MIAMI — A former member of the Obama administration appears headed to victory in a South Florida House district as his Republican opponent faces myriad legal questions.
Democrat Joe Garcia, who has run twice before for Congress, is leading Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), with just two weeks remaining in the campaign. Though Garcia and Rivera have little in common politically, they both once worked for the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization working to end the Castro regime in Cuba.
2chambers spoke with Garcia before heading to South Florida. A transcript of the interview — edited for length and clarity — appears below.
2chambers: Considering the allegations against your opponent, should Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) step down? Should he even still be in this race?
Garcia: I don’t know what goes through his mind, I don’t even know what took him to do this. 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. He’s decided that the way he’s going to do it is by attacking me. His ad says I’m corrupt and this and that – all disproven, all old attacks disproven by newspapers and TV stations. But he’s a guy facing a really ugly future, so I assume he think it’s easier to negotiate when he’s a congressman, so God knows why he’s attacking me this way.
2chambers: What are the attacks against you?
Garcia: He targets his attacks. In the Keys, among Cubans, he says I’m a Castro sympathizer, because I believe people have the right to travel. Then in an English ad he accuses me of shipping jobs to China.
Then he says I’m under investigation – he waves around an FEC reconciliation report and says I’m under investigation. It’s silly season. Then he flatly denies that he’s ever been investigated. But there’s a 52-count indictment that was never filed …he could not be prosecuted because of lost evidence or statute of limitations. Money laundering, conspiracy, tax evasion, overwhelming. He’s in a tough spot and the only way he can win is muddy the waters.
Mitt Romney was here, and he was nowhere to be found. Paul Ryan went to a famous Cuban restaurant and our friend was nowhere to be found. Even when Connie Mack and Marco Rubio come to town, David is nowhere to be found. He doesn’t do a lot of press and when he does it’s to sit there and attack.
2chambers: Congressional approval sits at record lows and this has been the most unproductive congressional session in modern history. Why do you want to be part of such an unproductive, unpopular institution?
Garcia: One time when I was nearing my graduation from high school [my grandfather, a Cuban immigrant] asked what I was going to do. And I said, I’m going to go to college and law school and then go into public service. And his eyes teared up, he said, son, that’s for the lowest people in society.
So even the gardener with a sixth-grade education knew that a politician was at the lowest part of society. That’s part of what happens when good people get out. It’s what costs societies to get out. It’s why Congress doesn’t work, because we’re not engaged doing the right thing.
When I hire a mechanic or a painter, I never ask them if they’re Democrats or Republicans, I just want them to do the job at hand. Most problems aren’t Democrat or Republican, you just have to take them on. Sometimes you find a solution, sometimes you work toward one, or you keep bailing until you find a different way.
Problems are just problems – they’re just that. You’ve got to sit and solve them and that requires compromise and people who can sometimes have tough skin, and it means you’ve got to sit down with people who may not like you or like your way of thinking. I think that’s why most Americans are angry – they’re angry because they’ve got to do it every month. You’ve got to make compromises on what you can afford and what you can’t. That’s always been the trademark of America, the central premise, is to find compromise and solutions.
2chambers: You were a member of the Obama administration, briefly. Are you proud of that time?
Garcia: I was. With all the shortcomings that come with being in an administration, I enjoyed it. I thought that we worked with good, solid people. I think we’ve got to be more aggressive about where we’re headed, but under the circumstances, we’ve done a good job.
We need to, for example, make government more efficient, reduce the cost of government. At the same time, we have a unique opportunity with bond rates so low to make some long-term investments, whether it be in things like water systems across the country or building a national grid so that we can get good power cheaply and new power into the grid. These are things that can be tackled.
2chambers: You mentioned shortcomings. What were the shortcomings of the administration?
Garcia: When you’re in an administration, you want to be the secretary. And when you’re the secretary you want to be the president. I had a good job, but I would have wanted energy to be a priority that the president moved on earlier. Unfortunately, it got caught up in things thanks to Congress and the president couldn’t move.
I just think it’s cheaper to have a well-crafted energy policy than to have a young man from Homestead, Fla., pay with his life than to make us think that we have a broader national interest than just the oil in that region.
Think about all the investments we could make to turn cities from diesel to natural gas. When you ship that soldier over there, that $1.4 million that we spend on that soldier disappears into nothing. When I spend $1 million on a pipe in Dade County, Fla. so we get a better water system, that’s jobs here, that’s quality of life here, that’s long-term investment that we get back here. So in energy policy, I wish we had put it right here.
Not only did we need to pass comprehensive health-care reform, but we needed an energy policy.
Energy policy is always central to development of any civilization, whether it’s the Babylonians figuring out how to irrigate crops or the Romans building roads. This is about finding the most efficient way to produce more. I think we have the technology, I think it’s a question of having the commitment to reducing the price and reducing our dependence on the other side of the world.
2chambers: Should U.S. energy policy include off-shore wind in Florida?
Garcia: It may, but it doesn’t include offshore drilling in Florida.
2chambers: Why not?
Garcia: Because Florida, unlike Louisiana, is different. Florida is centrally dependent on our beaches. I’ve seen Louisiana beaches – they don’t look like Florida beaches. The entire state from tip to stern is based on beaches and tourism and our environment. If [the BP oil spill] had happened here, it would have wiped us out.
That said, where we don’t have control, we need a policy.
2chambers: Should there be offshore drilling in or near Cuba?
Garcia: Well, I don’t think I can control that. My opponent says he’s for offshore drilling in Florida but against it in Cuba. What I understand is that a congressman can only control what we do in Florida. If we’re going to do it in Cuba, I want to have companies that I can have control over and that if something goes wrong we can make sure that Florida is protected and our national interests are preserved.
2chambers: You and Rivera both have ties to the Cuban American National Foundation. What is CANF?
Garcia: It’s an organization created in 1982 and it was made to sort of create the position of the Cuban American community in regards to what was going on in Cuba. I ran a program called the Cuban Exodus Relief Fund that brought Cuban refugees from other countries like Panama and Costa Rica and brought them here and gave them housing and jobs.
It was very successful – we ran out of refugees at some point. Years later I returned as executive director.
2chambers: So then why do Rivera and Republicans say that you’re pro-Castro?
Garcia: It’s red-baiting. The whole idea is to make me unpalatable to Cuban voters. It’s McCarthyism that still goes on. 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.
[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.
2chambers: But that position puts you at odds with other Miami-area lawmakers, right?
Garcia: It does. But the truth is, if you speak with every one of them, they’ll say, I’m in favor of people going for a specific reason. That’s a policy, and I think it works and it makes sense.
2chambers: Are the shifts in the Cuban American population true, that younger Cubans are voting Democratic?
Garcia: I think there is an identification that has occurred: The Boston-Irish tend to be Democratic. Cuban Americans realize that their rise in politics came with the rise of Ronald Reagan. But a lot of my friends are Republicans, others are Democrats, most people vote on bread and butter issues and vote on common sense stuff and some folks think that being a Democrat is a bad thing.
In Florida, 40 years ago you had to be a Democrat because there weren’t any Republicans. It comes and goes.
2chambers: But if you win, it doesn’t necessarily signal a shift in Cuban-American political preferences?
Garcia: If I win, I won by getting the majority of the voters in the district. I don’t think it’s a seminal statement for the ages. Too often people want to take one thing and turn it into some kind of analysis.
If I win, it’s because I got the majority of people to vote for me. I’m not running for president of Cuba, I’m running to be the representative for the southern-most district in the United States, which, to be honest is one of the most beautiful pieces of land on the Earth.
2chambers: How will President Obama win Florida?
Garcia: Let me tell you about this district, because I’m not running his campaign: In my district he’s performing well. It’s a district where he’s performing well. Our numbers are good too. I think we’re benefiting each other. Statewide, I think the numbers are good too.
2chambers: If he comes to Miami, do you campaign with Obama?
2chambers: No reservations about doing so?
Garcia: No, absolutely not. Unlike my opponent, when the president comes to town, I get called, I show up. When Bill Clinton showed up the other day, I was part of the group that introduced him. Unlike my opponent who is asked not to be there when Romney comes to visit.