A raucous Thursday night congressional debate focused on deep policy differences included a striking note of similarity: both candidates and the moderator were alumni of the venue, Belen Jesuit Preparatory in southwest Miami.
Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, class of 1998, and Democratic challenger Joe Garcia, class of 1982, went head-to-head at the Belen Roca Theater about issues facing the nation and the district they want to represent.
Tom Llamas, class of 1997, an Emmy award winner and ABC news Sunday anchor, moderated the debate.
Garcia, who lost the Westchester-to-Key-West district seat to Curbelo two years ago, came on stage first. Though both men received applause, the noise increased for the incumbent.
Llamas’s first question went to Curbelo, asking whether he would vote for Donald Trump.
He replied he would not support Trump or his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton “because I believe we deserve better.”
“As a Republican, would you feel any guilt at all if you knew possibly by not voting you’d allow Hillary Clinton to get to the White House?” Llamas asked.
“The only wasted vote in an election is a vote cast for someone who you do not believe in. So I reject that notion,” said Curbelo. “Every citizen in every election, party aside, has to do what’s best for this country because we are all Americans before we are either Republicans or Democrats so I stand by my principled position.”
When it was his turn, Garcia thanked government teacher Pat Collins, who taught all the alumni on stage, and who he said inspired him to go into public service.
“In this election there is a clear choice,” Garcia said. “You may disagree with Hillary Clinton, but she’s a trajectory of over thirty years of service of standing in the center of the American political debate and leading our country in what I believe are good productive ways that make a difference.”
Curbelo denied Garcia’s invitation to “join us” and vote for Clinton.
Llamas asked Garcia about a secret tape recording where he said that Clinton “is under no illusions that you want to have sex with her, or that she’s going to seduce you.”
“It was a stupid statement and I apologized for it immediately,” Garcia said. “Clearly what we were talking about is leadership and that women are held to different standards.”
Switching topics, Garcia noted Curbelo has not released his client list from when the Republican was a lobbyist. Curbelo, in turn, switched to a discussion about controversies in Garcia’s past.
“Mr. Garcia this is why I’ve called your campaign corrupt; in 2010 your campaign recruited and illegally financed a straw candidate. You knew about this crime. Your former chief of staff, former campaign manager and very close friend went to jail for you,” Curbelo said as he pointed at Jeffrey Garcia (no relation) who was in the audience, Garcia’s former chief of staff.
“You never spoke to him again. Whatever happened to ‘Men for Others’?” he added, referencing the all-boys school motto.
Garcia responded that he was investigated and no charges were brought against him.
Among the major issues discussed in the debate were immigration, Cuba policy and student debt.
Alejandro Barnola, a senior at the school, said that he and his family came to the U.S. five years ago, but that others from South American countries have found it difficult to adapt and to acquire a green card.
“What are your plans to help assimilate these huddled masses to the United States?” he asked.
Curbelo said that the immigration system in this country is broken and that he’s been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform for many years.
“I think there are four main pillars of immigration reform,” said Curbelo. “Number one, this country has the right and responsibility to secure the border and have border integrity. Number two, we must have visa reform. We need to have a guest worker program. And lastly, we need to create a path to citizenship for those families who are undocumented but who are contributing to our economy.”
Garcia said he agreed with Curbelo on this issue but accused the Republican House leadership, specifically former Speaker John Boehner, of not letting any comprehensive immigration reform bills come to the floor.
“So we asked the president to act, to use that executive order to allow these young people to stay in the United States,” Garcia said. “The DACA program allowed young, unaccompanied minors who were American in everything except the definition that they had been born in this country to stay in this country legally and work their way through.”
Jorge Miro-Quesada, another senior at Belen, asked the candidates in Spanish about their views on Cuba.
“Congressman Curbelo, in 2015 you proposed the Cuban Immigration Work Opportunity Act which reduces the federal benefits for Cuban immigrants. Do you think that this bill benefits the political relations between the U.S. and Cuba?”
The candidates responded in Spanish.
Curbelo said the legislation, which has support from 128 Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives so far, specifically deals with political refugees who cannot return to Cuba. He says that the country has people that come from the island nation purely for economic reasons. Such people are not included in the legislation, he said.
Garcia said that all Cuban immigrants need help. He disagreed with Curbelo’s assertion that the Obama administration and other Democrats have tried to legitimize the Cuban government. Garcia said that what they have implemented is a more coherent strategy on addressing the Cuba issue.
Llamas asked Curbelo why he asked the FBI to monitor Garcia’s campaign.
“Look I gotta give Mr. Garcia credit,” Curbelo said. ”His campaigns are getting better. In 2010 they had the straw candidate; in 2012 they had absentee ballot fraud; this year they’re just lying. Hopefully it’ll stop there.”
Garcia accused Curbelo of exhibiting Trump-like behavior.
“Donald Trump says something, but far worse is that Carlos Curbelo votes for it,” Garcia said. “When Donald Trump speaks against women, Carlos Curbelo actually votes against them. When Donald Trump starts talking about building a wall, Carlos Curbelo talks about taking away aid to immigrants that arrive in this community.”
Senior Patrick Maher asked the next question.
“How will each of you achieve your claims for an affordable yet quality education for those seeking to obtain a higher education?”
Curbelo said more effort needs to be placed on helping non-college bound students.
“Something we tell young people in this country…is everyone has to go to college and everyone has to get a four-year degree. That is not the only pathway to success,” Curbelo said. “We need to stop stigmatizing young people who decide that maybe college isn’t for them and also for those who do go to college, we need to hold these institutions accountable and make sure that they’re giving students good information so that they can make good decisions about their future.”
Garcia agreed with much of what Curbelo said.
“Unlike almost any other debt you can’t write it off…it stays with you and you have to pay it. If we’re going to obligate you to pay it then let’s have an appropriate interest rate that lowers it and makes more sense like two or three percent,” Garcia said.
As the debate wound down, both Curbelo and Garcia played up their ability to work with even those they disagree with.
“Most people here would never know that Mr. Garcia and I have a very civil relationship,” Curbelo said. “Likewise I will sit with anyone in the Congress who’s willing to help me help my community and strengthen this country. That’s how every elected official should be. This country is being torn apart; it’s very dangerous and we have to put an end to it.”
Garcia, for his part, said his faith deeply informs how he engages not just in politics but in life.
“I think the very essence of Jesuit education is engagement, learning and adapting,” Garcia said. “I am a Democrat because I am a Roman Catholic because I believe it is each and every one of us that have to be responsible for our brother. And every day we take a stand not only for ourselves but those that do not have the power or the courage to do it.”
Editor’s note: Cosio attended Belen, graduating in 2014.