Congressional candidates contend for students’ votes

The two U.S. House of Representatives candidates for the new District 25 battled it out on the debate field last Tuesday with the Republican candidate, Diaz-Balart, coming out on top, according to the UM students who attended.

The nascent University of Miami organization Council for Democracy hosted a U.S. Congressional debate between the two candidates, Democrat Annie Betancourt and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, in the Bill Cosford Cinema.

District 25 was created this year as part of the congressional redistricting process that occurs every 10 years following the Census.

The district’s boundaries encompass a diverse range of areas that stretch from West Hialeah to Immokalee and down to Homestead. The Everglades covers a gigantic and invaluable area of the district.

Over 100 audience members watched as School of Communication Associate Dean Robert Hosmon moderated the hour-long debate.

After a round of four-minute opening speeches by Betancourt and Diaz-Balart, 10 UM students asked questions prepared by the Council for Democracy to which each candidate had two minutes to respond.

While questions ranged from the drive for war against Iraq to corporate responsibility in the wake of the year’s accounting scandals, the issue that most clearly divided the candidates coming into the debate was the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Republican Diaz-Balart likened giving free-trade money to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to aiding Saddam Hussein and called for a strengthening of the embargo.

Betancourt, a Democrat, called for taking a closer look at the “outdated and incoherent” policy, as several U.S. politicians and businesses have suggested in the past year.

“I think that Betancourt beat around the bush too much. Diaz-Balart was very specific about what he will do and specific in his reasons why,” said junior Lorri Neuman, who posed the question about the U.S. embargo on Cuba. “Betancourt didn’t have as much clout throughout the debate.”

Education was another key issue for both candidates. Diaz-Balart churned out a long list of statistics about the amounts of money he has worked to secure for public schools and local colleges, including $220 million for UM, a majority of which went toward the School of Medicine.

Betancourt promised to continue securing scholarships for students and opposed school vouchers that funnel public money into private schools.

While both candidates favor enhancing protection for the Everglades, Diaz-Balart mentioned protecting the Everglades in a way that is conducive to welcoming new people.

Betancourt expressed concern for a looming water shortage and the idea of “playing God” with allowing vast construction that encroaches the Everglades habitat in western areas in South Florida.

“I wholeheartedly believe that Annie Betancourt genuinely has a care for the protection of the Everglades without giving credence to developers just waiting to carve out more commercial centers,” junior Christian Wilson said.

In contrast to Betancourt’s first debate at UM last month against Democratic opponent Lorna Virgli, whom she defeated by a large majority in September, Betancourt was not hesitant to fire barbs at Diaz-Balart.

She slammed him on enabling “corporate greed” through his work in the Florida legislature and in an unclear attack on Diaz-Balart’s interest in hindering the selection of UM’s president during its search two years ago.

“She spends her time on personal attacks, but that’s okay. People are wise when they listen to debates; they will see that I offered positive results and not just proposals,” Diaz-Balart said after the debate.

Many students noted that Diaz-Balart was quick and energetic in his responses, especially when compared to the more sedate Betancourt.

After several rounds of debates with Diaz-Balart, Betancourt still feels inspired about her prospects of winning the District seat.

“It’s a fascinating race and I think that voter turnout will be a large factor in determining the outcome, because this seat belongs to the people,” Betancourt said. “I think we should send a ‘Cane to Congress.”