Miami-Dade County

These presidential debate moderators have the hometown, 305 perspective

When the top 20 Democratic candidates vying for the presidential bid land in Miami, they’ll be stepping into the future America they hope to lead.

At least that’s what presidential debate moderators Chuck Todd and José Díaz-Balart say.

The two moderators, both South Floridians by birth, say they know from on-the-ground experience that the state is a microcosm of the country. That makes Miami the perfect forum to kick off the first debate of the 2020 season, they say.

The debates, held at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, will air on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo Wednesday and Thursday night at 9 p.m. EDT. Other moderators include “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, “TODAY Show” co-host Savannah Guthrie and Rachel Maddow, of “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

Todd, who hosts “Meet the Press” on NBC, was born in Miami and lived in Coconut Grove until he was 5 years old. He spent the rest of his childhood growing up in Kendall, where he graduated from Miami Killian Senior High School.

Todd’s early interest in politics was piqued the summer between eighth and ninth grade, when his cousin was working on an election campaign for the state’s education commissioner (a once-elected position). The preteen was enraptured by the late-night political discourse between his conservative father and liberal cousin and decided then that a career in politics was his goal.

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Looking back at his time in Miami, the major University of Miami Hurricanes fan remembers a changing city that reflected a changing America. That dynamic, he said, sets up the perfect environment for a debate.

“The problems the country’s facing today … Miami faced them yesterday,” he said. “What’s happening to Miami today is what the county needs to be starting to think about going forward.”

Díaz-Balart, who still lives and works in Miami, agreed: “I often think of Miami as a case study of the future.”

An Emmy-winning journalist, Telemundo and NBC News Saturday anchor, Díaz-Balart grew up in Fort Lauderdale but also spent some time living in Spain, and later became a reporter for NBC 6 in Miami. Díaz-Balart is the son of Rafael Díaz-Balart y Gutiérrez, a former Cuban politician. His aunt, Mirta Díaz-Balart, was Fidel Castro’s first wife. He is currently raising his two daughters in Miami.

As a young reporter in South Florida, Díaz-Balart remembered seeing the dramatic change in the makeup of South Florida, and some of the ugliness that came with it.

“I remember the wave of Cuban exiles in the ‘60s, the Nicaraguans and Haitians and Colombians and Venezuelans. … [Miami is] a place where people who have left their country many times have found a home in South Florida,” he said.

Díaz-Balart, who covered the January 1989 race riots in Miami for NBC 6, said the change in demographics spurred a “tumultuous, difficult time.” He said that as the state came to grips with the changing city, there were growing pains. Events like the Miami race riots, which erupted after a policeman fatally shot a black motorcyclist, foreshadowed what was to come in other parts of America.

“Those things can cause people to feel somewhat as though things are different, or changing,” he said. “But the United States is changing.”

Díaz-Balart said South Florida has for years faced problems now stressing the nation: immigration policy, the effects of climate change and a changing economy.

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“We’re experiencing a lot of the issues that are front and center in the national discourse,” he said. “We experience them in person. We’re very happy to receive these candidates that will no doubt be talking to a national audience, but from an area that very much, I think, represents what America and the future can be.”

He added that the debate format itself is a sign of America’s future. The program, which will air on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo Wednesday and Thursday night, marks the first kickoff presidential debate of an election cycle co-hosted by Spanish-language media..

Todd and Díaz-Balart have co-hosted before on a smaller scale, when they moderated a 2014 Democratic presidential candidate town hall in Las Vegas with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Todd said having a bilingual simulcast this time around not only represents the Miami audience surrounding the venue but also the future of American election coverage.

“It’s always been treated as a conversation on the side,” he said. “We all have the same challenges and problems, so this is sending that message from the get-go. I hope this is sort of the new norm.”

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.