Last spring, when national Democrats wanted a challenger to Republican congressman David Rivera, they thought they found their guy in state Rep. Luis Garcia, who had won two elections in a state House seat drawn by Republicans.
Garcia said he was repeatedly called and asked to run by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chairman, New York Rep. Steve Israel. So he did. But he struggled to raise money, he said, in part because fellow South Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, wouldn’t help him with big donors.
“Every step of the way, I have met road blocks -- road blocks -- from Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” Garcia said.
The final insult came this week when Garcia fielded a call from former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who is mulling a run for the seat.
“Alex said that he had been called by Debbie Wasserman Schultz and that Steve Israel had come down to meet with him, all behind my back,” Garcia said. “I placed a call to Steve Israel. He hasn’t returned my call. I’m not very happy about that.”
In a written statement, the congresswoman's spokesman Jonathan Beeton said: "The DCCC asked the Congresswoman to make a call to another candidate in South Florida. She does many calls to candidates for the DCCC and this was one of those calls."
Garcia acknowledges the high-level help for Penelas “doesn’t bode well. But it doesn’t say a lot of good things about the national party. At the very least, I was handled disrespectfully – maybe a little bit dishonestly.”
Garcia isn’t planning to go away.
“I don’t lay down for anybody,” said Garcia, a former Miami Beach city commissioner nicknamed “El Bombero" for his time as fire chief. "I'm not going quietly."
Garcia pointed out that, under Penelas, Miami-Dade lobbyists and friends of the mayor got rich off airport contracts. Also, he knocked Penelas for supporting a half-cent sales tax for transit projects that didn’t do much to help transit projects.
“A lot of the problems in the county go back to Penelas. He had a large staff,” Garcia said. “A lot of his flunkies went to work in transportation, for instance, and look at the state of Dade’s transportation system.”
Rivera, by contrast, had only kind words for Penelas. "I've always considered Alex a friend. He campaigned for me when I first got elected. We've worked together on efforts for pre-k education and St. Thomas University. And his wife is a wonderful person."
Garcia said things were so different last spring when Charlie Kelly, the DCCC’s southern political director, went so far as to try to call Garcia’s wife to get him to run. Garcia was then flown to Washington and said he met with Israel.
“You have to do this for your country,” Israel said, according to Garcia.
“What do we need to do in the Hispanic Caucus to get you to run for Congress?” said California Rep. Xavier Becerra in a separate meeting.
Said Garcia: “I was really made to feel wanted.”
“The promised help never really materialized. The first time I was supposed to meet with Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She kept postponing and postponing for two days and I couldn’t meet with her at the end because I didn’t want to miss my flight,” Garcia said.
He said he raised about $100,000 by mid-summer – without Wasserman Schultz’s help. But Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer helped steer about $12,000 to him.
When he went back to a party event in Washington, he said Wasserman Schultz was offensively blunt.
“Boy, you guys are pathetic. You didn’t raise enough money,” she said, according to Garcia.
“It was embarrassing. I don’t know why,” Garcia said. “I thought I had a good relationship with Debbie. I thought she would help me with fundraising in South Florida. But she never did.”