Debbie Mucarsel-Powell often brought her family along for canvassing.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell often brought her family along for canvassing.
Photo by Michael Campina

Despite a Terrible Evening for Florida Democrats, Women Like Shalala and Murcasel-Powell Won Big

On the back deck of a waterfront seafood restaurant in Cutler Bay last night, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell took the microphone as a congresswoman-elect. With her husband and children by her side, the Ecuadorian-born immigrant and Democrat pledged to work every day to hold the Trump administration accountable.

“This election right here in District 26 is showing the world that the United States of America is strong in its diversity,” she said to cheers. “Because even though some have tried to divide us, together we have proved that our strength lies in our shared values and in our common desire to build a better future for our children.”

In one of the most closely watched races in the country, Mucarsel-Powell flipped a red seat blue by defeating two-term congressman Carlos Curbelo, who proclaimed himself a moderate despite almost always voting with Trump. It was one of two local congressional districts where a Democratic woman won a previously Republican seat: onetime University of Miami president Donna Shalala also managed a victory against former newswoman Maria Elvira Salazar in retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s District 27.

They’re among at least 95 women elected to the U.S. House yesterday, smashing the current record of 84 voting members and easily surpassing 1994’s Year of the Woman, according to USA Today. The vast majority are Democrats like Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala, helping the party claim control of the chamber.

But elsewhere in Florida, progressive women lost bids to unseat Republican incumbents in Congress. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart won a ninth term despite a tough challenge from former judge Mary Barzee Flores. Rep. Brian Mast was reelected over former Obama advisor Lauren Baer.

At the state level, female Democratic candidates flipped six seats from red to blue, by New Times’ count. Among them is Cindy Polo, a self-described stay-at-home mom from Miramar and underdog who snatched a victory over her better-funded Republican rival, Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Rick Tapia, in a district that’s long been held by the GOP.

Planned Parenthood director Anna Eskamani became the first Iranian-American elected to the state Legislature after defeating Republican businessman Stockton Reeves in the Orlando area. In Tampa, Jennifer Webb also made history, becoming the first married lesbian to hold high office in Florida by besting Republican Raymond Blacklidge in a previously GOP-held district.

The wave of progressive, female Democratic candidates didn’t come to the state Senate. At most, they’ll flip one seat: By Wednesday, a winner still hadn’t been declared in the race between incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Young and her Democratic challenger, state House minority leader Janet Cruz.

Record-setting numbers of women, most of them Democrats motivated by anti-Trump fervor, ran for office this year in what was dubbed the "Pink Wave." Florida saw a massive surge in women running for Congress, the state Senate, and the state House, which political scientists saw as a promising sign.

"If democracy is ruled by the people, then the people should be ruling — and not just half the people," said Louise Davidson-Schmich, a professor of political science at the University of Miami.

Outside a polling place in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday evening, 33-year-old Ashley Solomon said she was excited to vote for Emma Collum, a Democrat running to replace term-limited Republican George Moraitis.  She said she hoped this year's election would bring a more representative government.

"Female representation is important for little girls to see," she said. Collum lost to Republican Chip LaMarca.

Mucarsel-Powell, who first ran for state House in 2016 after being recruited by Ruth's List, said she was initially hesitant to seek public office. She questioned her experience and whether she was qualified. A Ruth's List representative changed her mind.

"One of the things that they told me at the time which I'm never going to forget was, any time you tell any guy to run for anything, whether they have experience or not, they always think they're ready. They always think they're qualified," she said. "And it's always the women that question it — they don't think they're ready, they don't think they have the experience. But women are usually not just qualified, but overqualified." 

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