At some debates, it’s hard to tell one candidate from another. This was one of them.
“We all have similar platforms, but we approach problems differently,” said Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, one of the five Democratic candidates who debated each other Thursday night in the race for Florida’s 27th Congressional District, a seat now held by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican who is retiring.
While some expected frequent attacks to be levied against frontrunner Donna Shalala, the former University of Miami president, attacks among the candidates were infrequent throughout the night.
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The most substantial challenges throughout the evening came from state Rep. David Richardson, who represents Miami Beach and Little Havana. His critiques were leveled at Shalala.
At one point during a series of questions about immigration, he said Shalala had contributed to the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” Policy, a 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, while she was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton. Michael Putney, the moderator for the debate, said Shalala had not contributed to the policy.
Hours later, Richardson challenged Shalala to submit her financial disclosure statements — forms the public can use to evaluate potential conflicts of interest. Richardson noted that she has delayed sending the two documents two times. He emphasized that she may take an extra extension of 30 days to turn in the forms, the latest time that she would be allowed to turn them in.
Shalala fought back, saying Richardson had also taken two extensions in sending in the documents, which he acknowledged to be true.
Of the five candidates, only three had significant visible representation at the debate: Shalala, Richardson and Matt Haggman, a former reporter for the Miami Herald and most recently, the Knight Foundation program director for Miami. Of the five candidates, only those three left campaign materials on the church pews. Rosen Gonzalez. a Miami Beach commissioner, and Michael A. Hepburn, a former University of Miami academic adviser, had fewer visible pockets of support.
For a large portion of the debate, the candidates answered questions by holding up sheets of paper with the words “Yes,” “No,” or “It’s complicated.”
All supported free public education. All supported expanded renewable energy efforts. All support a pathway to citizenship to undocumented people living in the United States.
At certain points, only candidates who held up the “It’s Complicated,” sign when responding to an issue were given time to explain themselves. This led to Shalala holding up the “It’s Complicated” sign to explain that she had helped sponsor a pro-climate change bill. This drew a dismayed reaction from Richardson, who took issue with the misuse of the sign.
On the question of what to do with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, candidates varied slightly. Haggman spoke first, saying unequivocally that ICE should be abolished.
“It’s undermining American values and tearing families apart,” he said. “ICE is now rounding up people who are trying to make a modest day’s living.”
While Shalala said that ICE has “produced policies that are unacceptable to Americans,” she said there were 20,000 ICE employees and that she did not want to see that many people lose their jobs. Richardson agreed that ICE should be restructured and not necessarily dismantled.
There was also some disagreement about term limits. Shalala disagreed with setting congressional term limits, stating that setting term limits just increases power of lobbyists and staff people, who do not have term limits. Haggman and Richardson both said that there should be term limits, but that an eight-year term limit would be too short. Richardson suggested 12 years as a potential limit.
At the end of the debate, things began to devolve. First, Putney, a political reporter with WPLG-Channel 10, left the debate.
“I have to go to my paying job,” he said, excusing himself.
Later, Rosen Gonzalez whipped out a small potted palm tree and placed it on the table where all the candidates sat, saying that as representative, Shalala would sell out public lands.
Finally, Hepburn, who is not expected to be a major player in the election, strapped on gray Everlast boxing gloves, making a show of his closing statement that he surely hopes will increase his name recognition.
“I am a fighter,” he said, microphone nestled in a boxing glove.