By DAVID GOLDSTEIN and LESLEY CLARK | McClatchy Washington Bureau
Republican Congressman Sam Graves, a farmer from a rural northwest Missouri congressional district, was once a consistent supporter of easing trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.
But a campaign watchdog group said he began accepting campaign contributions from an anti-Castro, pro-trade embargo political action group and eventually reversed field on Cuba.
Public Campaign, a nonpartisan, nonprofit reform group that backs public financing of campaigns, said in a report released today that Graves cast seven votes between 2003 and 2005 to ease the trade embargo and other sanctions on Cuba.
Then on three subsequent Cuban trade votes, he withdrew his backing and opposed lifting the sanctions, according to the report.
Since 2004, the five-term lawmaker from Tarkio and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, has received $8,000 from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, campaign records show.
Graves spokesman Jason Klindt said two Cuban-American lawmakers from Florida — Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — “who have experience dealing with the Castro regime,” persuaded Graves to rethink his views.
“He supports making it easier for Missouri farmers to sell their products in Cuba, but he does not support lifting the full embargo,” Klindt said.
Graves was one of 18 House members receiving money from the U.S.-Cuba PAC who had voted in many cases to ease sanctions but then subsequently switched their views, according to the report. The amounts ranged from $3,000 to $22,050.
The report found that supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba have contributed nearly $11 million to members of Congress since 2004 in a largely successful effort to block moves to weaken sanctions.
“The pressure they get to raise money plays heavier in their decisions than it ought to,” said David Donnelly, national director for Public Campaign. “We think these are good people caught in a bad system. If members of Congress have to spend too much time raising money, they have to listen to people who give money.”
The report comes as embargo defenders resist efforts to repeal a decades-old ban against U.S. travel to Cuba. Proponents of greater engagement with Cuba contend they have the votes. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Thursday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Agricultural, business and other groups have for years been pushing to lift the trade, travel and humanitarian restrictions on Cuba, a vestige of the Cold War and a politically powerful symbol to some.
Cuban-American donors and members of Congress who oppose the Castro regime have lobbied hard to maintain them.
PAC director Mauricio Claver-Carone defended the contributions as an expression of free speech for Cuban-Americans who think easing sanctions against Cuba would only benefit the Castro regime.
“I will not apologize for the Cuban-American community practicing its constitutional, democratic right to support candidates who believe in freedom and democracy for the Cuban people over business and tourism interests,” he said.
The Missouri Farm Bureau strongly supports relaxing the trade embargo. Its policy states: “We are opposed to any restrictions on agricultural exports to Cuba.”
Garrett Hawkins, a farm bureau lobbyist, said he could not comment about Graves but said, “The members from the Missouri congressional delegation that represents the rural areas and agricultural areas, we’ve had a great working relationship with them on trade issues. We’ve had strong support.”