“We’ve got some very progressive candidates.”
That was the takeaway from Saturday’s moderator as Democratic candidates for Florida’s 27th Congressional District gathered for their second primary debate.
The event was held at the Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami. All five Democratic candidates were in attendance. That’s a change up from Tuesday night’s first debate, where former UM President Donna Shalala did not show up, instead attending a film screening. That prompted criticism from some of her primary opponents, mainly current state Rep. David Richardson, and former Knight Foundation Program Director Matt Haggman.
But everyone showed up Saturday morning to pitch their positions to primary voters. Haggman, Shalala, and Richardson were joined by Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former UM Academic Advisor Michael A. Hepburn.
Much like the first debate, the candidates were in agreement for much of the morning. When it came to issues, all five leaned leftward, likely in an attempt to appeal to a Democratic primary electorate that seems to be hungry for liberal standard-bearers.
The candidates all said they support constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United and to establish free or low-cost health care as a right provided by the government. All said they would encourage the prosecution and jailing of bankers involved in the 2007-08 financial collapse, as well as pharmaceutical executives who have contributed to the opioid epidemic. All five advocated for free public college and the public financing of elections.
Whether those positions will play well in a district held for decades by a Republican remains to be seen. The race for CD 27 will be open, however, as longtime Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has decided not to run for re-election. That’s provided a chance for Democrats to take the seat, with the Cook Political Report saying the district leans Democratic.
Saturday’s debate was sponsored by the Miami-Dade Young Democrats. Executive Vice President Steve Simeonidis served as the debate’s moderator.
One area where the candidates were split was on the question of Democratic leadership in Washington. When asked whether they support current Democratic leadership in Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Haggman and Hepburn said they would not.
“Change means change,” said Haggman, emphasizing the message at the heart of his campaign. “And if we are really going to do it that means changing the leadership in Washington in our own party too.”
Others on the stage hedged somewhat, saying it was too early to make that call. “I believe it would be presumptuous of me as a candidate now to start selecting leadership. I don’t think that shows leadership,” said Richardson. He said there will likely be a change in Democratic leadership, but added, “I believe that you have to get elected first to have a seat at the table.”
Shalala echoed that position saying, “Ask me after I’m elected. I’d be happy to give you an answer. I’ve known the leadership for a long time. I don’t even know who’s running.”
Richardson also prodded Shalala during a portion of the debate where candidates were allowed to ask each other questions. Referencing the fact Shalala skipped the first debate, and only committed to the second debate one day before it was held, Richardson asked, “Will you commit today to join the rest of the candidates for three more debates before the primary election?”
Shalala responded with a simple, “Yes.”
It remains to be seen how the candidates will use that time, and the remainder of the campaign, to separate themselves from one another when they appear to agree on so much. All five tried to do so at times on Saturday.
Rosen Gonzalez focused on her ties to the area and her appeal to Hispanic voters (she speaks Spanish as well as French), arguing she’s the only Democrat who can win in November. Haggman pushed a message of change and highlighted his time in the media and his record at the Knight Foundation. Hepburn tried to outflank his opponents from the left as much as possible. For example, while the others pushed for ways to increase America’s use of renewable energy, Hepburn jumped even further ahead, saying “I am for 100% renewable energy in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Meanwhile, Richardson and Shalala hope their experience will attract voters, with Richardson touting his six years in the Florida House and Shalala referencing her time serving in the Clinton administration.
But with the candidates agreeing on so much, it will be up to voters to parse through the particulars in selecting their nominee. The Florida primaries will be held on August 28, followed by the general election on November 6.