Sunday afternoon was all about Joe Garcia.
Standing before family, friends, supporters and nearly a dozen elected officials at the San Carlos Institute on Key West's Duval Street, U.S. Rep. Garcia was sworn in by Monroe County Judge Peary S. Fowler, as Garcia's daughter, Gabriela, held the Bible.
Garcia beat Republican incumbent David Rivera in the November election after Rivera became embroiled in controversy involving a federal grand jury, ethics violations and a missing FBI witness. Rivera had handily defeated Garcia, a Democrat, in 2010.
Garcia will be sworn in for a second time today at noon at Miami Dade College in Kendall by Bob Graham, former senator and governor of Florida. Garcia represents South Florida's District 26, which includes two counties, western Miami-Dade and Monroe, in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"It means a great deal to me to be here today [at the San Carlos]," he said. "I will work every day for the people of Monroe County."
Garcia told the audience that he found out after being sworn Thursday in Congress that he was assigned to the Natural Resources Committee, which means greater access to important environmental issues facing the county and state, like offshore drilling and water quality. He will also serve on the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, which is responsible for legislation pertaining to immigration reform.
Garcia was raised by his Cuban-exiled parents, Joe, who worked at a car wash after arriving in America, and Carmen, a waitress at a Howard Johnson's who later become a beautician. Garcia mowed grass and worked in construction to pay his way through the University of Miami and eventually earn a law degree.
He spoke about the historical link between Cuba and Key West and vowed to bring the two back together again.
"The two are separated by [less than] 90 miles and long to be reunited and hopefully it will happen in the near future," the freshman congressman told the packed house and drew a standing ovation.
He also talked about the Keys' fragile environment and the need to get Washington politicians on the same page as the county. And, he told the crowd, there will be a Conch Republic flag flying in his congressional office in Washington, D.C.
County Commissioner George Neugent reminded Garcia that there is more of the county beyond Key West and the Seven Mile Bridge.
"We have tremendous environmental issues throughout the 120 miles of the Keys," he said. "We also need to look at waste water and storm water."
Commissioner Heather Carruthers pointed toward rising sea levels, catastrophic insurance costs and the need to mend bridges within the sphere of the Capitol as issues needing his attention.
"We have high expectations for you, Joe," Carruthers said warmly.
Key West Commissioner Tony Yaniz urged Garcia to "sing our song" in Washington D.C.
"It is your song, too," he said. "Your courage is our courage. We've got your back."
Rafael Penalver, president of San Carlos Institute, spoke fervently about the history of the building, which was built by Cuban exiles in 1871. In the 1980s, it was restored to its famous glory.
"It stood for values, values of dignity for man," he said. "With all and for the good of all."
Penalver related the importance of Garcia, a Cuban-American, being elected to the halls of Congress, to what must be done for our country today.
"You are now part of a government by the people and for the people," he told Garcia.
Bobby Mongelli, owner of two restaurants on Stock Island and Geiger Key Marina, said he attended the event because he wanted to show his support for a man he knows can make a difference in Washington, D.C.
"I believe in his policy," he said minutes before Garcia walked onto the stage.
"He took a stand for the Cubans," he said with admiration in his voice. "I think we will see him do some great things during his term."
Phyllis Le Conte, of Bahama Village, brought her 4-year-old grandson, Coi, to the swearing-in. The grandmother said it is important to teach young children about the democratic process at a very young age.
"It is very befitting for him to see him (Garcia) work," Le Conte said. "He helped me hand out his flyers when he was campaigning for office. Now Coi gets to see him."