When Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez walked inside the Homestead Detention Center last year during the height of the national controversy over the Trump administration’s family separation policy on immigration, he made a point of speaking to the children alone and in Spanish.
“What I found in that shelter — there was nothing going on there that would make me feel ashamed to be an American,” Gimenez, a Republican who is now running for the House of Representatives, said in a recent interview.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Gimenez’s opponent in the November election, had a very different experience.
“I visited the Homestead Detention Center multiple times, and each time it broke my heart,” said Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who currently holds the Miami District 26 congressional seat. “The facility felt very much like a prison built for child immigrants: high fences, guards, and constant monitoring.”
From immigration to gun control, Mucarsel-Powell and Gimenez view the world differently. But while Mucarsel-Powell’s beliefs on healthcare, climate change and foreign policy are well-known after two years in Congress, Gimenez — a career administrator occupying a non-partisan post — has spent relatively little time publicly discussing his priorities during his first-ever partisan campaign. In a 45-minute interview with the Miami Herald last week, about two months before the Nov. 3 election, he detailed his stances on a number of federal policy issues.
Gimenez, 66, said he won’t stray far from prevailing Republican policies such as opposing Obamacare, voting against gun control legislation or funding a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. But the two-term mayor with President Trump’s endorsement — who has presided over the county’s pandemic response to mixed reviews — said he’ll be focused most on the economy.
“I believe the No. 1 thing the country needs right now is the restoration of the economy,” Gimenez said, when asked what would be his top priority if elected. He cited cutting taxes as one way to help achieve that.
“We need sensible tax policy that incentivizes investment by the private sector,” Gimenez said, arguing that the post-COVID economy will depend on rapid job gains in the private sector. “I don’t believe the public sector is the place to seek employment.”
Mucarsel-Powell’s top priority if elected to a second term is similar. She cited the need “to get control of this pandemic with a clear and effective plan, so we can send our kids back to school, reopen our small businesses, and allow our tourism economy to rebound.”
Mucarsel-Powell, 49, is a one-term incumbent occupying a Democratic-leaning seat. Endorsed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, she’s been a reliable vote for her party’s leadership in Congress, though many ambitious bills she voted for had no prospect of becoming law with Republicans controlling the U.S. Senate.
The race is expected to be close, especially as Trump appears to be performing better with Latino voters in Miami-Dade than he did in 2016, and 67 percent of the congressional district’s eligible voters are Latino. Mucarsel-Powell has an advantage in cash to spend — $2.8 million to Gimenez’s $880,000 as of July 29 — but outside groups backing both candidates are expected to spend millions on TV ads.
But the two candidates are far apart when the topic is the now-dormant Homestead Detention Center. At its peak, Homestead was the largest detention center for migrant children in the country, with 3,200 beds, and began drawing national attention in 2018 when lawmakers were initially prohibited from visiting it. The facility mostly housed children who crossed the border unaccompanied, but a small number were separated from their parents at the border.
“While she was outside yelling and screaming, I was inside trying to help,” said Gimenez, a Cuban-American, who first visited the center in July 2019. “I was inside trying to make sure that those children were being treated correctly and that those children had a way to get out during hurricane season.”
Gimenez said he isn’t in favor of separating immigrant children from their families, but said that the Trump administration was forced to do so because existing detention facilities would have placed children and adults together.
“Should they be separated from their families? No,” Gimenez said. “Are there facilities built so they can be housed together? That might be a different question. Do you really want a bunch of kids with a bunch of adults that may not be their family members? I think that was a problem.”
While Gimenez characterized the policy as non-ideal but a necessity, Mucarsel-Powell — originally from Ecuador — called family separation “inhumane” and “a stain on our nation’s history.” She said Congress should phase out facilities like Homestead to reduce immigration court backlogs, hire more immigration judges and adequately fund “livable settings for children and their families who are waiting adjudication of their immigration or asylum status.”
“Separating a child from their family is never acceptable as an immigration policy,” said Mucarsel-Powell, who first visited the Homestead facility in February 2019. “Congress needs to ensure that federal funds are not spent on enforcing family separation, but are instead invested in real, humane border policies.”
While the the Homestead Detention Center has slipped from the national spotlight — it is mostly shuttered — the issue of healthcare has become more critical, especially in a district that has been part of a coronavirus hot spot for months.
Nearly 100,000 people in the 26th Congressional District are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the health insurance plan that overhauled individual health insurance markets and expanded Medicaid in most states, although not in Florida. Democrats spent millions on healthcare-related ads in the final weeks of Mucarsel-Powell’s successful 2018 campaign. In Florida, 1.9 million people signed up for health insurance through Obamacare in 2020, the highest number of any state in the federal marketplace.
Gimenez said he supports the Trump administration’s use of the courts to challenge Obamacare and if the courts overturn the law, he pledged to work on new legislation, though he didn’t offer specifics. Republicans have not offered an alternative insurance plan.
“I’m waiting for the Supreme Court to weigh in on it,” Gimenez said.
Though Gimenez didn’t say how he would revamp a law that Republicans have opposed for a decade, he did say he supports covering “individuals with preexisting conditions,” a position that is similar to Trump’s. The president hasn’t said how he plans to cover people with preexisting conditions if Obamacare is scrapped.
“I support private healthcare and employer-provided healthcare,” Gimenez said. “I am not going to be attacking the health system that provides healthcare for over 200 million Americans.”
Mucarsel-Powell wants to expand Obamacare, though she isn’t in favor of Medicare for all, a single-payer national health insurance program that would replace private health insurance.
“I support the Affordable Care Act and support expanding on it with a public option to make sure everyone has access,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “A public option will increase competition and lower premiums and, of course, people who already have health insurance should always be able to keep it.”
Unlike 2018, when Mucarsel-Powell and her Republican opponent, then-Rep. Carlos Curbelo, disagreed on healthcare but didn’t have drastically different stances on other major issues, the 2020 race is proving to show greater contrast between the two candidates on other hot-button topics including gun control and the environment.
In 2018, Everytown for Gun Safety, a major gun control group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, backed Curbelo after he introduced a bill to ban devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire like automatic weapons and suggested that an assault weapons ban should be “on the table.”
But Mucarsel-Powell got the endorsement this year. And Everytown plans to spend $60 million in the election nationwide. The incumbent congresswoman has sponsored multiple gun control bills and supports a ban on assault weapons, limiting magazine sizes and universal background checks.
Gimenez isn’t in favor of any of those policies.
“In terms of the bans on assault weapons and all, I support the Second Amendment right to bear arms,” Gimenez said.
And on climate — in a congressional district that might be the nation’s most vulnerable to sea level rise — Gimenez said he has no interest in taxing carbon emissions, one of the primary drivers of climate change.
“No, absolutely not,” Gimenez said, when asked if he supports any taxes on carbon, an idea that had been championed by Curbelo. “Who does it hurt? The poor and middle class.”
Gimenez did say that climate change is caused in part by humans but that the U.S. “has done a good job of mitigating our carbon output.” He blamed other countries, notably China and Russia, for contributing to the planet’s rising carbon emissions.
Mucarsel-Powell hasn’t explicitly endorsed a carbon tax, saying that her top priority is immediately rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, a decision that is made by the president. After that, she said, “let’s examine the options to reduce emissions even further.”
But both candidates agree on one local issue: they are against a proposal to build an $8 billion sea wall around Miami by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Initial plans released in February by the Corps called for walls as high as 13 feet to protect against rising seas, a proposal that would require the federal government to seize hundreds of properties.
Gimenez said Congress should spend more money researching climate mitigation and the effects of sea level rise. Mucarsel-Powell said she’s concerned that a seawall project would create winners and losers in Miami, where certain communities behind the wall would benefit while those outside the seawall could see their lives upended due to construction and uncertainty.
“The wall’s not something we’re going to be saying yes to in Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez said.
And on Latin America policy, the pair don’t differ as much on substance as they do style. Mucarsel-Powell supported the decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and voted for a bill that authorizes $400 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuela. Gimenez also supports the decision to recognize Guaidó.
Both candidates support Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans, a program that would give Venezuelan nationals in the U.S. the ability to live and work without the fear of deportation. Trump has declined to expand TPS even though Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has worsened during his administration.
But Gimenez criticized Mucarsel-Powell for skipping a vote on a resolution to condemn socialism offered by Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in February. Diaz-Balart attached the mostly symbolic resolution to an unrelated bill to ban e-cigarettes after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made comments that praised aspects of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Mucarsel-Powell said she didn’t vote because “House Republicans attempted to use an underhanded maneuver to derail an important public health bill to protect our children from a vaping epidemic.”
Gimenez calls Mucarsel-Powell too liberal for the district, and says she’s aligned with “The Squad,” a group of left-leaning, first-term congresswoman, a common GOP attack on Democrats running in competitive races across the country. He pointed to her membership in the House Progressive Caucus and also to her ranking for bi-partisanship — No. 409 out of 435 House members — by a Washington-based think-tank. The ranking is based on how often Republicans signed onto her bills and how often she signs onto Republican-led bills.
But the GOP’s determination to reclaim the District 26 seat from Mucarsel-Powell and the Democrats likely contributed to that low bipartisan ranking.
Back in January 2019, three Miami Democrats introduced legislation to address Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Two of the bills — sponsored by Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz — got Republican support. But no Republicans signed on to Mucarsel-Powell’s humanitarian aid bill despite supporting similar legislation in previous years — a factor that then caused her bipartisan rating to drop.
Three months later, all three bills passed the House on the same day, all without opposition from Republicans.