Members of Congress denied entry to the Homestead child detention center
If politics in 2019 were anything close to normal, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s first six months in office would be considered a rousing success for a freshman member of Congress.
The Miami Democrat successfully leveraged relationships to secure a spot — over more experienced colleagues — on a committee that addressed her biggest campaign promises. She’s the first member of Congress born in South America, part of a coterie of new lawmakers who’ve made the House of Representatives more diverse than ever. And she’s put herself in a strong position for reelection, avoiding messaging mistakes and raising the kind of money that could scare off serious Republican challengers in 2020.
But 2019 isn’t normal.
The work of the House Judiciary Committee, where Mucarsel-Powell serves as part of a select group of lawmakers responsible for drafting gun control legislation and expanding pathways to citizenship for immigrants, is now ground zero for initiating impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. And a number of 2020 Democratic contenders are embracing leftist policies that could make it harder for Mucarsel-Powell to win reelection in a South Florida community that’s wary of state-controlled institutions in Venezuela and Cuba.
Mucarsel-Powell is confident that her work is being noticed, and she’s generated headlines through her continued opposition to the Homestead detention center in her district, the nation’s largest detention center for unaccompanied immigrant children.
“Having worked in academia for such a long time, you understand the process and politics of leadership very closely,” Mucarsel-Powell said of her approach during her first six months as an elected official. “For you to get something done in academia, it’s similar to how the House of Representatives works, it’s the same thing in working with leadership and working with the Speaker very early on.”
Mucarsel-Powell became close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the same time that other candidates in hard-fought races were distancing themselves from her. Now, Pelosi’s in charge, and Mucarsel-Powell was able to get a spot on the Judiciary Committee despite her junior status and lack of formal law experience.
“I never met the Speaker or had a one-on-one conversation with her until she came to Miami,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Her commitment was that she will work on gun reform. I’m not scared to stand with the people when their values align with mine and they’re in it for the right reasons. I’m sure the fact that I was with her early on helped in her listening to my requests.”
But now, as one of 24 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Mucarsel-Powell must grapple with the impeachment question, the first step for an inquiry into Trump’s potential obstruction of the Russia investigation.
Half of the Democrats on the committee are now publicly in favor of beginning impeachment proceedings, but Mucarsel-Powell is not among them. She’s backing Pelosi’s approach, which is to continue ongoing investigations and push central figures like former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify publicly. The impeachment debate is framed around the 2020 election, as House Democrats weigh their constitutional power to hold Trump accountable for potential obstruction of justice with the political consequences of initiating a process that is likely to go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I think she’s doing a good job and she’s keeping her focus on bread-and-butter local issues, which is what you do in a swingy district that you won by a relatively small margin,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami-based Democratic strategist. “If impeachment proceedings come to pass, Mucarsel-Powell is in a good position to solidify her bona fides on the left. If it doesn’t, she isn’t going to suffer the political consequences.”
Mucarsel-Powell spent her first months in office helping to pass a background check bill and working to pass the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that couldn’t get passed with conservative modifications under the GOP-controlled House last year despite efforts by Miami Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Democrats are poised to pass a bill on Wednesday. She’s also continuously brought up the Trump administration’s attempts to dismantle portions of Obamacare in the courts, while avoiding the call to implement “Medicare for All” like a dozen of the Democrats running for president.
“I don’t get the sense that she’s veered too far from the center. In a district like the one she has there’s no reason to,” said Justin Sayfie, Republican strategist and lobbyist. “She’s a freshman member and so other freshman members have been much more vocal and she’s playing it much more politically safe. She’s been very vocal on wanting to support the opposition in Venezuela. That’s kind of a no-brainer for her district and area she represents.”
And while other first-year members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dominate headlines and attempt to steer the party in a leftward direction, Mucarsel-Powell isn’t taking the approach of making public enemies to advance her agenda, in the way that Curbelo did when attempting to win in a Democratic-leaning district. She’s supportive of the Green New Deal, a sweeping set of proposals to address climate change, but isn’t bashing Democrats who don’t support the plan.
She also wants the Democrats running for president to speak directly to voters like her, who weren’t born in the U.S. and in many cases left repressive governments. Trump and his surrogates have made South Florida a top 2020 priority, increasing financial pressures against leftist regimes in Venezuela and Cuba and making frequent campaign appearances.
“A lot of people came here fleeing governments that are filled with corruption and violence and they don’t have a lot of trust in institutions,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “They need to understand what is happening in Venezuela and Colombia. I do think a lot of the Democratic candidates don’t understand the makeup of South Florida. There’s not this party loyalty that they may find in other areas.”
And for the next 18 months, Mucarsel-Powell is planning to continue her work on healthcare, Venezuela and gun control, even though that work may not generate the same kind of national attention some of her colleagues get.
“The reason why people were surprised when I first filed to run is because no one knew who I was, because I worked behind the scenes to get things done,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “It serves no purpose to go against leadership. If something comes up that I disagree with, I’ll make my voice heard.”