MIAMI — There’s a political scandal brewing in South Florida that almost mirrors the questions surrounding Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
Federal investigators are reportedly probing Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), a first-term lawmaker from the state’s 26th Congressional District, who allegedly funneled money to a Democratic congressional candidate that came up short against Joe Garcia, the candidate who won the August Democratic primary.
The story sounds similar to a federal probe underway in the District to determine whether Gray’s campaign paid money and promised a political appointment to mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown in exchange for disparaging then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty during the 2010 Democratic primary.
Despite months of news reports, Rivera once again strongly denied the charges Saturday in an interview and said he doesn’t know why federal investigators might be exploring his past.
“You really need to ask them, because no federal agency has ever said I’m under federal investigation for anything,” Rivera said. “You need to call the DEA, or the IRS, or the FBI or the CIA or the KGB or the ABC or the XYZ or the LMNOP. Ask them. They might be able to say something. But so far, none of them have said anything.”
While campaigning at the grand opening of a new Cuban restaurant, Rivera said he remains the focus of “a fishing expedition that became a wild goose chase. And it became a partisan-motivated witch hunt.”
Rivera said that neither he nor his staff has never met Justin Lamar Sternad, who lost in the Aug. 14 primary to Garcia, and said that he would stay in office if he wind reelection and later learns that he is the target of a federal investigation.
With Rivera facing ethical questions, The Washington Post considers this race a “lean Democrat” contest, making it one of the 25 contests House Democrats could win on their way to retaking — or at least narrowing — the House majority. The race also ranks 9th on The Fix’s list of the 60 most competitive House races, making it one of the seats most likely to switch parties.
The questions surrounding Rivera are boosting Garcia, who has mounted several ultimately-unsuccessful campaigns in the past, including two for Congress. He briefly served as an Obama administration appointee at the Energy Department before returning home last year for a rematch with Rivera.
Redistricting made the nation’s southern-most district — which stretches from south Miami to Key West — more competitive, but nobody expected Garcia to pull away as Rivera struggled to shoot down the allegations.
“I don’t know what goes through his mind, I don’t even know what took him to do this,” Garcia said of Rivera in a recent interview. “It defies logic. But he is the guy in the race and to be quite honest, his name is going to be on the ballot, so they can’t put someone else, so I assume he’s got to walk it through.”
In a district with a large Hispanic population of mostly Cuban Americans, candidates must advertise in English and Spanish. Rivera’s Spanish attack ads have labeled Garcia a supporter of Cuba’s Castro brothers, because the Democrat supported the Obama administration’s decision to lift travel restrictions to Cuba and has accepted money from donors who have made favorable statements about the Cuban leaders.
But Garcia dismisses the attacks: “The Cold War hasn’t ended here – Cuba is just a few miles away, our Berlin Wall is the Florida Straits, that’s our reality,” he said. “[Rivera] doesn’t believe that people should see their families. Not only do I believe that, I think people have a right to see their families. I was aggressively in favor of the president’s policy and not only for that but to increase remittances and the ability for people to travel.”
As for his changes, Rivera said he realizes that this year is very different from two years ago. “In 2010, you had a wave rejecting the failed economic policies of the first two years of the Obama administration,” he said. “You had a huge tea party movement. You don’t hear the words ‘tea party’ very much in this election. So it’s a different dynamic.”