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Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life

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And he was a fighter. Once, when the university announced a controversial new residential housing policy that didn't provide dorm space for all freshmen, Garcia called a meeting with UM President Tad Foote. He presented his own, alternative plan to preserve the housing, complete with elaborate dorm room measurements and financial calculations. When he finished, Foote and a provost who was present glanced at each other, awestruck, and a few days later the university decided to roll back on the controversial policy.

"It was a huge victory," remembers Bill Barzee, a member of Garcia's student government who was at the meeting. "When Joe feels passionately about something, he is on fire. He is in a zone. And that's how he was that day."

It was at UM that Garcia also planted the seeds for the connections that would lead to a rapid political rise. After a chance meeting with a student named JC Mas -- the youngest son of the iconic Cuban exile leader and millionaire Jorge Mas Canosa -- the young men became extremely close. Soon Garcia found himself playing pickup basketball with the world's most powerful Cuban exile leader. "I was a horrible player," Garcia recalls, "but he liked the fact that I was tall."

During Garcia's senior year, Mas Canosa invited him to a dinner event at his home. The student body president was excited at the prospect of mingling with politicians and businessmen. "I'm thinking, Wow, he's recognizing the fact that I'm student government president, you know," Garcia remembers.

When Joe and JC showed up, Mas Canosa handed them a couple of valet jackets. They'd be parking the guests' cars. But after the work was done, Mas Canosa invited them to the party.

"We sat at the table," Garcia says, "just like everybody else."


On May 31, 1994, a 36-year-old single mother named Maria Romeu, who worked as an assistant at MTV Latino in the company's office on Lincoln Road, let a friend use her station's office fax machine. The friend sent out an itinerary for an upcoming trip to Havana to see a concert by the Cuban rocker Carlos Varela.

Less than a week later, Romeu lost her job. "Oh my God, I still can't believe it," she told the Herald at the time. "They fired me for sending a fax."

"I've migrated across the political spectrum. I consider myself pragmatic."

Romeu had been terminated after Joe Garcia called the station to complain. The trip to see Varela, he explained to the Herald soon after, was "morally repugnant" and akin to attending a concert in Hitler's Germany. The trip also violated the strict Cuban travel restrictions in place at the time. He said he never intended for Romeu to be fired -- "I just take offense at using MTV for political purposes for a trip I imagine violates the embargo." (Garcia still stands by the call. "My whole point," he says now, "was to say, 'Look, you can't go to Cuba to party.'")

Garcia was just 30 years old then, but he was already well established as a South Florida Cuban leader. And on Cuba he was a hardliner, just like the man he had parked cars for eight years earlier. But he wasn't a Republican, like most Cuban-Americans, although it would still be years before he would identify himself as a Democrat. "I've migrated across the political spectrum," Garcia says. "I consider myself pragmatic."

After graduating from the University of Miami in 1987, Garcia worked briefly at the Salvadoran American National Foundation, a humanitarian organization, and then enrolled in law school at UM. But his studies took a back seat to the career that was already in motion: In 1988, Mas Canosa tapped him to run the newly created Cuban Exodus Relief Fund, a foundation division dedicated to resettling exiles in South Florida. Garcia would go on to help more than 10,000 Cubans reunite with their loved ones in Miami. "We ran out of refugees," he would say years later.

Garcia also embraced hardball politics. After the Miami Herald published an editorial opposing a proposed tightening of the U.S. embargo, on January 18, 1992, Mas Canosa started a war. He compared the Herald to Granma, Fidel Castro's propaganda machine, and decried the paper on local Spanish radio. "These are unscrupulous people, people who chop off heads, destroy people, families, put people in jail."

In the following months, newspaper boxes were smashed and bomb threats were recorded at the Herald's headquarters. A catch slogan was splattered across billboards, buses, and bumper stickers: "I don't believe the Miami Herald," the signs read in bold black letters against a yellow background.

The media war was directed by Garcia. "The Herald wants to cover Fidel -Castro as if he were the president of a Latin American country," Garcia explained at the time. "You can't be objective."

In 1993, a 29-year-old Garcia decided to run for public office. In a county commission race to represent District 11, a new seat on the western edge of the county, Garcia faced off against the dashing future state senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who had graduated one year ahead at Belen.

The race grew rancorous. In one debate, Garcia said Diaz de la Portilla's ads were abusive and insulting, "typical of the kind of campaign run by his family." (The Diaz de la Portillas were fast becoming a Cuban-American political dynasty.) In November, Garcia lost by only 243 votes.

The next year, when a seat on the state's Public Service Commission opened up, Garcia applied. Soon he found himself face-to-face in an interview with Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. "He looked me straight in the eyes and asked, 'Joe, can you vote your conscience?'" Garcia recounted later. "Yes, governor," Garcia replied. "I think I can."

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach

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