Three top Florida Hispanic Republicans are calling on the national GOP and their party's presidential candidates to boycott a proposed Univision debate amid allegations that the Spanish-language television network tried to "extort" Sen. Marco Rubio.
In a letter Monday to the Republican National Committee, U.S. Rep. David Rivera and state Reps. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Erik Fresen also demanded that Univision apologize and fire its news president, Isaac Lee.
The controversy revolves around a Miami Herald story on Sunday in which staffers from Rubio's office and the network said that Lee offered to soften or kill a story about a decades-old drug bust of Rubio's brother-in-law if the Republican senator sat down for an interview — where he'd likely be asked to defend his conservative position on immigration.
Lee and Univision officials, who could not be immediately reached to respond to Monday's letter, last week denied the reports about a quid-pro-quo offer to Rubio.
But the Miami lawmakers don't believe it. They said that the 24-year-old story about Rubio's relative ran only when after the senator rebuffed Univision.
"This attempt at extorting a respected Republican elected official like Senator Rubio, who is also a proud American of Hispanic descent, is offensive and unacceptable. The lack of journalistic integrity demonstrated by Univision Television Network must be met with consequences from our Party and our Republican leaders," the three wrote to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus.
Last week, Lee issued a written statement defending the drug-bust story,
"With respect to Senator Rubio, Univision covered the story in the same objective, fair manner we cover every significant story," said the statement from the network, whose Miami affiliate, Univision 23, is an El Nuevo Herald news partner.
The Republican officials want Lee gone so badly that they wrote a separate letter to Univision's corporate offices, and they carbon-copied top Florida Republicans and each of the nine Republican presidential campaigns, which couldn't be reached for comment late Monday.
Lopez-Cantera, the state House Republican leader, has endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Rivera, a friend and colleague of candidate Michele Bachmann, hasn't endorsed. Fresen can't be involved in a campaign because he's Miami-Dade County's Republican chairman and must remain neutral in a primary.
The three elected officials pointedly asked the party and the campaigns to avoid a debate that Univision reportedly wants to host at the University of Miami two days before Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
"Given the reprehensible nature of Univision Television Network's behavior, we are advising all of the Republican presidential candidates not to participate in Univision Television Network's planned debate on January 29th," the three Republicans wrote.
The three Miami-area lawmakers said they'd work to "inform Hispanic voters, particularly Cuban-American voters as to which presidential candidates chose to ignore our concerns" about Univision.
Miami-Dade is the largest county in the state, and more than 70 percent of Miami-Dade's Republicans are Hispanic, and nearly all are of Cuban descent as are Rubio, Lopez-Cantera, Fresen and Rivera. All but Fresen served with Rubio in the state Legislature.
The hoopla is firmly rooted in the issue of immigration.
Cuban Americans, who have special immigration rights, tend to be more conservative than other Hispanics and therefore less inclined to favor more liberal policies, such as those espoused by the likes of Univision personality Jorge Ramos.
Ramos, who hosted a 2008 presidential debate for Univision, has advocated for the so-called "DREAM Act" and hosts the show Al Punto, To the Point. Rubio has called the proposed act "amnesty" and had refused to appear on Al Punto for months. Al Punto is one of the top-rated shows for Univision, a power-house network that reaches nearly every Hispanic household in a nation that's growing more Hispanic by the day.
After the senator repeatedly rebuffed calls to appear on Al Punto, his sister was contacted this summer about the arrest of her husband, Orlando Cicilia, in 1987, when Rubio was 16 years old.
Rubio's political advisor, Todd Harris, and communications director Alex Burgos held a conference call with Univision officials to discuss the story before it ran. Burgos and Harris say Lee offered to change the story if Rubio went on Al Punto.
Rubio didn't go on the show and the drug-bust story ran a few days later, on July 11.
Lee and Univision officials who were on the call denied that account for Sunday's story.
"Univision did not offer to soften or spike a story about a major drug bust involving Senator Rubio's relatives," Lee said in a written statement furnished to The Herald. "We would not make such an offer to any other subject of a news story and did not offer it in this case. We had various participants on the call with Senator Rubio's office for the off-the-record discussion about the story, including two of our top internal legal counsels."
While the chances of Univision apologizing or firing Lee are slim, Lopez-Cantera said he felt the need to speak up.
"I could not remain silent about this abuse," Lopez-Cantera said. "At the very least, it will bring this issue more to light."