Several Democratic candidates in the race for Florida’s 20th Congressional District jostled to tap into President Joe Biden’s base Wednesday evening during the second half of a virtual candidate forum.
Four of the six participants voiced strong support for Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. While the first group of candidates to debate Wednesday night largely framed themselves as the rightful successor to former U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, those in the forum’s second group were most vocal about endorsing the President’s legislative agenda.
The forum, hosted by When We All Vote Palm Beach County, featured 10 candidates in total, split into two groups. The second portion of the debate featured state Rep. Bobby DuBose, retired college administrator Phil Jackson, former U.S. Department of Labor investigator Emmanuel Morel, Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief, former state Rep. and Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor and state Sen. Perry Thurston.
Yolanda Cash Jackson and Nicholas Johnson, both lawyers, served as moderators.
The four candidates with experience as elected officials — DuBose, Sharief, Taylor and Thurston — all threw their lot behind the Biden agenda.
Sharief told voters she would work on “replacing aging water infrastructure as well as aging transportation infrastructure — that means highway and roads — and getting some of the Build Back Better plan money from Congress and from President Biden.”
Thurston agreed, arguing, “We should certainly get behind the Biden administration’s Build Back Better program so that we can have our infrastructure needs and we can address some of the issues that are affecting our community.”
Taylor made her comments in the context of the Senate filibuster, which has been used to frustrate Democrats’ push for some of Biden’s pricier proposals.
“We need to get rid of the filibuster,” Taylor said. “We need to work on getting Joe Biden’s agenda through because these are things that really benefit District 20.”
And DuBose touted provisions in Biden’s plan to give the federal government more control over Medicaid.
“We have an opportunity through the Build Back Better bill, the reconciliation bill, to make Medicaid coverage federal. And that way we won’t have to deal with the state Legislature,” he said.
Florida has notoriously refused to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Though Biden’s policies were a focus Wednesday night, Hastings wasn’t absent from the proceedings, as DuBose noted up front.
“We lost a political giant in Congressman Alcee Hastings,” DuBose said. “They are big shoes to fill.”
Hastings passed away earlier this year following a cancer battle, triggering a Special Election for his seat.
Jackson and Morel, the two less experienced candidates, focused on their own visions for the district should they be elected. Jackson ran through a litany of policy proposals, such as increasing the average social security benefit from $1,500 per month to $2,000 per month by taxing corporations and the richest Americans.
He also called for forgiving at least the first $50,000, if not all, of student college debt, something that DuBose, Morel and Thurston all voiced support for as well.
“I will work with (U.S. Sens. Chuck) Schumer and (Elizabeth) Warren in terms of forgiving college debt,” Jackson said. “They have a plan in place now. I will support them in the House on that plan.”
Morel, meanwhile, appeared to take more of a flame-throwing approach Wednesday. He called out generalized corruption among elected politicians, though didn’t go into specifics or rip any of his current opponents by name.
“My purpose is not to keep the Democratic Party in the majority. My purpose is to represent the people in District 20 however I can,” Morel added when asked how he would reach across the aisle.
Asked whether he would prefer the Democrats be out of power, Morel said he does want them to maintain a majority.
“But if I had to choose between the Democrats being in the majority and my people in District 20 — especially the poor people in the Glades, in Lauderhill, in Pompano — I would choose the people,” he added.
Sharief, however, emphasized the importance of bipartisanship — a reality which Democrats may need to grapple with should Republicans take over one or both houses of Congress in 2022.
“People all too often make it sound like we as Democrats can’t compromise with Republicans to get what we want and to move the needle,” Sharief said. “We have to find commonalities so that we can work across the aisle.”
Morel also focused on a push for reparations during the debate.
“We ought to be talking about reparations because our people are still suffering from the legacies of slavery,” he said.
He came back to the point more than once.
“Black folks worked for nearly 300 years and never got paid. They must be paid back,” Morel said. “Until that happens, Black folks will always be behind. Our ancestors could not leave us a financial legacy because they were never paid.”
DuBose’s main pitch was to compare the combativeness of last year’s Legislative Session with the inter-party antagonism often seen in Congress.
“When I arrived to the Florida House in 2014, I remember the narrative was the House, we were not like D.C. And this past Session, we were exactly like D.C. It was the worst Session I ever served in,” DuBose said.
Nevertheless, he pointed to some of his own legislative successes last Session, such as moving through a bill limiting the seclusion and restraint of students with disabilities.
“In the most polarizing Legislative Session, that was similar to D.C., I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle and passed legislation,” DuBose said.
Taylor, meanwhile, focused on her experience as an elected official in making her pitch to voters.
“It is not okay to suppress our rights. It is not okay to take away a woman’s choice. It is not okay to say that there is no climate change,” Taylor said. “I have served the people in Palm Beach County in a number of roles and I am ready to go forth and to serve in many more.”
Taylor said improving the district’s economy would be her main focus as she highlighted struggles in the Glades area of Palm Beach County.
“I have fought for that area before. But what they really need in that area — and through District 20, really — are jobs,” Taylor said. “What I would do is to work to try to bring more jobs, good-paying jobs, into the area, and also to work on the economy and to get businesses to buy into coming to the area.”
Thurston said his biggest aims in Congress would be dealing with health care, criminal justice and education issues.
“It’s one thing to have economic viability. But if you don’t have your health, you have nothing at all,” Thurston said. “That was shown during this pandemic.”
On education, he touted his previous support for Florida’s public school system during his time in the House and Senate.
“If we want people to be able to work and pull themselves up, we’ve got to make sure that they have accessibility to affordable education,” Thurston said. “That’s why I’ve always been a big supporter of our public school system and why I have the endorsement of the Broward Teachers Union.”
DuBose agreed with the emphasis on public schooling, saying of Florida Republicans, “There’s an all-out attack on traditional public education.”