions against me,” referring to industrialist conservatives Charles and David Koch. The 2014 race between Garcia and Curbelo was one of the most expensive in the country that year.

“Joe Garcia is right,” Taddeo countered. “We’ve already seen this movie. The Koch brothers will spend a tremendous amount of money attacking whoever the candidate is, but we’ve already seen the ending when he’s the candidate — and it’s not a good one for Democrats.”

The two candidates differ little on policy. Both want to help create jobs by supporting small-business investment and spending on roads and bridges. They cite climate change as a top concern. They favor lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Taddeo accuses Garcia of siding with special interests such as for-profit colleges and of voting against the Affordable Care Act. Garcia defends his record, saying he didn’t know the now-defunct Dade Medical College — which was in his district — and its owner, Ernesto Perez, a campaign contributor, were defrauding students. The Obamacare rollout was too glitchy, he says, adding that its health-insurance plans still need improvement.

“I appreciate the fact that she has no record to run on, so she has to run against my own,” he said in Key West.

Taddeo has run for public office three times — for Congress in 2008, Miami-Dade County Commission in 2010, and Florida lieutenant governor in 2014 — and always lost. Garcia, who until December worked at a Miami Beach investment bank, casts her past campaigns as job-shopping. Taddeo portrays it as a sign of her dedication.

“I’ve lost elections, but, by gosh, lose them the right way, making sure that you’re playing by the rules,” she told the editorial board.

Garcia chides Taddeo for skipping candidate forums and hiring a Republican political consultant, Emiliano Antunez. She says she needs to “educate” voters about his background and chalks up the consultant to a decision made by her former campaign staffers, whom she fired in May.

Neither candidate lives in the district — they’re not required to — though both say they’d move there if elected. Taddeo’s Pinecrest home is for sale. Garcia lives in Miami Beach, he told the editorial board Tuesday.

The night before in Key West, however, Garcia said different: He boasted about living on the island. He lived in a rented apartment there while in Congress. “It’s good to be home,” he said.

Once the primary is over, Garcia insisted to the editorial board, he plans to ask Taddeo for her endorsement if he wins.

“I assume that we’ll still be friends after this campaign,” he said.

She remained silent.