Ileana Garcia overcomes controversies to win re-election in SD 36

Garcia, Ileana
Despite her penchant for verbal missteps, she’s proven an efficient lawmaker and money-getter for her district.

Miami Republican Ileana Garcia overcame several controversies that detracted from her short but successful lawmaking career Tuesday, when she secured a second term in Florida’s upper legislative chamber representing Senate District 36.

With all precincts reporting, all in-person early votes counted and a full tally of mail-in ballots, Garcia had 59% of the 128,332 votes cast compared to 41% for Raquel Pacheco, a late-coming Democratic candidate who dove into the race in June after Garcia’s prior opponent abruptly pulled out.

The victory is also a moral one for Garcia, solidifying her claim to a Senate seat she won two years before under dubious circumstances and insulating her from criticism over several controversial statements she made earlier this year.

For Pacheco, the outcome marks another dejecting loss one year after she placed second in a runoff for the Miami Beach City Commission.

Senate District 36 covers a center-east portion of Miami-Dade spanning the lower half of Miami Beach, a large portion of Miami, including the barrier island of Virginia Key, and parts of Coral Gables and Sweetwater.

It was among five state Senate districts Florida Politics identified in September as being competitive this year due to its balance of registered Republicans and Democrats to be competitive this year.

At the time, Democrats had about 3,000 more registered voters, a 1.2% electoral edge. The precincts there chose Biden by less than 1 percentage point in 2020.

Effective lawmaker, deft fundraiser and controversy machine

A Miami native born to Cuban exiles, Garcia worked in TV and radio media before beginning her political career. She previously worked as Deputy Press Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trump.

Prior to taking that role, she co-founded Latinas for Trump to support his presidential bid in 2016 and worked on his campaign as director of Latino outreach.

Garcia won her Senate seat in 2020 by just 34 votes in a race tainted by a “ghost candidate” scheme that has since led to criminal charges. Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her office had no evidence Garcia knew of or partook in the plot, and Garcia has denied involvement.

Since taking office, Garcia has proven herself an efficient lawmaker and fighter for her district’s needs. She’s brought hundreds of millions of dollars back to communities she represents through appropriation requests, including money to help kids aging out of the foster care system, food banks, road improvements and numerous anti-flooding initiatives, among other set-asides.

During the last full Legislative Session, she saw through measures to improve boating safety and combat human trafficking, enhance background screenings for apartment workers with potential access to living units and crack down on retail theft.

She also successfully sponsored laws establishing a system in which schools can craft personalized “seizure action plans” for students with epilepsy and similar disorders and easing access to state services for unaccompanied homeless youths. And she was the driving force behind the “No Patient Left Alone Act,” which strengthened patient visitation rights in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities.

Garcia demonstrated a thoughtfulness about the needs of her district and the state as a whole. Her colleagues in Senate leadership agree, making her Chair of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs and Vice Chair of the committees on Rules and Community Affairs.

In spite of her legislative laurels, Garcia repeatedly attracted criticism for her baffling comments. During a single interview in January, she asserted some women use abortion as a form of birth control and that racism against Black people is no longer an issue in America because Barack Obama was elected President and served two full terms.

“I grew up in a primarily African American neighborhood, and I was discriminated (against) on all fronts,” she said. “I look at it as a learning experience, and I’ve moved on. And I think people should move on from it.”

During the following Legislative Session, Garcia delivered a rambling speech supporting a measure limiting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools. She spoke of a family member who came out as transgender and of friends in the LGBTQ community — relationships, she said, that taught her “gay is not a permanent thing.”

She later apologized for her comments, which she said failed “to convey the complexity and nuances of this matter.” She added that she’d received “threats of physical harm.” Of note, she never clarified what she actually meant.

Then in May, she told attendees of a breakfast club on Miami Beach that Florida’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks without exceptions for rape and incest actually helps victims of human trafficking. After the victim is impregnated by her rapist, she said, her captors won’t want to “use her” for sex anymore.

Garcia’s questionable statements did not impede her fundraising. Between when she won office in and Nov. 3, she raised more than $930,000 toward her re-election, leaning heavily on organizational and corporate contributions.

She approached Election Day with several valuable endorsements. Groups backing her campaign include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Family Action, the Florida Medical Association, the United Faculty of Miami Dade College, the Latin Builders Association and the South Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Her platform focused on increasing public services, improving infrastructure, protecting the environment, opposing tax hikes, stopping the spread of socialism and communism, and protecting children, seniors and the unborn.

Grassroots latecomer

A former President of Miami Beach United, a community organization advocating for residents on city issues, Pacheco made an unsuccessful run at the Miami Beach City Commission last year and lost by a nearly 10-point margin.

She now Chairs the Miami Beach Personnel Board, a volunteer body that helps guide city decisions concerning government employees, while also running a language translation business she founded 25 years ago.

Before moving to Miami Beach, she served in the Army National Guard, where she earned a historic “Soldier of the Year.” She was the first woman in Connecticut to win the honor.

She launched her campaign for SD 36 on June 8, five days before the candidate registration deadline. Since then, she raised about $162,000.

In contrast to Garcia’s corporate-heavy fundraising approach, Pacheco’s gains were overwhelmingly grassroots. Between the Aug. 23 Primary Election and Oct. 8, more than 350 people gave to her campaign. Most kicked in less than $100.

Pacheco ran on a platform prioritizing women’s reproductive rights, addressing the state’s insurance crisis, improving community safety and creating more affordable housing.

She told the Miami Herald she also backed returning funds set aside through the Sadowski Act to their intended purpose of supporting the development of workforce and affordable housing. Since its creation in 1992, lawmakers have carved large portions out of the fund for other purposes, leaving just 9% aside for helping to house Florida’s less-well-to-do residents.

On the same day Pacheco announced her campaign, Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book endorsed her. Book runs Senate Victory, the fundraising arm of Democrats in the chamber, which listed Pacheco as one of five “frontline candidates” this year whose campaigns the organization is prioritizing.

Senate Victory followed through on that commitment, providing Pacheco’s campaign with roughly $57,000 worth of in-kind aid through early October.

The sum was paltry, however, beside the $465,000 worth of in-kind aid Garcia enjoyed, not counting additional funds the Florida GOP directly gave her campaign and political committee, No More Socialism.

In September, Senate Victory’s GOP counterpart, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (FRSCC), ran an attack ad accusing Pacheco of lying to gain favor with Cuban voters in Miami.

The ad targeted a video Pacheco’s campaign debuted Aug. 9 in which Pacheco spoke described how she fled her home as a child “because of Fidel Castro and his communist military invasion.” The video included images of Castro and what appeared to be refugees on a boat.

“Why does Raquel Pacheco want you to believe she is from Cuba (when) in reality her parents are Portuguese and she was born in Angola,” the FRSCC ad asked.

The ad omitted the fact Castro sent troops to Angola in 1975, when Pacheco was about a year old and, fearing for her safety and unable to flee themselves, Pacheco’s parents sent her to live with relatives in Portugal.

Pacheco has never claimed to be Cuban.

The ad also took shots at bankruptcies Pacheco filed in 1998 and 2017. The first was due to college debt. The other stemmed from federal loan debt, back taxes and maternity costs that rendered her broke.

“That just points to a much bigger issue, which is that insurance doesn’t work in favor of women,” she told Florida Politics.

She said she’s since repaid all everything she owed.

Pacheco called the FRSCC’s decision to focus on her financial past “interesting” considering Garcia’s fervent support of Trump.

“It’s interesting that she supports former President Trump, who had six or seven bankruptcies,” she said. “She’s also a single mom (like me). She’s had her struggles. She’s had foreclosures on her house. So, she should understand that being a single mom is hard.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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