HOMESTEAD, Fla.—It’s 1:00 p.m. on a scorching day inside Sam Accursio, Jr.’s air-conditioned, wood-paneled office. Accursio is leaning back in the chair behind his desk, calmly pleading with his moderate Republican congressman to support President Donald Trump 100 percent of the time.
“We need you to get behind our president,” Accursio told Curbelo point-blank. “I don’t want to see any dissension whatsoever.”
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) is nodding. He knows that’s impossible. After all, Curbelo remains one of the president’s most consistent critics on Capitol Hill. But he also knows he still has Accursio’s support in this unusual swing district that Democrats are targeting as part of their quest to re-take control of the House of Representatives in November.
Before Trump was elected, Accursio didn’t care much for political parties—he even donated a thousand dollars during the 2014 campaign to incumbent Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL) who was facing a tough challenge from Curbelo, who at the time was a little-known insurgent Republican.
Curbelo, seeking a third term this year, is trying to strike an ultra-delicate balance to win the backing of voters like Accursio who, despite his conservative tendencies on most issues, is loyal to the person whom he thinks best represents his interests.
“I don’t want Congress to forget: inside their district is all they need to worry about. Why have districts if they’re not going to listen to us? That’s what I try to emphasize to him: you work for me,” Accursio said in an interview at his home in the Florida Keys.
And unlike voters in South Carolina who held loyalty to Trump on par with loyalty to conservative ideals, residents of Curbelo’s south Florida district vote in line with their personal interests—or stay home.
Their refusal to descend into partisanship has benefited Curbelo, who has mostly voted lock-step with his party but remains one of the few Republicans who is not afraid to speak out against and confront the president on a host of issues that directly affect—even threaten—his constituents and their way of life.
After all, they don’t agree with Trump all the time, either. That’s because they face challenges that are unique to their part of the country.
Some of the most conservative voters here, like Accursio, are supportive of environmental regulations, agriculture tariffs, and immigrants from central America—in part due to the significant dependence on immigrant labor for the agriculture industry.
Voters like Accursio will determine whether Curbelo deserves a third term as the vulnerable congressman tries to position the GOP for a post-Trump rebranding. Democrats believe they can flip this district, Florida’s 26th, where Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by 16 points in 2016.
The specific concerns of those who live in south Florida intersect in a way that bodes poorly for a strict partisan’s chances of winning. Those who wield the most influence here are keenly aware of the stakes.
Curbelo’s path to re-election is difficult but not impossible; he’s aiming to convince Trump supporters like Accursio that he still has their back, while at the same time ensuring others in this blue district that he will continue to stand up to Trump. Most importantly, he wants to ensure that voters head into their polling stations in November untethered to who they supported for president in 2016.
It’s a tricky formula that just might work here.
“You work for us,” Accursio told Curbelo during a private meeting Friday inside the main office of his 700-acre Homestead farm. “You have to listen to us and forget the politics.”
In this case, that means sitting through an at times ideologically contradictory talking-to on trade, immigration and climate change.
Accursio supports the president’s protectionist trade policies, in a break from most of the agriculture industry which is reeling from retaliatory tariffs. Accursio is pro-immigrant and speaks affectionately of people who come to the United States to seek a better life and find work. He’s also concerned about the effects of climate change on south Florida’s environment and, in turn, its economy.
“He doesn’t fit neatly into either party. He’s saying that he wants protectionist trade policies—which was a Democratic issue, I guess it’s becoming a Republican issue. He wants more immigrants, which is clearly not something that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump,” said Curbelo, who represents this swing district encompassing parts of Miami-Dade County and all of Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys.
“I think that kind of paints the picture that, at least for this district, the type of representation that is ideal,” Curbelo added. “And it’s not someone who reads off a party script or follows talking points.”
According to the most recent data, just 31 percent of voters here are registered Republicans; 36 percent are registered Democrats; and 33 percent have no party affiliation. Curbelo—a conservative Republican with moderate leanings on immigration, the environment and a plethora of other issues—opposed Trump in 2016 yet won the backing of constituents like Accursio, who even appeared in a campaign commercial on Curbelo’s behalf. In fact, in a district like this one, opposition to Trump works in Curbelo’s favor.
Despite Clinton’s 16-point margin of victory here, Curbelo was re-elected by 12 points. Voters here viewed Curbelo as an independent voice, untethered to Trump or even to the GOP writ large.
“Free trade is putting us out of business,” Accursio told Curbelo during their meeting, which lasted approximately 20 minutes inside Accursio’s office. “Right now, we’re not surviving. We’re not making a living doing what we do.”
Accursio employs around 100 people, half of which are full-time. In 1992, he had 250 employees and more than double the amount of land to work with. Last year, the farm produced 30 million pounds of vegetables including pickles, okra, squash, beans and corn.
While Accursio and other farmers in south Florida have been on a steady decline ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was inked in the 1994, Curbelo broadly supports free trade and has been a vocal opponent of Trump’s penchant to impose tariffs on U.S. allies. Yet he also acknowledges that some provisions of NAFTA unfairly impacted agriculture in south Florida by making it easier and cheaper for foreign produce farmers to line the shelves of American grocery stores.
“Specialty crops like tomatoes, squash, eggplants, strawberries—pretty much anything that can be handpicked—face a significant disadvantage when it comes to Mexican competition,” Curbelo said earlier this year, noting that Florida’s agriculture sector has lost billions of dollars over the past 20 years due to competition from Mexico.
On the ground in south Florida, farmers like Accursio are reeling from that imbalance.
“Mexico started expanding, expanding, expanding to where they are shipping just huge amounts of produce for under our growing costs,” Accursio said. “As a planet, we should make these countries—if we’re going to trade with them—treat people the way we treat them. And the environmental concerns are just not there south of the border. It’s just not a level playing field.”
Accursio, whose father started the family business in 1948, says his growing seasons have become shorter over time, severely impacting his output. NAFTA allowed Mexican farmers to pay their workers pennies on the dollar that Americans like Accursio pay their workers, officials here say.
“You’re never guaranteed to make money. But you had a very good shot at having a decent market. And now … fighting against that labor cost that they have down there is extremely difficult,” said Charles LaPradd, the agricultural manager for Miami-Dade County. “We should be looking strategically at our food sources. Because once it goes away, it’ll be very, very hard to get it back.”
Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union has sparked retaliatory measures from those countries, many of which have targeted soybean, produce and dairy exports that originate in the midwest. Lawmakers who represent those states—which mostly voted for Trump in 2016—have raised concerns about potentially catastrophic revenue losses.
In south Florida, farmers are less inclined to support tariffs, LaPradd said, suggesting that they would not do much to improve the situation. They would much prefer imposing limits on how much foreign produce can be imported into the country. But for Accursio, the situation is dire. Tariffs are the only feasible option in order to bring countries like Mexico to the table to re-negotiate NAFTA, he argues.
“It’s the only way for the state of Florida to survive in the vegetable industry. We have to have tariffs in place. There may be some growing pains in the process of doing it, but we have to have tariffs to make it even. Or, their standards have to come up to ours,” Accursio said.
“When they stroked that free-trade agreement, they changed my way of life completely. We tried to adapt. We tried to switch. But all I see is a decline, decline, decline,” he added.
Accursio’s workforce is overwhelmingly Hispanic, having arrived mostly from Mexico. He depends on immigrants in order for his business to function. For that reason, he speaks more passionately about immigrants than Trump, who has taken a hardline approach against illegal immigration and has sought to curb legal migration, too.
“I owe my life to these people, to these immigrants. My whole way of doing business is because of them. All American agriculture in the way of vegetables owes their whole success and career to immigrants,” Accursio said. “And that’s where you may hear the compassion in my voice for these people. And we’re Christians. God is telling us how to treat a human. I want to take care of these people.”
During Accursio’s meeting with Curbelo, the congressman nodded in agreement when Accursio mentioned the importance of immigrant labor and treating them humanely. Curbelo has taken issue with Trump’s ultra-conservative views on immigration, in particular the president’s personal tone when talking about immigration reform through a political lens. Accursio, though, commends Trump for focusing on illegal immigration, a hallmark of the president’s 2016 campaign.
“Do we want immigrants coming illegally? No we don’t. We have to have immigration reform. We’ve been talking about it my whole adult life. And they still—those men and women up there, they go right down the damn party lines,” Accursio said.
He credits Curbelo with, at the very least, trying. Curbelo led an effort last month alongside his fellow GOP moderates to force the House to vote on immigration reform measures through a rarely used procedural tactic known as a discharge petition. Republican leaders weren’t planning on resurrecting the issue before the midterm elections—something Accursio believes shows the lack of political courage in Washington.
In south Florida, climate change is not a partisan issue. Few areas of the country are more threatened than this one by rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, droughts, extreme heat and other phenomena that directly impact the local economy.
Shortly after he was first elected, Curbelo co-founded the Climate Solutions Caucus on Capitol Hill. In his district, Curbelo hears from voters across the political spectrum who are concerned about climate change.
“We’re seeing the sea levels rise, and the salt-water intrusion appears to be coming more inland. And it’s a concern. We know the planet is heating up,” Accursio said.
In addition to being cheaper than American-harvested produce, Mexican imports exacerbate the effects of climate change, Accursio argues. And he remains frustrated that the three interconnected issues that affect him the most—trade, immigration, and the environment—continue to remain unresolved.
“I think the carbon footprint is where we should start. We have winter tomatoes right here in Homestead, Florida, and still Publix, Winn-Dixie, Walmart truck Canadian tomatoes, Mexican tomatoes to put on the shelf,” he added. “And then on the side of their trucks they say ‘farm to table.’ That’s not farm to table. When you have the product right here, why truck that stuff all the way over here. The carbon footprint is the main thing we can do immediately to help.”
Accursio remains unsure if Trump can get the job done, and he believes Trump will need a full eight years to accomplish his goals because of the overwhelming opposition Trump faces. Curbelo is unsure if he will back Trump in 2020; he has to get past 2018 first.
“We need you to get behind him,” Accursio told him. “Homestead is suffering.”