South Florida knows Debbie Mucarsel-Powell well. The Miami Democrat flipped a House district blue in 2018, helping Democrats retake the U.S. House. She lost the seat two years later, but still boasts a strong reputation in the region. During a speech at the Florida Democratic Party’s state convention, she said locals still associate her initials, DMP, with the phrase “Don’t Mess with my People.”
Now she’s running statewide for the first time as the most prominent Democrat challenging U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
As the Democrats’ state convention unfolded in Orlando, the former Congresswoman attended caucus meetings and met with party leaders and elected officials. She also sat down with Florida Politics. She discussed why she thinks Scott can be defeated next fall, and how Democrats can make Florida a swing state again after landslide defeats in 2018.
Florida Politics: What has been the most important thing for you to do to get some traction for your Senate bid?
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell: I’ve been traveling across the state. I have felt that the energy on the ground is very similar to what I felt in 2018. I’ve said this many times. Florida is not a red state. I mean, Florida is definitely a very diverse, purple state. And people in Florida don’t like anyone telling them what to do, from either side. We have the same independent streak in our culture and who we are all over the state.
In Tallahassee, they’ve gone too far, and extremists like Rick Scott have aligned with what’s going on here in this state. You have someone who actually supported a national abortion ban, and said that the six-week abortion ban, which is one of the most extreme laws that the Governor (current Gov. Ron DeSantis) signed into law, that he would have gladly supported and signed it into law himself.
The most important thing for me is listening to Floridians, and one thing that I’ve been reminded of is that it doesn’t matter if you live in Jackson County or if you’re in Miami or Orlando, or if you’re in the Keys. At the end of the day, we all want the same things.
We all want to make sure that we can afford to live in the state of Florida. We know that there’s an affordability crisis. We know that a lot of our freedoms have been under attack. We want to make sure that we provide a safe community for our children. Gun violence, you notice it’s important to me. So, it’s been very easy to be in this race right away, because I felt a lot of that energy and a lot of excitement for my candidacy.
FP: At one point, the Hispanic American population in South Florida was starting to flip for Democrats. That carried you into Congress. But in 2020 and 2022, there was a shift back to voting for Republicans. You’ve commented on this, but why do you think Democrats lost the growing appeal they had?
DMP: I truly believe, and I think that this continues to happen, that the spread of targeted misinformation and disinformation to Latino communities has continued. It started really creating that shift and that division in our community.
For many Hispanics that live in South Florida, we’ve been living here for a long time. But a lot of Latinos have been living there for 10, 15, 20 years. They don’t completely understand the party system, the value system on each party, and Republicans really took advantage of that, capitalized on that, and started demonizing Democrats, using the fear of socialism, the fear of communism, to their advantage.
And then they were really spreading disinformation on COVID, on the election systems, on believing the big lie. And Republicans that represent that area — Mario Díaz-Balart, Marco Rubio, María Elvira Salazar and Carlos Giménez — have continued to do that in mainstream Spanish media. Even our elected officials who are fluent Spanish speakers get on radio stations and TV stations that continue to spread disinformation.
It’s been a tactic that has been used by Republicans here in South Florida and then spreading it across the board. Obviously, you’re going to see a shift when there’s only one side communicating, and what they’re communicating are lies about what the other side represents. That’s been one thing.
I think COVID made it very difficult for many of us to be present in the communities. That’s something that’s lacking. We need to be present, constantly talking to Latinos. Latinos are very diverse, right? Venezuelans are interested in different things from what Colombians are interested in. But at the same time, what unites us is the values of family, of safety, of freedom, of liberty, of democracy.
So many of our community members come here fleeing political corruption. They’re fleeing political violence. When I talk to the community, they connect with my story right away, because I’m an immigrant. I came here when I was 14. Many relate to that story of coming with nothing, leaving everything behind, fleeing that violence and just working hard for their families and just wanting to provide for their children.
People have gotten to know me in South Florida because I’ve been very present. And I just need to remind them that in this election, there’s going to be a choice between democracy and freedom, true freedom, and defending our civil rights.
FP: How do you combat this misinformation?
DMP: By giving them the adequate responses to everything that they’re saying, but also writing more information. They (voters) need to understand what we stand for. They need to understand that no, socialism in Latin America is not what Democrats are about here in this country. We’re capitalists, but we also support oversight so that workers can have a weekend and good-paying jobs and benefits.
This is not a party that’s going to be giving favors to big businesses, big insurance companies, big pharmaceutical companies. This is a party that wants to bring everyone together, making sure they have economic opportunities to make it. Giving them that contrast and that information.
No one is going to do it better than someone, like myself, who can speak in their own language. I’m excited to be our voice to set that record straight. When you look at the numbers, not all Latinos want to vote for Republicans. There has been a little bit of a shift in certain groups and in certain areas, but it’s a shift that once they see that they have a choice, they’re going to come right back to us.
FP: Why couldn’t Democrats fight this misinformation that past two election cycles?
DMP: If you go back to 2020, part of the problem is we didn’t see it coming. In August, right before the election in November 2020, my mother brought this insert that had been placed in the Herald for 32 weeks, every week, filled with misinformation. It looked like it was part of the paper and it didn’t say that it was paid for by “X” group, so people didn’t know that it was actually a political advertisement.
And at that time, there was a rise of misinformation on some of the social media outlets, but also on Spanish radio. We didn’t see the coordination. We didn’t realize what was happening to the extent that it was happening. There now has been monitoring of the disinformation, but not enough resources are being spent to actually combat it, which is supporting more independent journalism, making sure they have accurate information coming at them, not just the disinformation.
Look at what’s happening with Twitter. We are seeing the algorithms. A lot of accounts are bots, trolls, where extreme accounts have been lifted up. You’re not getting as much balanced information.
It’s very dangerous because people are constantly getting that information from their phones. With the war in the Middle East, people don’t know what’s true and what’s not true. That causes people to either just become completely apathetic or disengaged, which is dangerous for democracy. We need to have citizens very engaged so that they participate and come out and vote. In 2022, people didn’t come out in Florida.
FP: You mention the diversity of Latino voices in Florida. National Democrats for so many years focused on reaching Mexican Americans. Will the party provide the right messaging to reach South American communities in Florida?
DMP: The message is going to come from me and my campaign. I’m not going to rely on anyone to tell me what I need to say to my community. When you are from this community and you understand the community as deep as I do, and I’ve been working with them for so long, that message will have to come from me directly.
My job will be to make sure that national groups, whether it’s a national party or other groups, invest in our state because it’s worth investing in. We have one of the largest Latino populations. We have a huge, diverse African American population. Asian Americans are not as large a group but can make a difference who wins in 2024. They’re engaged. We can’t leave anybody behind. And unfortunately, I think that the party nationally hasn’t done that. They left us in 2022. They can’t do that.
FP: We all took note when pictures surfaced of you discussing a run with Val Demings, who lost to Rubio last year. Have you talked to her about what needs to be done differently in this race?
DMP: There were so many things going on in 2022. DeSantis had hundreds of millions of dollars ready for that race. The investments didn’t come through here in 2022. There was a lot of apathy. In ’22, people were still recovering from COVID and from all the shutdowns, and people were still just trying to get ahead of all of that.
One of the things that she’s told me, which I think is so true and a good lesson for everyone to have, is that you can never assume anything. You need to work hard to earn people’s trust. You need to work hard to earn people’s votes. She worked very hard to do that. But there were a lot of other things that were beyond her control. But for me, the most important thing I’m going to be doing is being present.
FP: This weekend here at the state convention, what is the most important thing for you to get done?
DMP: It’s so important for the people that are doing the hard work on the ground, which are all the DEC (Democratic Executive Committee) members, all the volunteers, all these different caucuses. They are the ones that have been fighting for years now. They need to meet me, get to know my story, trust me so that I give them a reason to continue fighting.
So far, it’s going really well. They’re excited for my race and people need to understand what I’m for, not just what I’m against. We know that Rick Scott is a fraud. But now they need to also know that they’re going to have a champion in me in Washington, D.C.
FP: Scott has been winning 1-point elections now for almost 14 years. How do you prove to voters you can cut into the elusive edge he always finds?
DMP: This is a man who proudly released a plan to end Medicare and Social Security and who wants to raise taxes in Florida families. We need to remind every Floridian who he truly is. He’s a self-serving politician that’s going to continue to use the power of that office for self care.
Once they know this, he’s extremely vulnerable. People do realize that he committed, when he was the CEO of that company, the largest Medicare fraud in the history of this country. So I think his luck is about to run out. He’s never run against a Latina like me.
FP: What else do you want to communicate to voters?
DMP: People need to understand what’s at stake. We are in a moment in time where we are facing some very serious challenges abroad, with the aggression of Russia against Ukraine, the attack of Hamas against Israel. There is a shift happening, that fight for a balance of power, and we need to remember who we are as Americans.
As we stand for human rights or democracy or freedom, we can not allow anything to get in our way of protecting democracy. We either need to protect our dreams and our democracy or we lose everything in 2024.