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Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life

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Chiles had announced he was looking for another Hispanic to replace the outgoing Luis Laredo, who had been the first Hispanic on the five-member board. Garcia got the job and its $92,000 salary. But he didn't move to Tallahassee. Two years earlier, he had married Aileen Ugalde (who would become general counsel of the University of Miami). They had met in law school, and Garcia flew back to Miami every weekend, a tradition he still maintains. "If I go too long without arroz con frijoles," Garcia joked then, "I go through withdrawal."

Garcia quickly established himself as an authority on utilities and energy regulation. He voted in favor of some rate hikes but more often was a consumer advocate, especially for the poor. In 1999 he became the commission's first Hispanic chairman and fought repeatedly for funding to advertise a federal program, called Lifeline, that gave poor families home telephones. But the funding was denied, and Garcia soon moved on -- there was an organization in Miami that needed a new leader.

Two years earlier, Jorge Mas Canosa had died at the age of 58, leaving the Cuban-American community reeling. And then, in 2000, a 6-year-old Elián González was rescued off a boat and turned into an ugly international diplomatic flash point. The Cuban American National Foundation had staked its political future on the boy's fate, but Elián was returned to Cuba, and the once-mighty foundation was in crisis.

Just weeks after federal agents seized Elián from his relatives' house, Garcia was hired as foundation executive director, serving under board chairman Jorge Mas, oldest son of Mas Canosa. "It had slipped after [Mas Canosa's] death," Garcia says. "It had become very conservative, very Republican."

By then, Garcia's own politics had changed. While serving under the Democrat Chiles, the longtime independent had begun to drift toward the governor's party. But it was only when he returned to lead the foundation that he planted himself firmly in the Democratic camp. He was repelled by the Republican Party, he explains, after working with politicians like George W. and Jeb Bush. "I was just so turned off," he says. "The things they believed in and I believed in were very different."

Garcia and the younger Mas steered the foundation toward a more moderate approach. It supported more engagement with dissidents and, in 2001, bringing the Latin Grammys to Miami. The support invoked enormous backlash because Cuban musicians such as Issac Delgado and Omara Portuondo were among the nominees. For hardliners like Ninoska Pérez Castellón, the foundation's longtime radio voice, it was the last straw.

"Mas Canosa was the kind of person that wherever he spoke, the exile community felt he was talking for them," Pérez Castellón said at the time. "I don't think that applies to the foundation anymore."

"Jeff was the guy that I wanted to run my campaign." He was also the guy who would become Joe's greatest liability.

Garcia stayed on as executive director for four years. In 2004 he stepped down to become an adviser to the New Democratic Network, a group dedicated to raising money for moderate Democrats. Two years later he was elected chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Garcia, once again, had seized a leadership role through his boundless energy and engagement.

But he had also burned bridges. "He became a different person after Jorge Mas Canosa passed away," says Carlos Manrique, who knew Garcia in the early '90s, when Manrique was a state representative and Garcia frequently lobbied for the foundation. "His views were a lot more conservative back then. He's sort of like a Charlie Crist."

By 2008 Garcia was eyeing a congressional seat. But he'd have to run without the campaign manager he wanted. Eight years earlier, when the foundation was hosting an event with then-vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, Garcia had met a young political strategist named Jeffrey Garcia. Joe, who always saw himself more as a policy guy, was immediately impressed with Jeff's passion for nitty-gritty political mechanics. But when Joe decided to run, Jeff was already committed to another candidate. "Jeff was the guy," Garcia said, "that I wanted to run my campaign."

He was also the guy who would become Joe's greatest liability.

The evening of November 6, 2012, Joe Garcia and more than 100 of his supporters packed into Casa Vieja, a lively Colombian restaurant in West Kendall. On an improvised stage, in front of a blue campaign banner, the tired-looking candidate addressed the crowd. Finally, after three tough congressional runs, he gave a victory speech: "Thank you, South Florida!" he said. "You've decided to turn a new page, move forward."

But just weeks after defeating David Rivera, one of the most infamous candidates in South Florida's corruption-filled history, and taking his seat in Congress, Garcia found himself embroiled in a scandal that seemed to be pulled from the same dirty book. Jeff Garcia, by then Joe's chief of staff, would soon head to jail for absentee-ballot fraud, and another investigation swirled. "Call Joe Garcia today," began a Spanish-language radio ad in June 2013. "Tell him that we are tired of the corruption and the fraud. If he can't tell us the truth, the right thing to do is resign."

Jeff Garcia, a short man with a square face and jet-black hair, was born in Miami in 1972, the son of a Cuban-American father and Irish-American mother. At Belen, from which he graduated in 1990, eight years after Joe, he was a serious, well-liked kid who played on the basketball team and spent four years with the school's community service program visiting elderly and children's homes. "It has helped me grow as a Christian, serving my fellow man," he said in his senior year.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach

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