[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: Just Your Average Joe Politician

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Just Your Average Joe Politician

It's not every day that I agree with the gist of an Ana Menendez column. In fact, it must be a little chilly in Hell right about now, because her column today, while splattered with the usual Menendez pomposity, arrives at the right conclusion regarding Joe Garcia and his experience as a seasoned politico.

I briefly alluded to this at the end of the previous post, but while Joe is campaigning as the outsider who's bringing long-needed change in Washington to South Florida politics, reality tells a whole 'nother story. Garcia has been playing politics since the early 1990s, both in a run for a county commission seat and as a prominent member of CANF. He is just as good as anyone in the back-and-forth "red-baiting" that is common in today's political landscape. Garcia supporters are certainly entitled to their opinion and their candidate. But I hope they're not naive enough to think that Garcia brings something new to the table of local politics. The man's got a LOT of baggage.
Garcia Reaping Hysteria He Helped Cultivate

By Ana Menendez

Fidel Castro is out of power and brother Raúl is preoccupied with Cuba's delicate transition, but in Miami, island politics can still resonate as if it were 1992.

Take last week's news that a congressman who has met with Fidel would attend a fundraiser for Democratic candidate Joe Garcia.

The announcement, a boring political footnote anywhere else, was greeted here with the hysteria, glee and indignation that is the mark of manufactured scandal.


Charles Rangel, the Democrat from New York, has traveled to Cuba as Fidel's guest and repeatedly called for an end to the embargo. Not surprisingly, he's earned the hatred of many conservative exiles.

By Thursday, Rangel's support for Garcia had become a minor, easy-to-digest controversy.

Some of Garcia's fellow graduates from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School asked him to cancel the fundraiser. The hosts on Spanish-language stations amused themselves by rhyming Rangel with Fidel.

And Garcia's opponent Mario Diaz-Balart, invoking his own inner poet, contributed the catchy school-yard taunt: ``Left-wing birds of a feather tax and spend together.''

By contrast, the presence of incumbent U.S. representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart at a rally attended by militant Luis Posada-Carriles Sunday prompted just a mildly worded letter to the editor.

The lesson: If you're going to hang out with controversial people, make sure their anti-Castro credentials are solid.

Friday, a frustrated Garcia called a news conference.

''I'm not going to be afraid of meeting with Charlie Rangel,'' he told me after.

I agree with Garcia and share many of his political values. But in many ways, he's caught in a culture of intimidation that he helped nurture.

In 1992, The Miami Herald published an editorial that argued against tightening the U.S. embargo against Cuba.


The tone was respectful, the arguments solid. But The Cuban American National Foundation, then led by Jorge Mas Canosa, immediately went on the offensive. Mas Canosa, who died in 1997, told Spanish-language radio listeners that The Herald manipulated information ``just like Granma.''

Within weeks, billboards and bumper stickers went up around the city: ``I don't believe The Herald.''

The campaign -- which generated vandalism and death threats that CANF disavowed -- lasted for months. It was run by an ambitious 28-year-old at the foundation named Joe Garcia.

Today Garcia stands by his youthful adventure, saying he didn't think The Herald had treated the community fairly at the time. ''I wasn't an advocate to anything but one issue,'' he said. ``My job then was to represent the Cuban American community.''

At 44, Garcia remains the ambitious in-your-face fighter, the kind of guy who prefers an argumentative dinner guest to a sweet, friendly one.


Last year, supporters of a Democratic candidate on Miami Beach attacked a Republican rival for working for a company that once did business in Cuba.

It was the kind of red-baiting that Democrats ought to avoid. But Garcia, the local party chief, refused to condemn anyone.

''This is part of politics in South Florida,'' he told me at the time.

Friday, Garcia went after the GOP with the same tactics, accusing his opponents of hypocrisy for taking money from backers who do business with Cuba.

It's part of the way politics is waged here. And Garcia is a veteran.



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