It is half past midnight on a summer Friday, and Joe Garcia, the Democratic candidate for Florida’s 25th Congressional District, is holding court outside a South Beach bar. With his mass of dark curls (friends call it the “Joe-fro”) plopped atop a tall but none-too-slender frame, he has to do very little to attract attention. Compound his physical heft with his prominence in the local community, and it’s obvious why every few minutes another twentysomething spots him and says hello. “We have no idea who that girl is,” Garcia whispers sheepishly after one enthusiastic young woman greets him with an air of familiarity.
In the eyes of many young Cuban-Americans, Garcia, 44, is the next political rock star. In the eyes of the Democratic Party, he may be just the right candidate to break the Republicans’ longtime stranglehold on the region. But to older Cuban-Americans, especially those who are part of the historic “exile community,” Garcia is an ungrateful former favorite son who represents all that is wrong with the younger set, particularly in his skepticism toward the Cuban embargo and the old-line, hardline mentality that gave birth to it.
The exile old guard has triumphed in South Florida since almost immediately after the Castro revolution. And since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, the Republican Party has reaped the benefits. The most popular strategy for Republicans running statewide is to jack up the score among Cuban-American voters, who are numerous enough to offset losses among Jews, African-Americans and union members. It was the basis for Republican Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial victory in 2006, as well as that of his predecessor, Jeb Bush. In 2006 more than 72 percent of all Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties identified as Republicans.
Garcia’s candidacy is part of what might be called the Democrats’ triangle offense in the region. Frustrated with targeting specific districts and losing, the party has attempted to harness the political wind at its back and put forth three strong candidates to challenge three Republican incumbents simultaneously. In the district next to the 25th, Raul Martinez, a Cuban-American dead ringer for Boris Yeltsin who served for more than twenty years as the mayor of Hialeah, is taking on Lincoln Diaz-Balart. In the 18th, there’s Annette Taddeo, a businesswoman running a bit of a long-shot campaign against the relatively moderate Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
But it is the candidacy of Joe Garcia, a longtime community and party activist, that poses the largest threat to the virulently anti-Castro, pro-embargo status quo. Garcia is running against Mario Diaz-Balart, younger brother of Lincoln, who entered Congress in 2002 and whose district encompasses Miami-Dade and most of the state’s southern tip. An early October Telemundo poll showed Garcia trailing by two points, 41-43 percent, within the margin of error, the best of the three challengers. Diaz-Balart recently agreed to a last-minute debate, to be held October 10, a sure sign of trouble for any incumbent.