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Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life

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But a month later, on September 8, Garcia was back on the floor. This time his tone was muted. "The president signaled that he would not move forward on comprehensive immigration reform, and we are deeply disappointed."

For Garcia's political future, the announcement was only more bad news. Five days earlier, the Herald had reported that federal prosecutors were intensifying the investigation into the suspicious Roly Arrojo candidacy. A grand jury had issued at least four subpoenas, the newspaper reported, and at least one witness had testified that Jeffrey Garcia was behind the scheme. "Congressman Garcia has done nothing wrong," said David Markus, Joe Garcia's criminal defense attorney. "We've never been told that he's the target of any investigation."

Carlos Curbelo, who had just won the Republican primary, had another conclusion, one that would become a mantra for his campaign: "Joe Garcia is corrupt."

In the campaign commercial, Joe Garcia, wearing a clean white shirt, stands before a bright fruit market. "Here at home, we've seen what happens when a politician breaks the public trust, when they are dishonest and corrupt," he says. "Our community is being neglected because our congressman is busier covering up his lies and working on his legal defense than serving his constituents."

But as Garcia speaks, the screen fills with images of cutouts from real headlines: "Voter Fraud Scheme Falls on Rep. Joe Garcia," "Ex-Aide to Miami Rep. Joe Garcia to Head to Jail," "Feds Intensify Investigation on Rep. Joe Garcia's Former Campaign Manager."

The commercial is paid for by Carlos Curbelo's campaign. Curbelo, a baby-faced 34-year-old first-term school board member who also graduated from Belen, has repeated the corruption allegations at every conceivable turn. But Joe Garcia's camp has had plenty of its own ammunition: For months Curbelo has refused to disclose the client list of Capitol Gains, the lobbying company he founded in 2002 but then transferred to his wife's name in 2009.

In early October, five weeks after Democrats filed a lawsuit pressing Curbelo to release the list, the challenger admitted that Roberto and William Isaias, local millionaires wanted in their native Ecuador for embezzlement, were clients.

"Precisely who are Mr. Curbelo's clients?" Garcia pressed at a recent debate. "We don't know if he represents Chávez's regime because we can't see it."

As of September 30, Garcia's campaign had raised $3.3 million, and Curbelo's $1.8 million. Garcia's federal reports show his campaign accepted two $1,000 donations from Exxon Mobile's PAC and one $1,000 donation from BP's even though he opposes offshore drilling. He has also come under fire for taking a contribution from Bill Delahunt, a lobbyist who has met with Venezuelan socialist -president Nicolás Maduro.

Garcia, in turn, has repeatedly thrown accusations of Curbelo's campaign being dictated by conservative magnates like Charles and David Koch, whose super PACs have pumped millions into ads bashing Garcia. "I'm not running against Curbelo," the congressman says. "I'm running against the Koch brothers."

On a recent Saturday, the candidate happily strolls around after judging a rib fest in Florida City. Garcia is impressively talkative, eager to dive into detailed policy analyses or narrate old stories, but asked about Jeffrey Garcia, he becomes brusque. "I've had the same position that I have now that I had two years ago," he says. "I've been cleared by the state attorney. I wasn't involved. And when we found a problem in our campaign, we corrected it." But it is still sad, he acknowledges, to have lost a longtime adviser and friend. "It is," he repeats three times, "it is tremendously sad."

If Joe Garcia loses November 4, it will be in large part because of his ties to the disgraced former staffer. "There's no way you could ever make me believe that he didn't know what Jeff Garcia was up to," says Ed MacDougall, the longtime mayor of Cutler Bay, who came in second in the Republican primary.

Garcia and Ugalde divorced in 2012. Since then Garcia has been a bachelor, but he and Ugalde share a 16-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and she, in particular, is often hurt by the nasty campaign, sometimes even to tears. "She doesn't like it," Garcia admits. "She says, 'Dad, why do you go through this?'"

The congressman has an answer: Politics is a tough life, he says often. But it's also a noble calling, and if he's not willing to get roughed up in the name of service, who will?

"You choose to get into the ring," Garcia says. "You're expecting to get cut."

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach

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