Political debates serve as a marketplace for voters. It is an opportunity for the electorate to listen to the candidates’ views clearly — free from the spin of political pundits and the extreme bias of paid political ads. Unfortunately, in this year’s important Miami-Dade County mayoral election, prospective voters have been limited to three debates (two in English on Sunday morning political shows and one in Spanish on the Univison local affiliate).
Resistance to these political exchanges has come from the incumbent, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who finds himself ahead in the polls and has seemingly taken the advice of his campaign strategists and opted to limit his “exposure” (the term used in political parlance for risk).
The real loser in Mayor Gimenez’s decision to not debate frequently is not only Raquel Regalado, who is running against Gimenez for the county’s most coveted and powerful seat, but more importantly, the big loss belongs to Miami-Dade County voters who don’t get many opportunities to hear the candidates’ positions on the issues that most affect us.
The range of issues on which the mayor of Miami-Dade County has a direct impact, regarding our day-to-day lives, is greater than that of the president. If you realize that, then you understand the snub that Mayor Gimenez and his advisers have managed to get away with.
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From a strategic perspective, Mayor Gimenez’s reluctance to debate. Regalado, a Miami-Dade County School Board member who forced the seemingly overconfident mayor into a runoff in August, makes sense. He has been handily defeated in the eyes of most political observers in two out of the three debates. “He particularly looked bad in the Univision debate. He appeared insecure and could not find traction in his arguments because of his poor Spanish,” said one political consultant who wished to remain anonymous because he has worked with the mayor in the past.
In September, a week before a debate had been scheduled with Regalado, by the League of Women Voters, Mayor Gimenez’s staff declared that the mayor would not be participating. This was just one of several debates organized by community organizations that have been stood up by Mayor Gimenez. No excuse was given by the mayor’s campaign staff nor has one been demanded by the media.
By not pressing Mayor Gimenez, the media has served as an enabler of Gimenez’s lack of participation. Major media outlets, especially television stations, have always expressed concern with the limited choice of good time slots that they can devote to public affairs programming. Considering that various hours of live coverage were dedicated recently to a no-show tropical storm that knocked down two palm fronds, I question why better time slots closer to prime time cannot be dedicated to something as important as the race for the top elected position in our county.
The fact that a paltry 20 percent of registered voters turned out for the first go-round of the mayoral election in August illustrates the level of disconnect that exists between the electorate, on the one hand, and their elected officials and the political process, on the other. “Debating is the heartbeat of our political system,” candidate Regalado told me. “It is particularly important in this county where so many feel disenfranchised from their local government and officials.”
The mayor’s campaign was contacted for this piece but, true to form, my messages received no response.
“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger,” former South African President Nelson Mandela once remarked. Mayor Gimenez’s hide-and-seek strategy regarding debates has come across as small and peevish. And whiIe it may turn out to be sound political advice in terms of winning reelection, it lacks the kind of leadership and transparency one would expect from an incumbent mayor.