An endangered Republican’s quest to whip votes, win allies

By Hannah Hess | 05/15/2017 06:58 AM EDT

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) diverged from GOP leadership by taking an active interest in climate change just a few months into his first term. Will that climate advocacy be enough to save him in a tough 2018 re-election campaign?

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) has become one of the most prominent members in the GOP caucus committed to climate action.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) has become one of the most prominent members in the GOP caucus committed to climate action. Photo courtesy of Curbelo via Facebook.

First in an occasional series.

The scene in the Speaker’s Lobby would have made any other House Republican uncomfortable.

More than a dozen reporters surrounded Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo on the day in March that President Trump released his "skinny budget," engaging him in a freewheeling interview about the problem of climate change and what Congress should do to solve it.


Curbelo talks about climate change as inevitable. There’s no ambiguity about the cause of warming, though he would rather talk about fixes than doom-and-gloom models. "I think we turn some people off when we say, ‘Hey, you know, in five years the country is going to be underwater,’" he said.

The impromptu climate news conference that day helped Curbelo deflect tougher questions on his party’s plans for health care. Curbelo would answer, but first he asked for more questions on climate.

One reporter wanted to know whether bills aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions actually include the polarizing term "climate change."

"Yeah, there’s no taboo terms when it comes to this issue," the congressman answered with a smile. "We just want to be honest and focus on the science and the facts."

Democrats fixated on turning Curbelo’s district blue in 2018 started attacking him early this year. Those efforts have intensified since Curbelo cast a vote that helped the House pass the "American Health Care Act" earlier this month.

Curbelo highlighted improvements from the original version of the health care bill after the vote and said in a statement that he had "received assurances" that remaining concerns would be ironed out in the Senate.

The following weekend, NBC News sent a reporter to Miami to interview voters from his district. The story, published last Monday, was headlined: "This Republican Is an Endangered Species."


Curbelo, 37, diverged from Republican leadership by taking an active interest in climate change just a few months into his first term.

He got his start in politics in 2010, winning a seat on the Miami-Dade County School Board. As a congressman, he went to visit Gateway Environmental K-8 Learning Center in Homestead, Fla., a public school on the front lines of climate change, and spoke about the issue to students.

Caroline Lewis, founder of the CLEO Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit that provides climate leadership and engagement opportunities, said it was his speech to a classroom of kids that "kind of won my heart."

Lewis is a self-identified Democrat who voted for Curbelo when she lived in his district. Lewis said in an interview last week that she was quite impressed with Curbelo’s understanding of the science, seriousness and urgency of the issue.

Then she lamented the health care vote.

"We won’t vote for him again," Lewis said. "We voted for him because he stood up to fake facts and incomplete information. There was a sense Curbelo was a man who understood the science [and] was a man who understood policy."

It seems "counterintuitive," she said, that someone willing to break with his party on climate change would support legislation she believes will be detrimental to public health.

In 2015, the White House invited Curbelo to fly to Miami International Airport with President Obama for an Earth Day address on climate change, delivered from the marshes of the Everglades.

A framed photo of Curbelo stepping off Air Force One behind Obama and former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) hangs across from a bronze bust of President Reagan in his Washington office.

Groups focused on conservative solutions to climate change, including ClearPath Action, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions and ConservAmerica supported Curbelo last fall in his hard-fought race for a second term against former Rep. Joe Garcia (D).

The Environmental Defense Fund’s advocacy arm, EDF Action, endorsed Curbelo and launched an ad campaign on behalf of the GOP’s most vocal climate warrior. Its 30-second spot, "Beautiful," dubbed Curbelo "a Republican seeking solutions, not excuses, for what matters most."

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) traveled to Miami to headline a campaign event for Curbelo.

Curbelo displays a photo from that October fundraiser in his office. There’s also a snapshot of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) posing with Curbelo’s two young daughters on the House floor.

‘Kicking me in the can’

In 2016, Curbelo and fellow South Florida Rep. Ted Deutch (D) founded the Climate Solutions Caucus with the goal of putting partisanship aside and advancing policies that make economic and environmental sense for their districts. They adopted a "Noah’s Ark" strategy for building membership, in which each new member must join with a lawmaker from the other side of the aisle.

Two dozen members of the House GOP have shown interest in climate this Congress, either by co-sponsoring a resolution that acknowledges the problem and calls for action or by joining the caucus. But most Republicans in Washington aren’t feeling the pressure from back home to take action.

"We still see a lot of growth potential for this caucus on the Republican side," Curbelo said in a sit-down interview with E&E News, though he declined to talk names or numbers. "We just want to accelerate it as much as possible, without crashing."

Curbelo uses conservative themes like fiscal discipline and personal responsibility, humor, and the occasional fact about ocean acidification and rising tides to make the issue relatable to his fellow Republicans.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) thanked Curbelo for "holding my hand, maybe kicking me in the can, and making me do the right thing" at a news conference this spring announcing the reintroduction of the GOP climate resolution. Ros-Lehtinen, the retiring dean of the Florida delegation, credited Curbelo for her "realization that climate change is indeed settled science."

Curbelo asserted a "moral responsibility" for his leadership on climate. Politically, there’s a greater awareness about climate and environmental issues in his district, an area highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, he acknowledged, "but it’s still not the top issue for most people."

"If I wasn’t as engaged as I am, I don’t know that politically it would make much of a difference," Curbelo said. "But I do know it’s the right thing to do — not just for my district, for the country and the planet."

Curbelo’s photo collection includes a snapshot of Pope Francis making his way down the center aisle of the House chamber in 2015 to deliver his address to a joint session of Congress. There’s also a Bible on his bookshelf. As a practicing Catholic, "protecting God’s greatest gift to humanity is significant to me," Curbelo said.

‘More of a religion’

Coastal flooding helped win early congressional converts to the cause (E&E Daily, April 19, 2016).

Florida’s 26th District encompasses Key West and portions of Everglades National Park, the network of wetlands and forests that is home to dozens of threatened or protected species, including the American crocodile, piping plover, green turtle and Florida panther.

"Even among the most conservative members in the Florida delegation, because of the Everglades and how important it is to our state and our way of life in Florida, there’s an environmental conscience," Curbelo said. He thinks the park’s "sacrosanct" status with Florida politicians could one day help him convert Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the GOP congressman who represents the neighboring 25th District.

Diaz-Balart was at Curbelo’s side on the night he flipped the South Florida seat for the Republican Party, ousting Garcia in the 2014 midterm election dominated by the GOP.

The fellow Cuban-American politicians are close.

"Look, I’ve known Carlos since he was 15, so he and I are friends, and I trust him," Diaz-Balart said in an interview, praising Curbelo as "a humble, brilliant, hardworking guy."

Right out of college in 2002, Curbelo founded the government and public relations firm Capital Gains. He worked as a Hispanic spokesman for some of his clients, including Diaz-Balart and his brother, ex-Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). But Curbelo has not talked his colleague into joining the Climate Solutions Caucus.

"It’s more of a religion … on both sides of the issue," Mario Diaz-Balart said when asked about global warming. Past climate legislation would have been hugely costly to businesses and people in his district, he said, with only a minuscule impact on halting temperature rise. "I don’t play that game," he said. "My issue is, ‘All right, what is the problem that you’re trying to solve?’ and ‘Does it solve it?’"

Curbelo said he and Ros-Lehtinen sometimes work together on trying to convince Diaz-Balart of the gravity of the situation. Curbelo likes to threaten other lawmakers, he joked, telling them that he will move to their districts for a primary challenge "and run against them when mine is underwater."

Willing to whip

Karina Castillo, Latino outreach organizer at Moms Clean Air Force and a resident of Curbelo’s district, described him as "very soft-spoken" and solutions-oriented in his approach.

Castillo, who earned two meteorology degrees at the University of Miami, met him after being invited to join his climate change advisory committee. She wrote the congressman’s office in 2015 to thank him for his leadership and offer local expertise.

Curbelo told her he had a briefing with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after being elected and "realized there was no going back," she said.

"He talks about it as a very matter-of-fact thing, not talking about whether it’s happening or not, but solutions. And how it is really impacting our community," Castillo said in an interview.

Progressive Democrats aren’t counting on climate-savvy Republicans to lend muscle for the heavy lift of fighting global warming in the era of President Trump (E&E Daily, March 31). For the most part, they see GOP leaders willing to repeal Obama-era climate regulations without acknowledging the need for a replacement.

Curbelo expressed eagerness to talk to the White House about some potential solutions. A member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Curbelo could help shape tax reform proposals.

"Look, this is a unique White House," he said. "This is not a White House committed to either Republican or Democratic party orthodoxy, which is encouraging, in my opinion, because it means that a lot of people in the administration are more likely to be open-minded and just consider a broad diversity of ideas and put those before the president. That’s good news."

For his part, Curbelo said he would "definitely" be willing to whip his Republican colleagues against budget cuts that threaten the climate.

"Once you join the caucus, you are at least willing to recognize that this issue is important to you, and that you’re going to consider it when you use your voting card," he said.

Curbelo announced during his 2016 campaign that he would not vote for Trump. Last week, in the wake of Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, Curbelo was quick to call for an independent probe of Russian meddling in the elections.

As 2018 approaches, Curbelo is likely to remain among the most vocal Trump administration critics in the GOP. Political handicappers have speculated the race to replace Ros-Lehtinen could attract Democrats who otherwise might challenge Curbelo.

Florida Democratic political consultant Steve Schale, interviewed during a McClatchy politics podcast this week, speculated Ros-Lehtinen’s 27th District "is probably 4 to 5 points better for a Democrat" than Curbelo’s 26th District.