Florida’s newest congressional leaders are sworn into office

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2013 

— Lois Frankel, the former mayor of sunny West Palm Beach, had to buy her first pair of winter boots in decades. Joe Garcia, who represents southern Miami-Dade County and the Keys, found a temporary room at University of Miami President Donna Shalala’s home in Georgetown.

As Garcia and Frankel joined their colleagues being sworn in Thursday, the two newest Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Florida have already found plenty of ways to get comfortable in Washington, D.C.

Both have spent time in Washington before. Frankel attend law school at Georgetown University and Garcia ran the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Minority Impact early in the Obama administration.

And both are ready to make their mark. Frankel, whose district stretches from Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County to Fort Lauderdale and Plantation in Broward County, vows to be a champion at constituent services, as well as fighting for women’s health care issues, Medicare and Social Security. But she also said she sees transportation as her No. 1 area of focus.

She’ll be sitting on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she hopes to remind fellow members that there are two ports, a railroad, the Intracoastal Waterway and plenty of other transportation needs in her stretch of Florida.

“I think being on the Transportation Committee will allow me to focus on economic issues that are very very important back home,” she said. “These are issues that will drive the economy, that will drive issues back home. If I can’t do my part in giving a boost to the South Florida economy, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a congressperson.”

Frankel, a prolific fundraiser, bested Republican Adam Hasner for the job, although when she began the race, she was running against Allen West, the fiery South Florida congressman who won the seat in 2010 as Tea Party-friendly Republican candidates swept into the House.

West, who shifted to a district further north in a bid to hold onto a congressional seat, lost his bid at re-election to Democrat Patrick Murphy, who also was sworn in Thursday.

Like Frankel, Garcia takes the place of a Republican. He ousted David Rivera, whose tenure was marked by a series of scandals including two federal investigations. The district includes the communities of Kendall, Westchester, Homestead and the Keys. “I’ve got fisherman to financiers,” Garcia said.

Garcia’s district was recently redrawn to include the Florida Keys, and Garcia says he plans to open a permanent office in the keys. Lawmakers are allowed to display three flags outside their office doors in Washington. Garcia chose the U.S. and Florida flags, along with one that represents his farthest flung constituents: the Conch Republic of Key West. (His office believes it’s the first time the conch flag has been displayed outside of a congressional office.)

Garcia will sit on the House Judiciary Committee, where he expects to be at the center of the debate over immigration. Democrats won the presidential election on the issue, and Garcia said he expects his Republican colleagues to begin talking about how to address the millions of undocumented people in this country.

Republicans “paid a horrible price” for ignoring the importance of the issue in communities like South Florida, Garcia said.

Both he and Frankel also expect to be part of the upcoming debate over gun control, a discussion that’s likely to heat up in the coming weeks. President Barack Obama asked Vice President Joe Biden to head up efforts to address gun violence following the mass shooting last month at a Connecticut elementary school. Garcia said he supports efforts to strengthen gun ownership databases as well as considering curbs on large-capacity ammunition clips.

Frankel, who was part of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun violence initiative when she was a mayor, also said she would sign on to gun safety legislation.

“I was so appalled when I saw photos of the weapons the suspect’s mother had in her house,” Frankel said. “I said to myself, ‘Why did she need those weapons?’ I can’t think of one good reason anyone needs these weapons.”

Email: ebolstad@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @erikabolstad

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