She was coined “No-show Shalala” by one of her Democratic rivals, and sure enough Donna Shalala did not show up for Tuesday night’s debate between the Democratic candidates for Florida’s 27th Congressional District.
The organizers of the event, “Democrats of South Dade,” say Shalala originally committed to appearing at the event before backing out last week. State Rep. David Richardson, who introduced the Shalala moniker, started out the debate by noting the impressive turnout before adding, “I think everyone’s in the room but Donna Shalala.”
The turnout was larger than expected, with event organizers saying more than a hundred people were forced to stand inside the Unitarian Universalist Church in Coral Gables. That’s good news for a Democratic Party hoping voter enthusiasm ends up in a blue wave this November.
After Richardson’s jab at Shalala (which would not be his last of the night), the candidates began facing questions on the issues.
Richardson and his fellow Democrats, former Knight Foundation Program Director Matt Haggman, Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, and former University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn, were in agreement for much of the night. The debate’s first section forced the candidates to answer “yes” or “no” to a rapid-fire series of questions such as “Do you support single-payer health care?” and “Do you support creating a gun registry of all guns currently owned or sold?” The candidates agreed on every question.
Where disagreement did pop up, it was mostly regarding fundraising and campaign spending. Richardson again jabbed at Shalala here, saying, “While I was fighting the good fight in Tallahassee, she was giving tens of thousands of dollars to Republicans.”
But Richardson also received some pushback from Rosen Gonzalez, who tried to tie him to the fundraising operation of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“When I went to the DCCC and I sat down and I spoke to Nancy Pelosi, I said I wasn’t going to buy into it. I said I was not going to fundraise all day. I was not going to pay one of these fancy email fundraising firms, like David has, a large amount of money.”
Richardson responded by saying he has more than 40 thousand online contributions and has rejected the idea he’s received any support for the DCCC, saying he hasn’t received one dollar from the group.
That was not the last time these two would tussle.
The most puzzling answer of the night came from Rosen Gonzalez during a section of the debate dealing with criminal justice reform. The moderators had spent much of the night asking open-ended questions, allowing candidates to fall back on their talking points if need be. But when they quizzed the candidates on how they would address criminal justice issues differently than their opponents, Rosen Gonzalez, the only woman on stage, got the first chance to answer and seemed to struggle.
“Well I think being a woman, there’s a big power difference there because men think in terms of power.” Her solution? “I would take men out of corrections, stop the abuses. I would.”
That answer was met with confusion in the audience, even some chuckles. And Richardson, who answered next, pounced.
“You know, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say until Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez started speaking. I would absolutely not take men out of the prison system because that’s called discrimination. Next somebody will say let’s take the gays out and not give them a job.”
It’s not clear whether Rosen Gonzalez really backs the idea of barring men from prison jobs or simply just stumbled in her answer, but when given a chance to rebut Richardson’s comments, she did not address them directly or revisit her original point.
The moment was clearly noticed by her campaign staff, who after the debate could be overheard urgently making plans to get the candidate on message in the future. “We are going to have to sit her down every night,” one staffer exclaimed to another.
Richardson also set his sights on Haggman, calling him out for accepting money from corporate executives. “When somebody says they won’t take corporate PAC money, I want to ask you to consider the difference between a corporate PAC check of $5,000 or going to a senior executive, the CEO of that same company, and getting them and their wife to write $2,700 checks.”
Haggman maintained throughout the night he would take no money from corporate PACs, federal lobbyists, or state utilities.
He addressed any donations he received from executives by saying, “These were all individuals through 16 years of work as a reporter and six years of the Knight Foundation where I reached out.” Haggman said he merely pitched them him message, and that “they have decided individually to contribute to the campaign.”
These disputes will likely continue throughout the primary, as again, the candidates were in virtual lockstep on the issues. All agreed on legalizing marijuana. All agreed on ending cash-based bail systems. All agreed to increase gun control, though all also acknowledged that owning guns is a right and they would not make any move to ban all guns.
The final point of contention came at the close of the debate. The moderators wrapped up by asking the candidates whether they would agree to support the eventual winner of the primary. All quickly answered “yes” except for Hepburn. “If I don’t believe the person believes in the values that I’m hearing from the thousands of houses that we’ve visited, no.” That was in character for Hepburn, who positioned himself as someone trying to shake up Washington throughout the debate.
As for Shalala? She had no answer to that question, nor any others.