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  1. Florida Politics

Patrick Murphy talks Marco Rubio, immigration reform at West Tampa restaurant

Published Sep. 20, 2016

TAMPA

He didn't get a chance to eat the Cuban sandwich and plantain chips laid at his table Monday at Arco Iris Restaurant in West Tampa, but U.S. Senate hopeful Patrick Murphy left the small cafe with support from a host of political activists.

Much of Murphy's brief stop with state Rep. Janet Cruz, who will be the House Democratic leader after the Nov. 8 election, was spent blasting his opponent, incumbent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, on everything from Zika funding to immigration and health care reform laws.

"Guess what, it takes an Irishman to speak on behalf of the Latinos on immigration. It takes an Irishman to protect the rights of families and say, 'I'll work on a path to citizenship,' " Cruz said of Murphy as he settled in at a long table of supporters. "It's a Latino that we have in the Senate that is speaking out against our own people."

Immigration reform is key to strengthening the economy, said Murphy, a South Florida congressman. Borders should be secured and laws enforced, he said, but with a clear pathway to citizenship so kids aren't "graduating from school and getting kicked out the next day."

Immigration reform would reduce the U.S. deficit by almost $1 trillion, he said. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, used to be a champion of immigration reform but flip-flopped to appease donors, Murphy said. He's now blocking legislation and supporting presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose stances Murphy called "un-American."

The voting precincts surrounding Arco Iris include a diverse Latino community that has supported Democrats for "100 years," said business consultant Elio Muller. Most of the people in the small restaurant Monday were Murphy supporters and such intimate community appearances will become even more important for the candidate now that the Democratic Party has cut ad spending in Florida to about $6 million, down from an anticipated $10 million.

Murphy acknowledged that Rubio still has more name recognition, but said polls place the two in a "dead heat." A poll released Monday from the New York Times and Siena College Research Institute showed Rubio ahead by 6 points.

Murphy, 33, attempted to counter the image that his political success is due to backing from his wealthy family by discussing his upbringing in the Florida Keys, where his first job was as a "day laborer, digging holes and pouring concrete" for a construction company his father built "out of the back of his truck."

If elected, he would be the second certified public accountant in history to serve in the U.S. Senate, he said, a background that would help him tackle issues such as income inequality.

"I would like to see (Rubio) look some of those workers in the eye, maybe some in this restaurant, and tell them it's a waste of time to raise the minimum wage," Murphy said.

Outside the oversized windows of the cafe stood three men in sailor caps holding oversized silver spoons, gold balloons and signs with phrases including "Daddy's money can't buy courage." A fourth was dressed in a chicken costume because Murphy is too "chicken" to participate in debates, said Gabriel Phillips of Tampa. Phillips said he plans on voting for Rubio.

It was fitting to see protesters freely expressing their opinions, said Carlos Ramos, finance director for Florida House Victory, a liberal group supporting Murphy.

Ramos' parents emigrated from Cuba during the Cuban Revolution after his grandmother's sister spent a year in prison for her romantic relationship with a man who opposed the government. It was their dream to come to a country where opinions could be shared and challenged.

"If people like Marco Rubio or Donald Trump are in office, my family's story is impossible," Ramos said. "It's a lot less likely that I would be here."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.