An upstart bid to defeat a Cuban-American state representative in line to become one of the most powerful politicians in Florida is placing some of Miami’s Cuba hard-liners on opposite sides of an unlikely Republican primary.
Gabriel Garcia, a little-known construction contractor whose House District 116 campaign against Rep. Daniel Perez appears to be almost entirely funded by political committees, received a bump last week when he won the endorsement of Marcell Felipe, the president of the Miami-based Inspire America Foundation. Felipe said in an interview that he decided to support Garcia after learning that Perez snapped engagement photos with his now-wife in Cuba in 2017 — a trip that the incumbent has repeatedly defended as a family trip to visit his fiancée’s sick uncle.
“My job is to communicate to the U.S. government the importance to its national interests that they take a strong and dignified position against the Cuban dictatorship. How can I do that if an elected official from my community parties in Cuba just minutes away from where women are getting beat up for asking for their husbands to be released from prison?” said Felipe, a Republican whose foundation advocates for a liberated Cuba. “It’s a very bad message to the cause of a free Cuba to let this person get to that level of power.”
Perez, 33, has fended off similar attacks in the past, easily winning a 2017 special election to claim the Westchester-to-Kendall seat and win an extra year in the Florida House that helped him triumph in a leadership race to become House speaker in 2024 if the party still controls the chamber. Perez’s parents, Cuban exiles, wrote in a letter that year that they asked their son to take the photos during his visit to Cuba, which they said was intended to bring medicine to their daughter-in-law’s family.
Perez is seeking his second full term in office with the endorsement of some of Miami’s best-known advocates for a liberated Cuba, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and, according to Perez, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
— Chris Sprowls (@ChrisSprowls) July 2, 2020
“I have never met Mr. Felipe nor has he ever met me,” Perez wrote in a text message, dismissing Felipe’s criticisms.
The winner of the Aug. 18 primary will face Democrat Bob Lynch in November.
Though Cuba is often injected into political campaigns in Miami, Felipe’s decision to back Garcia creates the unusual situation in which Cuba hard-liners find themselves on opposite sides of an election. His support also elevates the campaign of a candidate who has yet to report raising a single contribution to his official campaign account outside of a $3,000 self-loan, but has received thousands of dollars in support from a political committee that is promoting Garcia and attacking Perez’s Cuba trip.
The political committee, Citizens for Ethical and Effective Government, has received $400,000 from outgoing House Speaker José Oliva, who has said the money he contributed from his own political committee was intended to go toward the Miami-Dade mayoral race. Garcia’s political consultant — Oliva adviser David Custin — has received most the money spent by the committee.
Felipe, who has known Oliva for years and listed him as a reference when he successfully sought a seat on the Miami Dade College Board of Trustees last year, told the Herald it was Custin who arranged a meeting with Garcia. Felipe, in turn, said he helped Garcia land a three-minute interview on America TeVé, a Spanish-language news station where Felipe says he is a legal adviser.
“I put him in contact with the news department and they took it from there,” said Felipe.
Garcia, who switched his voter registration to Republican from no-party affiliation in 2017, says he is a retired Army captain and part of a “new conservative generation of Cuban leadership.” He described himself in the segment as someone who can represent the values of Westchester, where he lives. Garcia told the Miami Herald that Perez’s “values of going to Cuba is not in line with my values, and a lot of the people here in the exile community.”
Perez, an insurance attorney, said he wasn’t invited to participate in the America TeVé segment: “If [Felipe] truly believes he is with the better candidate, he should’ve invited me to his segment and let the voters decide based on the merits — not a smear campaign.”
The attacks against Perez are frustrating some Republicans, who believe Garcia is the face of a concerted effort to go after a rising star for the party.
“Everyone knows that Rep. Danny Perez is a staunch anti-socialist and a steadfast opponent of the Cuban regime,” Nelson Diaz, the Cuban-American chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade, told the Miami Herald. “Yes, he visited his wife’s sick uncle and took him much needed medicine. Who wouldn’t want to help a sick family member?”
Raul Masvidal, a member of the Inspire America advisory board, said he doesn’t believe it’s appropriate for Felipe or anyone else to make Perez’s travel to Cuba part of a campaign against him.
“I don’t think it’s fair game,” said Masvidal, a Democrat, arguing that Cuba policy is irrelevant to a state campaign. “I don’t think we should bring that into the politics of the state.”
Diaz-Balart, who last summer called Felipe the “conscience of our community,” did not respond to a request for comment. Rubio, whose office has hosted Felipe for meetings, declined to comment through a spokesman.