Joe Garcia’s time on Capitol Hill was marked by two rarities: he was a Cuban American Democrat from Florida, and in an era marked by ideological rigidity he took a pragmatic approach toward the issue of immigration reform and his time in office. He was elected knowing the public’s skepticism about Congress. “Most folks look at Congress and see something that’s not working,” Garcia said. “They are not interested in our debates. They just want to get the economy going, they want to make sure their kids have a better future than they did, and they want to make sure they get the benefit of having someone advocating for them to work forward.”1
Jose Antonio “Joe” Garcia, Jr., was born on October 19, 1963, to Cuban immigrants, in Miami Beach, Florida. Both his father, Jose Antonio, and his mother, Carmen, fled Castro-ruled Cuba to the United States. They met and married in Florida.2 A car washer when he first arrived in the U.S., Garcia’s father eventually worked in a bank, and his mother became a hair stylist. Garcia was the first of their three children.3 A 1982 graduate from Miami’s Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, he attended Miami Dade Community College before going on to the University of Miami in Coral Gables where he earned his B.A. in 1987. Trained as a lawyer, Garcia earned a J.D. from the University of Miami, Coral Gables, in 1991.4 He married Aileen Ugalde, an attorney, in 1992, and they have a daughter, Gabriela. The marriage ended in divorce in 2012.5
Garcia, a lawyer in private practice, soon made the leap into local politics. In 1994 Florida Governor Lawton Chiles appointed him to the Florida public service commission, the agency that regulates power and water utilities. Garcia became its chairman in 1999 and 2000.6 Garcia then became involved in two nonprofit organizations: the Cuban American National Foundation as executive director from 2000 to 2004 and the New Democrat Network as executive vice president for Hispanic outreach (2004–2008). He also served as chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party in 2007.7
Garcia’s first campaign for political office was in 2008 when he challenged incumbent U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart.8 The next year Garcia joined President Barack Obama’s administration as director of the Office of Minority Impact in the U.S. Energy Department.9 Garcia left in 2010 to run for an open House seat from Miami, losing to Republican David Rivera by 13,000 votes.10 Garcia remained optimistic: “I won the Latin American vote and the younger Cuban American vote. But the reality is, these older Cuban Americans voted in huge numbers. These old guys are going to turn out to vote.”11 He believed a newer generation of Cuban Americans was more open to Democratic candidates. Congressman Rivera, mired in criminal investigations of former campaign colleagues and other ethics investigations, was “being left for dead by some in the local GOP.”12 Encouraged by Rivera’s troubles, Garcia ran for the incumbent’s seat in 2012. On Election Day 2012 Garcia defeated Rivera, 53.6 percent to 43 percent, with two minor party candidates splitting the rest of the vote.13
Garcia approached his House service with realistic goals focused on defending constituency interests. Any Member from south Florida was expected to hold certain positions: the need for immigration reform and opposition to offshore drilling near the Everglades.14 On the issue of Cuba, however, Garcia moved away from automatic opposition to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Taking a more cautious and nuanced stand, he favored greater family travel and contact with Cuba while opposing any major policy changes over diplomatic relations.15
Garcia served on two House committees. He was appointed to the Judiciary Committee with assignments to three subcommittees: Immigration and Border Security; Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law; and the Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013. His other committee assignment was to Natural Resources with three subcommittee appointments: Energy and Mineral Resources; Public Lands and Environmental Regulations; and Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs.16
By far, the most important bill Garcia introduced was H.R. 15, the House Democratic alternative on comprehensive immigration reform in fall 2013. The measure was part of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s effort to pressure Republican leaders to bring the issue to a final vote. Garcia’s bill was the Senate’s bipartisan bill that passed in June providing a “path to citizenship” for long-time undocumented immigrants. Bipartisan negotiations for a House bill faltered, leading to the announcement of Garcia’s bill at a press conference held by the House Democratic leadership. “You’re not all going to love it—I don’t love it,” Garcia promised in both English and Spanish, but “we’re trying to move this debate forward.”17 That weekend more than 150 “National Day of Immigrant Dignity and Respect” rallies were held for the bill in 40 states.18 In the next year, 2014, Garcia continued his fight for immigration reform by starting a discharge petition to force his bill out of the numerous committees that received it. The petition eventually reached 192 signatures, still well short of the 218 required.19 House Republicans remained adamant in blocking the Garcia bill, and instead proposed a series of measures that began with border security. “We had an opportunity in this House to pass…something that would have made the system function better,” Garcia noted afterward, “brought more investment into America, more dollars into Federal revenue; yet the House punted.”20
Long targeted as a vulnerable Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, Garcia began raising campaign money early in 2014 for his reelection race. “I’m a prolific fund-raiser, but I can’t compete with somebody who has got 50-some-odd billion dollars,” he lamented in March as third-party TV ads were appearing against him. “One hopes the cavalry is coming.”21 Garcia spent $3.8 million on his reelection with an additional $2 million from the national Democratic Party. Carlos Curbelo, his opponent in 2014, raised $2.3 million and was supplemented with another $5 million from the national Republican organization.22 Garcia was also saddled with a scandal when several of his 2012 campaign staff submitted fake online requests for absentee ballots.23 Curbelo won with a margin of less than 5,000 votes out of 160,000 cast, 51.5 to 48.5 percent.24
Garcia ran for his House seat again in 2016, defeating in the Democratic primary Annette Taddeo, who had been the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014.25 In a rematch against Representative Curbelo, Garcia was defeated, 53 to 41 percent.26
1William E. Gibson, “Newbies Seek Fresh DC Spirit,” 3 January 2013, South Florida Sun-Sentinel: A1.
2Trevor Bach, “Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life,” 28 October 2014, Miami New Times: n.p.; Politics in America 2014 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 261.
3Bach, “Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life”: n.p.
4Almanac of American Politics 2014 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, 2013): 448; Politics in America 2014 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2014): 261.
5Bach, “Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life”: n.p.
6Almanac of American Politics 2014: 448; Politics in America 2014: 261.
7Almanac of American Politics 2014: 448; Politics in America 2014: 261; Bach, “Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life”: n.p.
8Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Election Statistics: 1920 to Present, http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/. Diaz-Balart won with 130,891 votes to Garcia’s 115,820.
9Almanac of American Politics 2014: 448; Politics in America 2014: 261.
10Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Election Statistics: 1920 to Present, http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/. Rivera won with 74,859 votes to Garcia’s 61,138 with another 7,000 votes going to minor-party candidates.
11Alana Semuels, “Miami’s Cuban Vote Is Slow to Shift,” 30 January 2012, Los Angeles Times: A6.
12Paul Kane and Sean Sullivan, “Democrats Fight History in Bid to Regain the Majority,” 9 October 2012, Washington Post: A4; Lizette Alvarez, “Politics Can Be a Dirty Business,” 25 October 2012, New York Times: A13.
13Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Election Statistics: 1920 to Present, http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.
14Politics in America 2014: 261.
15William E. Gibson, “Joe Garcia Brings a Different View on Cuba,” 20 December 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel: blog.
16Almanac of American Politics 2014: 448.
17David Nakamura, “House Democrats Unveil Immigration Plan in Hopes of Pressuring Republicans,” 3 October 2013, Washington Post: n.p.; “House Democrats Offer Immigration Bill, Warn of Inaction,” 3 October 2013, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A6. H.R. 15 was referred to the Judiciary Committee and 13 other committees.
18Julia Preston, “Rallies Nationwide Seek Congressional Action in Support of Immigration,” 6 October 2013, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: A11.
19“Motion to Discharge a Committee from the Consideration of a Bill,” Petition No. 0009, 26 March 2014, U.S. House of Representatives, 113th Congress, 2nd Session: http://clerk.house.gov/113/lrc/pd/petitions/DisPet0009.xml.
20Congressional Record Daily Edition, 113th Cong., 2d sess. (4 December 2014): H8381.
21Jonathan Martin and Ashley Parker, “Obama Factor Adds to Fears of Democrats,” 16 March 2014, New York Times: A1.
22Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Bethesda: Columbia Books, 2016): 498.
23Jim Turner, “Congressional Race Bitter, Tight,” 24 October 2014, South Florida Sun-Sentinel: B5; Bach, “Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life”; Patricia Mazzei, “Ex-Aide to Rep. Joe Garcia Pleads Guilty, Will Serve 90 Days in Jail,” 21 October 2013, Miami Herald, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article1956542.html (accessed 11 November 2016).
24Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Election Statistics: 1920 to Present: http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.
25Alex Leary, “Brown Falls; Wasserman Schultz Wins,” 31 August 2016, Tampa Bay Times: 6; Lizette Alvarez, “Rubio and McCain Win Florida and Arizona Races,” 31 August 2016, New York Times: A13; Anthony Man, “Candidates Set Their Sights on Congress,” 25 June 2016, South Florida Sun-Sentinel: B2; Andrea Robinson and Carolyn Guniss, “It’s Gimenez vs. Regalado, Holloway vs. Gallon Nov. 8,” 7–13 September 2016, Miami Times: 3.
26Andres Viglucci, Glenn Garvin, and Chabeli Herrera, “Curbelo Defeats Garcia in Hard-Fought Congressional Race,” 8 November 2016, Miami Herald: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/election/article113458133.html (Accessed 22 November 2016).