Former U.S. Rep. Robert García, a Korean War veteran who helped build Latino influence during his seven terms in Congress, died this week in Puerto Rico. He was 84.
García represented a South Bronx district in New York from 1978 to 1991. He was only the second Puerto Rican in Congress when he won his House seat, which became available with the retirement of Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican in Congress.
García ran as a Republican - with a promise to vote with Republicans - in a crowded race after he failed to win the Democratic nomination, according to the U.S. House. Once he was sworn in, he became a Democrat. His years in Congress followed a career in state politics that included being elected by his colleagues to be deputy minority leader in the state Senate.
New York Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo said García has never received the recognition he deserves for the work he did developing Puerto Rican society and for economic development in New York.
“He was never a leader for his pocket. He was a leader to help the people. At the time when Puerto Ricans were arrested because they didn’t speak English, Bobby was there to help the families and help people get out of the justice system,” said Arroyo, who said she had known García since his first run for the New York Assembly and remained good friends. They had just seen one another last November, she said.
García’s signature legislation was a measure to create free enterprise zones to attract businesses to high-poverty areas.
“It’s a loss for the Puerto Rican community,” she said.
García resigned from Congress in 1990 after he was implicated in a defense contracting bribery and extortion scandal along with several other state and federal political officials . García and his wife were convicted of extortion and conspiracy charges in the case that involved Wedtch, a contractor in his district. But the conviction was overturned on appeal. A second conviction also was overturned, according to the U.S. House.
“He had a problem with justice because they accused him of something he never did and then after that he was exonerated and Bobby was the same person he ever was,” Arroyo said.
García joined the Army after graduating from high school. He served in the Army’s Third Infantry Division from 1950 to 1953 and earned two Bronze stars from his service in Korea. García died in a veterans hospital in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's El Nuevo Día reported that his family was working on a funeral for him at the Puerto Rican Legislature and would hold a tribute to him at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a group that raises money to develop young Hispanics for futures in politics and the private sector, annually holds a formal gala that has attracted U.S. presidents as speakers. Former President Barack Obama spoke at the gala nearly every year he was in office.
The institute’s chair Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, said García helped strengthen Latino influence in Congress.
“Throughout his career as a public servant, Bob fought for issues important to the Latino community, including education, access to housing, economic opportunity, and greater representation at the local and federal level," Castro said in a statement.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO, said García was one of its founders too. The bipartisan organization works to get Latinos elected, appointed and hired in all levels of government and public office.
“U.S. Rep. Garcia created a lasting legacy in Congress, taking on challenging causes, including establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday, and opposition to federal aid to guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua whose methods he felt were inconsistent with American values,” said Arturo Vargas, NALEO executive director.