Debbie Mucarsel-Powell volunteered for John Kerry’s Florida campaign and hosted house parties to rally support for Barack Obama. In 2016, she became a candidate herself, losing a bid to oust a Republican state senator.
That the Democrat is back in the running — this time challenging a Republican member of the U.S. House — comes as little surprise to those who know her.
“When I finally decided to run for Congress, my friends were like, ‘We were waiting for you to finally do something like this,’ “ she said in an interview in her campaign office as volunteers manned the phones. “I’ve always want to get involved.”
A native of Ecuador, who moved to South Florida in 1996, Mucarsel-Powell, 47, has done fundraising for community groups, including the Zoo Miami Foundation and the Coral Restoration Foundation. She also worked at Florida International University, where she raised money for healthcare programs. Politics has long been a passion.
“People think I’m some random woman Democrat who decided to run in the ‘Year of the Woman,’ “ Mucarsel-Powell said, referring to the record number of women running for office in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. “But I’ve been doing this work for 20 years.”
Though Mucarsel-Powell is not widely known, Democrats were pleased with her decision to challenge Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, in one of the districts that Democrats are hoping to flip. She’s picked up support from EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice candidates, along with an endorsement from former Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, who included her in a list of candidates his office says are in “close races in which his support would make a meaningful difference.”
Though Curbelo has outraised her, she’s been aggressive: She and her Democratic allies since mid-September have been up repeatedly with bilingual television and radio advertising. The push has the ability to change the momentum in the race, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report changing the rating on the race from leaning Republican to a toss-up.
Unlike the other two Democrats looking to unseat Republicans from largely Hispanic Miami districts, Mucarsel-Powell is a native Spanish speaker. At a recent rally in support of union workers at the airport, she opened in Spanish, but closed in English.
She does face a different challenge: Curbelo represents a Democratic-leaning district and has sought to position himself as a political moderate who can work with both sides and appeal to all: He didn’t vote for President Trump, frequently calls Trump out on Twitter and supports a carbon tax to tackle climate change.
Hillary Clinton won the district by more than 16 percentage points over Trump in 2016. But Curbelo won by 12 points the same year, suggesting voters in the Miami-to-Key West district are willing to split their tickets between Democrats and Republicans.
Yet Mucarsel-Powell charges that Curbelo is more of a partisan Republican than he’d like voters to believe.
“He is not who he says he is,” she said. “My district rejected Trump and Trump’s agenda from the very beginning and they were expecting a congressman who was going to represent them and fight for them. What we’ve seen from Curbelo is voting with Trump most of the time.”
According to the political website FiveThirtyEight’s vote-tracking database, Curbelo has voted in line with Trump 83 percent of the time. Key to the focus of Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign, he voted in favor of the Republican effort to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
“When I saw that Carlos was doing nothing to stand up to this administration, when I saw how Carlos was voting against our interests time and time again, when we needed him the most, that’s when I decided to run,” she said.
Mucarsel-Powell has said she would support Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker if Democrats take back control of the House — a position other Democrats have sidestepped as Republicans have sought to tie Democrats to the polarizing House minority leader. Mucarsel-Powell said Pelosi “has shown me time and time again” that she supports her priorities, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented young immigrants known as “Dreamers” and healthcare.
“I’m a hard-core Democrat in my values, but I have a lot of Republican friends who respect me because I’m honest and they know where I stand, but at the same time we can find commonalities,” she said. In 2016, encouraged by Ruth’s List, which helps to elect pro-choice women in Florida, Mucarsel-Powell challenged state Sen. Anitere Flores, a veteran Republican lawmaker. Flores, running for the first time in a redrawn Senate district where she was unknown to many voters, won by a comfortable margin — 54 to 46 percent. But Mucarsel-Powell’s performance forced Flores to take her seriously. Flores ended up raising $1.3 million, more than any other legislative candidate in the state.
And despite the loss, Mucarsel-Powell made an impression on local Democratic operatives, who felt she credibly defended Democratic priorities, including abortion rights, the environment and gun control.
Mucarsel-Powell was born in Ecuador, where she lived until she was 14. That’s when she, her mother and three sisters moved to Southern California. She said the experience of living in the U.S. and seeing better opportunities for her mother drew her to want to work in government or with the community.
“I was always very passionate about being involved, helping people in the community because I was very grateful for the opportunity I got when I came here,” she said.
She attended Pitzer College, a private liberal arts school in California, where she studied political science. She was 24 and earning a master’s degree in international political economy at Claremont Graduate University in California, when she got a call in class: Her father had been shot to death in Ecuador.
She backs increased gun control and featured her father’s death in a campaign ad that ran in March during the March For Our Lives, the nationwide demonstration to demand an end to gun violence, spurred by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“In Congress, I won’t rest until there’s real change that keeps our families, our neighborhoods, and our schools safe,” she said in the ad. “I owe that to everyone who has lost someone to gun violence.”
Mucarsel-Powell moved to Florida in 1996, following a sister who had moved here. Now married to attorney Robert Powell, she has a stepdaughter, a 10-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son.
Mucarsel-Powell lives in Pinecrest, which is outside the 26th Congressional District, which stretches from Westchester to Key West. She rents property in the Florida Keys, she said. Curbelo lives about a mile from the district’s boundaries in West Kendall. Members of Congress are not required to live in their districts.
It’s Mucarsel-Powell’s husband’s work that has drawn the sharpest attacks from Curbelo and Republicans: They’ve run negative ads seeking to tie Mucarsel-Powell to a Ukrainian oligarch, who is accused of ordering contract killings and had partial ownership of companies at which Mucarsel-Powell’s husband worked as general counsel. A Curbelo spokeswoman accused Mucarsel-Powell of being “subsidized” by the Ukrainian businessman, Igor Kolomoisky.
Powell has said he never “worked for, represented, answered to, or received any payment from Mr. Kolomoisky at any time,” though court filings show that Kolomoisky at different times has owned, directly or indirectly, some of the companies that Powell represented.
Mucarsel-Powell says she’s the candidate and the ads are sexist.
“I’m the one running for Congress, nobody else,” she said of the swipes at her husband. “Really? I’ve worked since the age of 15 and I’m being subsidized by my husband?”
Mucarsel-Powell’s former colleagues describe a dedicated, innovative colleague who improved the not-for-profits that she worked with.
Glenn Kaufhold, who worked with Mucarsel-Powell at Florida International University, said he was impressed enough that after he left he hired her to help him at the Miami Dade College Foundation.
“She’s very big picture,” said Kaufhold, who now runs his own firm, GKollaborative. “A lot of people are great fundraisers, but they’re not as big on the strategy and what comes next. When I talk to people about fundraisers in town I think of Debbie as one of the smartest. People have asked and I’ve had to tell them, ‘The best person in town is running for Congress!’ “
Likewise, Mucarsel-Powell was a critical addition at the Coral Restoration Foundation, said Pam Hughes, who overlapped with Mucarsel-Powell at the nonprofit that creates offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral..
“It was a very small foundation, there were just two of us and hadn’t done any kind of development, fundraising work,” Hughes said. “She was very concerned about making sure we did it the right way. She was looking out for the foundation.”
Mucarsel-Powell worked at Florida International University, starting as a director of development and rising to an associate vice president of advancement and alumni affairs. Her personnel file shows she was well-regarded at the school.
Mucarsel-Powell arrived at the school as it needed to raise money for a variety of priorities, said Divina Grossman, a former dean in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences.
“There was very significant growth in our fundraising efforts, very much attributed to her leadership, working with me and the team,” Grossman said. “She’s eternally optimistic and knows how to mobilize a group toward a goal.”