MIAMI — Democratic U.S. Rep Joe Garcia rode into Washington two years ago on an anti-corruption platform against scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. David Rivera in one of the nation's most hotly contested congressional districts — a stretch of Florida running from South Miami to the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys.
The freshman lawmaker, known previously for his blistering partisan voice, went to work on local issues, earning bipartisan support from veterans, the county farm bureau for local agriculture protections and from fishermen for funds to improve water quality in the Keys. He also pushed bigger issues, like comprehensive immigration reform.
But of late Garcia's job has also included fending off allegations of corruption related to his ex-chief of staff's conviction on filling out multiple absentee ballot requests. Federal investigators are also looking into whether the staffer helped fund a shadow candidate in Garcia's first unsuccessful attempt to unseat Rivera in 2010. Those charges are similar to ones lodged against Rivera, a Republican whose former campaign staffer was convicted in a 2012 shadow candidate scheme.
The scandal has given Republicans hope of recapturing the 26th District, their best chance of ousting a Florida Democrat on Nov. 4. Their candidate: Miami-Dade County School Board member Carlos Curbelo, a moderate who also runs a public relations firm owned by his wife. Like Garcia, Curbelo is the son of Cuban exiles, an advantage in a majority Hispanic district, more than a third Cuban-American.
Garcia does not face any charges, but with the federal investigation into 2010 still open, the campaign has contracted a criminal defense attorney.
"We had problems in our campaign. We've moved on," Garcia said. He calls the attorney a precaution "to make sure we are doing everything right."
Republicans are pouring money into the little-known Curbelo's race, with some $3.6 million in outside funds, compared to just $1.7 million Curbelo's campaign raised. Those numbers are nearly flipped in the Garcia campaign.
Yet Curbelo also faces ethics questions. Because he put his firm in his wife's name, he doesn't have to disclose his client list, which he recently acknowledged included two Ecuadoran fugitives wanted for their embezzlement, and the Malaysian Genting Group that has lobbied to open a massive casino in Miami.
"I run the company. I've been very honest about it. And I've also been willing to answer any questions I've been asked," Curbelo said.
Curbelo has only acknowledged representing those clients the media connected him to.
"I wish I could tell you who he represents," Garcia said. "Unlike him, I have to file if any of them give me money."
Curbelo calls Garcia's accusations of hiding information hypocritical given the federal investigation into Garcia's former staffer.
Curbelo cites as his top accomplishment the nine-member school board's ability to maintain and improve schools even during tough economic times, noting that the district's pre-recession budget was above $6 billion and plummeted by more than $2 billion a few years later.
"We did not lay off a single teacher due to budgetary constraints," he said. "All the while we were able to increase student performance. We went from 11 "F'' (rated) high schools to none."
Curbelo and Garcia both say same-sex marriage should be legal, a popular issue for the gay, lesbian and transgender community in the Keys. They support the Cuban embargo and the 2009 easing of restrictions on Cuban-Americans' ability to visit and send money to relatives there. Curbelo, though, wants to stop Cubans who he says come to the U.S. for other than political refugee motives. Garcia wants to facilitate more exchanges with opposition leaders and others on the island.
Both also support aspects of the Affordable Health Care law, but Curbelo would jettison it, whereas Garcia would improve it. Curbelo recently called Medicare and Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" while discussing the programs' potential future shortfalls with college students. He wants more abortion restrictions, which Garcia opposes.
"This is a district that is very indicative of what's happening in the country. It's a 50-50 split," said Garcia, during a recent afternoon spent knocking on doors — including several households split between the two parties. "Look I've been a loud voice as a Democratic leader for years, but that's not my job now. My job is to represent fisherman and farmers, everyone."
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