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Salazar Goes After Shalala In First Debate Of 27th District House Race

Donna Shalala squared off with Maria Elvira Salazar in the first debate in the 27th District House race

In an increasingly tight race for Florida's 27th Congressional District, Maria Elvira Salazar cast herself as an outsider and criticized Donna Shalala’s record during their first televised debate on Saturday, while Shalala touted her experience as an educator.

Shalala and Salazar disagreed on health care, immigration and their own qualifications to best represent a long-held Republican congressional seat in South Florida during the hour-long debate. 

In one testy exchange, Shalala—the Democratic nominee—demanded higher wages for workers and said she’s educated thousands of students and given many residents jobs as a president of the University of Miami.

“I’ve been all over this community,” she said. “I’ve built a world-class University in this community.”

But Salazar, a former television journalist and now the Republican nominee, responded by attacking Shalala’s history and repeatedly noting that janitors at the school went on a hunger strike for higher wages while she was president.

“If I had been in her shoes, there is no way that I could have slept knowing that there were more than 13 people on a hunger strike demanding to earn more than $7 per hour,” Salazar said. She added that Shalala lived at the University mansion “where her little dog had four beds.”

Shalala responded with a smile, said the janitors now have full benefits and added that the union behind the strike has endorsed her campaign.

The debate was taped on Wednesday and aired on Telemundo in Spanish on Saturday for a primarily Latino audience. It followed the release of a recent Mason Dixon -Telemundo 51 poll showing Salazar with a 44 to 42 percentage point lead against Shalala.

The poll, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points, was especially noteworthy given that Democrats once viewed the race as an easy win as they try to take control of the House of Representatives. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has held the seat for more than two decades. However, Hillary Clinton carried the district against Donald Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.

The debate also highlighted the language barrier Shalala faces in a district that includes parts of Miami and where 57 percent of voters are Latino. Shalala just began advertising on television in Spanish. And while Salazar and independent candidate Mayra Joli answered each question during the debate in Spanish, Shalala—who does not speak the language— wore an earpiece through which her opponents’ words were translated to English.

But despite an environment that seemed to favor her opponents, Shalala remained at ease throughout the debate.

She called for more affordable housing in the Miami area and reiterated her support for abortion. As a former Health and Human Services Secretary during all eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Shalala also praised the Affordable Care Act and criticized Gov. Rick Scott for failing to expand the government-funded program Medicaid in Florida.

Salazar disagreed, saying the “forces of the free market” should provide healthcare solutions, not the government.

Hear more about the candidates' thoughts on the Affordable Care Act.

On immigration, Shalala voiced support for a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and said Temporary Protected Status should extend to Venezuelans who have been affected by an economic crisis in their home country.

“The Republican Party has had majorities in both houses and the presidency and it has not been able to come up with an immigration bill,” she said. “That’s why the Democrats ought to be given an opportunity.”

Salazar echoed the need to give undocumented immigrants citizenship but said the border should first be secured.

Although she disagreed with Shalala on most other issues, the two candidates shared similar viewpoints on climate change and gun control.

Joli, a Pro-Trump candidate who received just one percent of the vote in the recent poll, has agreed with the president on most policy positions. But Salazar has cast herself as a moderate with “no ties to Washington” or Trump. 

On Wednesday, the former broadcaster said climate change is affecting South Florida with rising sea levels and beach erosion. She called on the federal government to help address such issues.

We must “provide incentives to those corporations that have the technology to carry out research and to see how we can solve this,” she said.

Salazar also supports a ban on assault weapons and said she won’t accept political donations from the National Rifle Association. And in response to a question regarding the Parkland school shooting, she said schools should have trauma centers where teachers can give students mental health aid.

But in one of her rare direct attacks on Salazar, Shalala called the trauma centers Band-Aids and reverted to her experience with healthcare. 

"There was no seamless service" to treat the shooter before the massacre occurred because "the health care system is so fragmented," she said. "Take that person and counsel them and give them proper services all throughout their life as long as it's necessary."  

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