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Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life

On a Wednesday evening in early October, Congressman Joe Garcia strides through the empty lobby of a Key Largo community center, his black dress shoes clacking against the marble floor.

Garcia is both affable and imposing. He has a large body and a broad face, with small dark eyes set above a prominent nose. His gray curls, once an unruly mop, are styled neat and short.

For months he's been under siege over scandals related to his former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation), and an apparently phony candidate named Roly Arrojo. But on his way out of the building after a debate, he's in good spirits, relieved after a long day of campaigning. In the lobby he walks past an abandoned tray of roast beef sandwiches. His young spokesman, Texas native Miguel Salazar, trails behind him. Without speaking, the two men slip through the building's glass doors and into a warm South Florida night.

"How's Jeff Garcia?" an aggressive male voice suddenly barks through the darkness. "Are you paying his legal defense bills?"

Three men and one woman, all neatly dressed 20-somethings, emerge through the lobby door behind the congressman's back. They hoist cell phones to eye level, aiming cameras at Garcia's face. They approach until they're threateningly close -- maybe five feet from the congressman.

"Have you ever met Roly Arrojo?" heckles the boldest one, a College Republican type with short gelled hair and a plaid shirt. "Has the press asked you if you've ever met Roly Arrojo?"

Garcia and Salazar huddle close and try to ignore the heckling, but any attempt at conversation is drowned out.

"Jeff Garcia went to jail! You don't care?"

The congressman and his aide hurry toward Salazar's parked red Mini Cooper, but the four young people follow, cameras rolling.

"He's your best friend! You lived with him in Washington! You don't care that he went to jail?"

Garcia's smile is long gone. He's clearly annoyed but says nothing.

"Did your criminal defense attorney, David Markus, tell you you could not speak?" a young man provokes. "He represents criminals!"

Eventually, the hecklers retreat. "They do this all the time," Garcia says. "All the time... The idea is to get you to freak out, to say something nasty. You can't respond."

Garcia, who represents an area from Westchester to Key West, is a rare Cuban-American Democrat. After three decades in public service and two losing congressional bids, he was elected in 2012 as an honest antidote to the district's scandal-plagued Republican incumbent, David Rivera.

But now Garcia's own reelection bid has become engulfed in controversy. Last year his former campaign manager, chief of staff, and close friend, Jeffrey "No Relation" Garcia, pleaded guilty to absentee-ballot fraud during Joe Garcia's 2012 campaign. And for more than a year, federal prosecutors have also been probing claims that, in 2010, Garcia's campaign covertly funded the highly suspicious candidacy of Roly Arrojo as a way to siphon votes from Rivera.

Garcia, best-known in Congress for his sponsorship of a spectacularly failed immigration bill, has repeatedly denied personal involvement in the scandals. He emphasizes he was cleared in the absentee-ballot probe and hasn't himself been identified as a target in the Arrojo investigation.

But for months his congressional seat -- highly sought after as both parties seek to bolster influence in the nation's most important swing state -- has been considered among the Democrats' top priorities. Just days before the November 4 election, and after a nasty and expensive race, polls show Garcia and his opponent, 34-year-old school board member Carlos Curbelo, virtually tied, with some observers actually giving the edge to the challenger in a district weary of political scandals.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach

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