District 27 Candidates Square Off in Telemundo 51 Debate

The candidates for Florida’s hotly-contested 27th Congressional U.S. Senate seat squared off in their first televised debate hosted by Telemundo 51, clashing on everything from immigration and the economy to South Florida’s climate change and traffic congestion issues.

The exclusive debate will air at 1 p.m. Saturday in Spanish on Telemundo 51 and online on Telemundo51.com, and in English on NBC6.com. The one-hour debate was recorded at WSCV’s studios and moderated by Telemundo 51’s senior political reporter Marilys Llanos.

Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, broadcast journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, and immigration attorney Mayra Joli are running to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who announced her intention to retire after almost 30 years in Congress.

Throughout the debate, the Democrat Shala stressed the importance of her experience in Washington, while the Republican Salazar focused on her years of covering issues impacting the community. Joli, who is running as an independent, said she isn’t beholden to any political party or special interests.

The first question the candidates were asked about was Obamacare, a key issue affecting District 27, which has the highest number of people enrolled in Obamacare in the nation. Salazar said she believes parts of Obamacare are good but it’s still flawed, and argued that instead of a healthcare monopoly there should be competition to improve the service. Shalala said Obamacare is an excellent program that has helped working people afford comprehensive health care, but admitted that it needs some fixing. Joli said she’d like to eliminate Obamacare.

One of the more heated exchanges came when Salazar criticized Shalala’s leadership at the University of Miami. Shalala said she built “a world-class university” that created jobs in the community.

All three candidates agreed that steps need to be taken to deal with environmental issues in South Florida, including sea level rise and water quality issues. They also agreed that steps must be taken to deal with local traffic issues, though they didn’t necessarily agree with what exact steps should be taken.

Salazar and Shalala disagreed over the state of the economy and jobs. Salazar said the economy has been improving under Republican leadership and said South Florida needs to utilize federal programs to assist people with low incomes. Shalala disagreed about the economy, saying many people are working long hours and need more fair wages and benefits. Joli said Miami needs to bring back the aviation industry and factories, and needs to do a better job of promoting small businesses.

The most recent Mason-Dixon poll showed Salazar and Shalala nearly neck-and-neck in the district among 625 registered voters polled, with Salazar leading 44 to 42 percent. Joli had 1 percent and another 13 percent were undecided.