A surprise guest showed up Thursday at the first debate between Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Democratic former Rep. Joe Garcia: Garcia's former chief of staff, who was fired and went to jail when the ex-congressman was in office.
Jeffrey Garcia sat in the auditorium of Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, after having disappeared from local politics following his jail term.
His presence did not go unnoticed.
As soon as Curbelo and Joe Garcia, no relation, sparred over the criminal cases that resulted in two convictions for Jeffrey Garcia, Curbelo pointed to the audience.
"He's actually sitting right there," Curbelo said.
"You never spoke to him again," Curbelo continued, before invoking the school's motto. "Whatever happened to 'men for others'?"
Mentioning Jeffrey Garcia made it seem like he might have been invited by Curbelo, so he could make a point against his opponent. A Curbelo spokeswoman denied having given him a ticket and suggested he'd gotten it from Garcia. But a Garcia spokesman also denied any involvement.
Jeffrey Garcia, as a Belen alumnus like both candidates, said that's how he'd gotten in.
"I don't need an invitation to come to Belen," he told the Miami Herald.
This post has been updated with Jeffrey Garcia's comment.
As a member of Congress, Joe Garcia championed immigration visas that allow wealthy foreigners to obtain U.S. residency if they pledge at least $500,000 to job-creating projects within the nation’s borders.
According to one analysis, Garcia became the biggest beneficiary in Congress of donations from bankers and developers eager to expand the visa program, known as EB-5.
When the Miami Democrat was ousted from Congress after a single term, Garcia took a job as senior vice president for a private Miami Beach bank named QueensFort Capital that specializes in matching foreign investors to EB-5 visa projects.
Though not illegal or improper, the relationship illustrates the revolving door that often exists in Congress: As a lawmaker, Garcia worked on EB-5 legislation. He then worked for an EB-5 bank. Now he’s again running for Congress, where he might write EB-5 rules that would affect his former employer.
Garcia told the Miami Herald he got the bank job because he could leverage his local connections and not because he filed legislation in March 2014 to expand the EB-5 program.
“This was a job because I knew a lot of people in South Florida,” said Garcia, whose legislation didn’t pass. “The whole point was because of my relations. It was not because of my EB-5 expertise.”
Joe Garcia got a little help on TV this week from a Democratic super PAC that started airing its first ad against Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
"Carlos Curbelo shares Donald Trump's dangerous views," the ad from House Majority PAC says. "They both want to defund Planned Parenthood. They both called Social Security a 'Ponzi' scheme."
The ad also claims a super PAC funded by Trump has spent "over $1 million" trying to reelect Curbelo, but it doesn't name the PAC. Asked to identify it, House Majority PAC spokesman Jeb Fain said it was the Congressional Leadership Fund, which accepted a Trump donation in 2012, long before his candidacy.
"The contortions Democrats are making in this ad only showcase how desperate they are to talk about anything but Joe Garcia'a scandal-plagued record," Emily Davis, Congressional Leadership Fund'/ communications director, said in a statement.
National Democrats have made it their chief campaign argument to tie congressional Republicans to Trump. Curbelo has escaped some of that criticism by saying he won't back the presidential nominee. But Democrats are nevertheless finding issues on which they can link the two Republicans.
Two years ago, then-U.S. Rep. Joe Garciatried to make a point about Republican spending on border security resulting in scores of government jobs. "Communism works," he quipped.
A political tracker was taping him. And the out-of-context words have been used in attack ads against him ever since -- even though Garcia is the son of exiles who fled Cuba.
So it goes with the latest ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which continues to jab Garcia as "embarrassing." Most of the ad is an attack on Garcia's support for the Iran nuclear deal. But the first quote that appears on the screen is "Communism works."
The NRCC is backing incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
Miami Democrat Joe Garcia is using his first TV ad of the year to accuse Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo -- and Donald Trump -- of trying to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.
"Carlos Curbelo and Donald Trump want to go backwards," Garcia says in the 30-second spot, titled "Leadership." "They're working to repeal Obamacare, stripping healthcare from thousands of Florida families. That's wrong."
No sources are cited in the ad. Trump said as recently as Sunday, in his second presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, that he'd get rid of Obamacare. Curbelo said when he was running in the Republican primary in 2014 that he'd "replace" Obamacare, "because to just say 'repeal' implies that there is no need for health care reform." Republicans, including Curbelo, haven't voted on any "replacement" legislation.
A recent poll commissioned by Garcia shows the candidates tied in the swing 26th district, which spans Westchester to Key West. Their first debate is scheduled to take place Thursday evening. Curbelo, who didn't have a primary challenger and has far outraised Garcia, has been on the airwaves for more than a month.
Garcia's new ad, coming as Miami-Dade County sends its first batch of mail-in ballots to voters, invokes President Barack Obama, whose national popularity has soared as of late. Garcia says he'll "improve" the healthcare legislation if he's returned to Congress.
Democrats hit Carlos Curbelo with Spanish-language TV advertising this week featuring a series of testimonials from Hispanics who accused the Miami Republican of failing to live up to his moderate rhetoric in Congress.
So Curbelo released a Spanish-language spot of his own -- showing off Hispanics who support him.
"It's very important to know that we have a voice," Rosa Maria Barbara of Miami-Dade County says in the ad. None of the speakers delves into any particular Curbelo issues or positions.
The freshman Curbelo faces a challenge from Democrat Joe Garcia. The anti-Curbelo ads have so far come from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which put up a third ad this week calling Curbelo a "phony."
The secretly recorded comments by Miami Democrat Joe Garcia about voters not wanting to "have sex" with Hillary Clinton now appear, two weeks later, in a new Miami radio ad paid for by the Republican Party.
"Remember why you got rid of former Congressman Joe Garcia? Scandals. Election fraud. Campaign payoffs. Former employees sent to jail," the narrator sneers. "Now Joe Garcia is running again and embarrassing you again."
The spot notes Garcia "was caught on camera making lewd and sexist comments about Hillary Clinton." He was taped by a political tracker and later apologized.
"Whether it's something he says or something he does, Joe Garcia has embarrassed South Florida long enough," concludes the ad by the National Republican Campaign Committee, which is helping incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo try to keep his Democratic-leaning seat.
"Trump-Republicans and Carlos Curbelo are desperately trying to distract South Florida voters from Curbelo's Republican record," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Javier Gamboa said in a statement. "Bad news for them, South Florida voters are rediscovering that Carlos Curbelo falls in line with the Republican Party, and they will reject the Trump-Curbelo ticket this November."
A version of the ad is also running in Spanish.
UPDATE: The NRCC has now launched a version of its ad on TV, so we've updated the headline for this post, too.
National Democrats fully endorsed Joe Garcia's congressional bid Friday, adding the former congressman from Miami to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red-to-Blue" program.
The DCCC had opposed Garcia in the primary, backing Annette Taddeo instead. The party wasn't quick to switch gears, though it did put out a Spanish-language radio ad two weeks ago for Garcia and against Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
"Congressman Joe Garcia has spent his entire life in public service, working for his community and making sure everyone can achieve the American dream," DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement. "From fighting to protect the Affordable Care Act, to effectively working towards fixing our broken immigration system, Joe has always stood by these values."
The red-to-blue program is meant to highlight candidates in Republican-held districts most likely to flip to Democrats. With the designation comes additional fundraising support. Garcia has been on the program every time he ran for Congress as a challenger, in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
Garcia was ousted by Curbelo two years ago after a single term in Congress, but the 26th congressional district now leans more Democratic after having been redrawn.
Joe Garcia, the former Miami Democratic congressman running for his old seat, told supporters in a candid moment over the weekend that Hillary Clinton "is under no illusions that you want to have sex with her, or that she's going to seduce you."
Why Garcia went there is unclear. He was secretly recorded by a political "tracker" as he spoke informally at a Key West Democratic campaign office opening Saturday, video obtained by the Miami Herald shows.
The video -- recorded upside down as if a cellphone was in the tracker's hand -- showed Garcia standing in an office hallway with a few other men, apparently before Garcia was scheduled to address the full crowd. Clinton signs decorate some of the walls.
"I believe that we're going to have -- I'll mention it when I speak -- I believe we're about to see the most consequential presidency that we've seen since Lyndon Johnson," Garcia says. "This is not because I think Hillary Clinton is the greatest ever. But I do believe she is extremely, exceedingly competent, and she -- I know this is going to sound weird to you, but to me, as somebody who studies history, she's going to be very similar to Lyndon Johnson.
"Lyndon Johnson wasn't a particularly charming man, wasn't a particularly nice man: He would ask you nice, and then when you didn't do it, he made you do it," Garcia continued. "And Hillary is under no illusions that you want to have sex with her, or that she's going to seduce you, or out-think you."
One of the men in the hallway then makes an inaudible comment.
"I don't want to be offensive to women," Garcia responds. "What I'm talking about is exactly that: It's getting it done. Unlike Obama, who has this profound sense that logic can move people -- it can't move crazy. That's trending in the Republican Party."
Garcia then recommends listening to the Johnson tapes, admiring how Johnson got votes for the Civil Rights Act by calling senators from Western states by threatening to kill money for their water projects.
Asked to explain why he would refer to someone wanting to have sex with Clinton, Garcia issued a statement to the Herald.
"I believeSecretary Clinton is the most competent and qualified presidential candidate in the history of this country, man or woman," he said. "My comments speak to Secretary Clinton's focus on getting things done, and not on the gender stereotypes and biases women in public life are frequently subjected to. I fully support Hillary Clinton for president, and I'm confident she will be one of our country's most effective presidents."
National Republicans, however, cast Garcia's remark as embarrassing.
"It's shameful and disgusting that Joe Garcia would describe Hillary Clinton's qualifications to serve as president in terms of whether or not he would have sexual relations with her," National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Katie Martin said in a statement. "It's time for national Democrats to answer whether they are going to support a sexist candidate like Joe Garcia who would say such sexually disparaging things about the first-ever female Democratic nominee for President of the United States."
Several hours later, Garcia issued a second statement -- this time saying sorry.
"I apologize for my poorly worded comment about Secretary Clinton," he said. "My comments were intended to speak to Secretary Clinton's relentless focus on getting the job done, despite the unjust gender stereotypes and biases women in public life are subjected to."
This post has been updated to include Garcia's second statement.
Normally it would hardly be newsworthy for a major labor union to endorse a Democrat for Congress.
But the Service Employees International Union didn't back Joe Garcia in the primary for Florida's 26th congressional district. It backed his primary rival, Annette Taddeo, instead, a week before Garcia even entered the race. Garcia won.
On Monday, SEIU formally threw its support behind him, backing the former congressman over the incumbent, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
"Joe has the support of working families because working families know they can count on Joe," SEIU Florida Monica Russo said in a statement delivered by Garcia's campaign. "Joe has been in the trenches fighting alongside South Florida workers for years, advocating for higher wages, immigrant rights, affordable healthcare, women's right to choose, renewable energy, and more! He is not an average Joe, he is a champion for the working class."