Donna Shalala's foes finally got to debate her. Here's how they treated the front-runner

From left to right: Steve Simeonidis, Donna Shalala (front), Michael Hepburn (back), Matt Haggman, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Ricky Junquera (front), David Richardson
From left to right: Steve Simeonidis, Donna Shalala (front), Michael Hepburn (back), Matt Haggman, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Ricky Junquera (front), David Richardson

Donna Shalala's opponents spent the last week hammering her for skipping debates and appearing reluctant to publicly discuss her policy positions and defend her long political history.

They finally got her in a room Saturday — and treated her with kid gloves.

Without having to play much defense, Shalala killed the "she-won't-debate" line of attack lobbed at her all week and showed she can hold her own against four opponents who'll need to knock the front-runner back to claim the Democratic nomination in Florida's 27th congressional district. In the friendly confines of the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami — where she was president for 14 years — Shalala swatted away skepticism about her enthusiasm for gun-control, went whole-hog on recreational marijuana, and promoted her record on the environment.

"I've never been afraid of coming to debate," Shalala said after the forum. "It's no big thing."

Shalala had been chided all week by Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, state Rep. David Richardson and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez for missing a forum held Tuesday by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party — a controversy fueled by the party's decision to withhold her planned absence from the other candidates until the last minute. Shalala skipped the event to attend a screening of a Pets' Trust documentary, and in her absence her empty chair was asked questions about criminal justice, guns and why the University of Miami sold protected pine rocklands to a developer during her time as president.

The Miami-Dade Young Democrats, who hosted Saturday's forum, said Shalala initially declined an invitation to the debate before changing her mind late in the week. Tuesday's debate was the first of the campaign.

"It took a lot of effort on my part and a few others to get her to the table," Richardson said Saturday. "We had to shame her a bit publicly."

But Shalala's empty chair received tougher questions this week than Shalala herself did Saturday.

When the environment came up Saturday, nobody mentioned the pine rocklands sale. When healthcare was discussed, her time on the board of UnitedHealth Group was not.

If anything, where Tuesday's pointed debate highlighted the candidates' differences — Rosen Gonzalez said she'd take men out of corrections, Haggman was asked to reconcile his position against taking political committee money with a Miami New Times report about checks from Wall Street bank employees, and Richardson's progressive credentials were questioned — Saturday's forum reinforced how aligned all the candidates are on most liberal issues.

They all said they support prosecuting bankers who rig the economy, would vote for a carbon tax, and believe in free community college. They all said they'd support laws that publicly fund campaigns and limit the corporate funding of elections. And when asked to hold up either a "yes," "no," or "it's complicated sign" to answer questions, everyone said they'd favor a federal ban on charter schools — although most said afterward that they were somewhat confused by the question since the institutions are regulated and funded by states.

"I hate those yes-or-no questions. They're so boring," Rosen Gonzalez said. "We should abolish them."

Shalala did further evolve her position on marijuana Saturday, signaling that she supports the legalization of recreational marijuana, just one month after she was called out for flip-flopping on medical weed. She also sparred with Richardson over some contributions to Republican lawmakers during her tenure as UM president, and whether she's recently evolved her stance on supporting universal healthcare and Medicare for all (she says she hasn't).

"This election is about what's next," said Haggman. "This election can't be about what we're against, but what we're for."

Good news: they'll have more opportunities to talk about it all. On Saturday, Shalala agreed to participate in three more debates before the August primary election.