If a debate takes place in the race to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress and Donna Shalala doesn’t attend, does it make a sound?
That’s a conundrum that the field in Florida’s 27th congressional district grappled with Tuesday as Miami-Dade Democrats hosted a candidates’ forum at a Unitarian Universalist church near Dadeland.
Democratic candidates Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, David Richardson and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez all attended Tuesday night. Shalala did not.
“There will be lots of time to debate," Shalala told the Miami Herald.
As the clear frontrunner in the race, with a well-known résumé and more than $1 million in her campaign account, Shalala has little incentive to participate in debates and forums. Roughly 750,000 people live in the coastal Miami-Dade district, meaning television commercials, direct mail and press accounts will be a far more effective way to reach voters than most personal appearances.
Shalala's opponents, on the other hand, would stand to benefit from any appearance with the former University of Miami president and Clinton Cabinet member because it enables them to compare and contrast their records. And work in a jab or two.
But Shalala said she's not dodging.
"My team has known for a long time that I had something on my calendar that I could not change," said Shalala, who explained that she continues to have obligations to her University of Miami classes until the end of the month but otherwise declined to detail the conflict.
Shalala's decision to skip the debate roiled her opponents, some of whom questioned whether the former University of Miami president was disrespecting the half-dozen organizing groups by skipping the event. Richardson issued a press release Tuesday needling Shalala for "backtracking" out of a commitment to attend — and then briefly threatened to back out himself after learning that Shalala's campaign notified the party back on May 8 that she had a conflict.
"What disappoints me most is that Democratic Primary voters will be once again let down by Donna’s inability to fight for the community she professes to care so much about," Richardson said. "I’m willing to debate Donna Shalala one-on-one – anytime, anywhere. I hope she accepts my offer and stops hiding from the voters."
Comparing voters to employers, Haggman called it "disappointing that Donna Shalala decided to skip a debate tonight with the people doing the hiring." Rosen Gonzalez said Shalala was showing disrespect to the Democratic groups that organized the event.
Juan Cuba, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, said he regretted not telling the other candidates that Shalala had pulled out of the event last week. But he said he had hoped to convince her campaign to reverse course after receiving confirmation of her attendance about two weeks ago, and announcing it on Facebook.
"We thought it would be unfair to the other candidates to reschedule the debate based on Donna’s schedule," Cuba said.
Shalala says she never committed to attend — "absolutely not." Her campaign told Cuba that she plans to attend another scheduled debate, in Coconut Grove on July 19.
It’s unclear if she’ll attend another debate scheduled for Saturday and hosted by the Miami-Dade Young Democrats. The organization says her campaign is the only so far that hasn’t responded to say if she’ll attend the debate - hosted at the University of Miami Donna E. Shalala Student Center.