At this Doral tapas bar, the crowd cheering on the Democrats were Hispanics

Key moments from Tuesday’s Democratic Debate

Democratic candidates faced off on the first night of the second round of Democratic Debates on July 30, 2019.
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Democratic candidates faced off on the first night of the second round of Democratic Debates on July 30, 2019.

“Every time Bernie says, ‘1 percent,’ you have to do a shot!”

That’s how a lively night of debate-watching got started at a tapas bar in Doral, where members of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida gathered Tuesday to watch the first of two Democratic presidential debates held in Detroit.

When opening statements started at around 8:15 p.m. on CNN, the crowd let out a loud cheer.

Among the 10 candidates on stage was the top pick of many of the people gathered: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.

“I came in here supporting Warren, that’s my number one choice,” said Ariel Rojas. “I like when she talks about income inequality and about trying to address the wealth gap. Her wealth tax is, I think, a very interesting solution.”

Bryan Hernandez was also excited to see what Warren had to say.

“I saw her at FIU last month and she was talking about income inequality and about how she wanted to make sure that we cancel student debt,” he said. “She also talked about climate change. As someone who is 24, I really want to see that be a front-and-center issue.”

Nicole Rodriguez, the chapter president who is from Puerto Rico, cited Warren’s visit to the island soon after announcing her candidacy. “She basically started her campaign in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Many in the crowd were delighted that healthcare dominated the first part of the debate, with candidates clashing over “Medicare-for-all” vs. fixing the Affordable Care Act.

“They covered healthcare pretty extensively, which I like because our party definitely needs to talk about that. It’s a top issue, especially here in Florida, where we have among the highest rates of people enrolled in [Obamacare],” said Hernandez. “We have a lot of people who are beneficiaries of Democratic policy proposals.”

Immigration policy followed, where Warren, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all said crossing the border illegally should be decriminalized. That didn’t go unnoticed among the folks watching in Doral.

“I caught the fact that a few of the candidates said that they supported making crossing the border a civil offense instead of a criminal offense,” Rojas said. “That’s consistent I think because, for people who overstay their visas — which is a lot of the immigrant community here who is undocumented — that’s not a criminal offense. So if you have a situation where you cross the border and it’s a criminal offense, that sets up a double standard. It would be nice if it were a little bit more consistent. I don’t think people who cross the border should have a tougher path.”

The people gathered at the tapas bar belong to a demographic that’s an increasingly influential segment of the national electorate: Hispanics. According to the Pew Research Center, come 2020, Latinos will be the largest minority of eligible voters. In Florida, there will be more than 2 million Hispanic voters in the state, with more than 40 percent of that electorate registered in Miami-Dade County.

In 2018, Hispanic voters across the country overwhelmingly backed the Democratic Party — according to Pew, with an estimated 69% of Latinos voting for the Democratic candidate in congressional races nationwide.

But it was a different story in Florida, where support from Latino voters was more evenly split. According to exit polls and a series of pre-election surveys, both the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ron DeSantis, and the Republican Senate candidate, Rick Scott, captured about 45 percent of the Hispanic vote, with Democrats garnering about 55 percent of the vote.

At the Miami-launch of the Latinos for Trump initiative earlier this summer, Vice President Mike Pence made clear that the Trump campaign will actively court Hispanic voters in the lead-up to 2020.

The folks at the tapas bar weighed in on Republicans’ eagerness to slap the “socialism” label on the Democratic field.

“We need to be smart about the labels that we use,” said Juan Yoshika, an immigrant from Peru. “You see people saying that ‘I’m a democrat socialist’ and stuff like that. That term means something to this community and I think it’s important to understand what it means for a Venezuelan, for a Cuban, to say ‘I’m a socialist,’ you know.”

Rodriguez concedes tying the Democrats to socialism could hurt the party.

“It is a good strategy, especially for people in South Florida,” she said. “The Hispanics in South Florida tend to be triggered by that word. Even though most of them don’t know what it means, but it’s just a trigger point.”

Also present at the watch party was Democrat Javier Estevez, who has announced he’s running again for state House District 105 in 2020 after falling short in 2018. Ana Maria Rodriguez defeated Estevez by 417 votes out of 47,879 cast in the district that spans western Miami-Dade and Broward over to Naples.

“It’s a fear tactic that they continue to use every single time,” he said of Republican efforts to raise the specter of socialism. “All we are trying to say is that, ‘Let’s just better the lives of every single person and make sure that everybody has an equal opportunity to achieve their goals.’ That’s why people come to this country in the first place.”

To Rojas, the “fear tactic” won’t be successful.

“My mom in her heart does not believe that Bernie Sanders is a socialist because she is so used to Republicans accusing Democrats of being socialists, so she doesn’t believe it even though he says he is a socialist,” he said. “You know, my mother is from Nicaragua. She lived through the civil war there in the 1980s. She just doesn’t buy it from Republicans anymore.”

During the first round of debates last month in Miami, various candidates’ attempts at Spanish raised eyebrows. That was absent in last week’s debates.

“I don’t want them to speak Spanish,” Rojas said. “A lot of the people in the Democratic Party don’t speak Spanish, and they feel alienated when they hear that. I wouldn’t want somebody whose only language is English to feel alienated.”

Yoshika disagreed.

“They want to be inclusive. They understand that there are many voters whose first language is Spanish, and this party is about bringing together a broader coalition,” he said. “There is a line when you’re pandering and it’s a thin line. But I think it’s a good thing when they say, ‘I know you are out there.’ Even if it’s just a phrase, a sentence. This is for you.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a bilingual reporter at the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He is also a Report for America corps member. Lautaro Grinspan es un periodista bilingüe de el Nuevo Herald y del Miami Herald, así como miembro de Report for America.