Banyai, Donalds meet in first general election debate

Congressional candidates Republican Byron Donalds and Democrat Cindy Banyai debate at Cantina 109 in Fort Myers on Friday, Aug. 21. (Image: author via Facebook)

Aug. 24, 2020 by David Silverberg

It was raucous, impassioned, informal and there was barely any advance notice, but on Friday, Aug. 21, 19th Congressional District candidates Democrat Cindy Banyai and Republican Byron Donalds held their first debate.

The candidates met in person at Cantina 109, a Mexican restaurant and bar in the Gulf Coast Town Center before a live audience. The moderator was Brendon Leslie, anchor of Beach Talk Radio, a podcasting station that operates weekly from Fort Myers Beach over Facebook.

The debate, which was streamed live, was loosely structured, with the moderator drawing on questions from the audience and electronic feeds. Whichever candidate raised his or her hand first was the first to speak. The candidates had three minutes to make statements, followed by one-minute replies. The entire debate ran 1 hour and 47 minutes with breaks and covered an extensive array of topics.

In summary, both candidates held their ideological grounds, and differed deeply

A key debate point was the role of government.

“I’m working to make a Southwest Florida where the sun shines on everyone,” said Banyai, who explained that she was “bringing people into the process, the process of governance, the process of budgeting and making sure the voice of ordinary people is just as listened to and valued as much as those of politicians and CEOs.”

Donalds made a major point of limiting the role of government and he cited mask mandates, which he opposes, as a prime example.

“If you look at mask mandates that have been happening around Southwest Florida, I have been at virtually every county commission meeting that has existed,” he said.

“I tell them I have a stand that I am concerned for our citizens. I get that. I totally do,” he continued. “But does a city government have the legal authority to tell citizens that they must wear a mask? The answer is no—they have never been granted the legal authority. I understand it’s a pandemic. I know that citizens are concerned for their health and they should. But that’s not the question. The question is should government officials be allowed to create powers out of thin air because if you give government officials the ability to do it in a crisis they will keep that ability any other time that is convenient. That is not respective [sic] of American government.”

Both candidates cited the economy as a top issue, with Banyai saying that in Congress she would fight for investment and stimulus and jobs programs to benefit Southwest Florida and would support aid for small businesses.

Donalds also named support of the economy as a key issue but his solution relied on President Donald Trump: “Our next president will be Trump,” he said, and “his tax code will bring back jobs from overseas and we’ll have jobs in America.”

On the pandemic, Donalds said he was encouraged by the number of people recovering from coronavirus. Banyai stated that while she was encouraged, she was still upset by the 170,000 Florida cases that she called “a testament to the failure” of the federal and state government to respond.

In response to a question about the Second Amendment, Banyai said she supports it and “I am not touching the Second Amendment. I’m here to protect the Constitution in all its parts. I’m also a Moms Demand Action advocate.”

She added: “We can be here and talk about the Constitution but I am also here to protect women and families from wanton violence. I would like to see things like bump stocks eliminated, high-power weapons not brought to market, because we don’t need them. Let’s keep them in the hands of people who can use them, like our military.” She also expressed concern about weapons in the hands of people committing acts of domestic violence.


Ultimately, what may have been most important about the debate was the fact that it took place at all, demonstrating that both candidates are willing to submit their ideas to each other and the public.

This is a stark contrast from 2018 when Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) simply told the League of Women Voters that he had “no future availability” to debate and “everyone knows my positions”—and Southwest Florida civic groups and media accepted this at face value.

This election is already clearly different and there will likely be more formal debates in the future. It’s unclear whether this debate reached much further than the people in the cantina and the few who may have tuned in on Facebook.

The candidates certainly didn’t convince each other of anything although there were areas of agreement on the need to assist the economy and protect the environment and water—although here Donalds credited Trump with funding Everglades restoration when in fact the President initially shortchanged it and only relented under pressure from the entire Florida congressional delegation.

The divide here, as in so many other things, is President Donald Trump. Donalds staunchly and repeatedly praised Trump and his works.

In her closing remarks, Banyai put this in perspective: “We have a choice here between someone who has pledged their undying loyalty to the community and to the people and does not have any financial backers who are going to sway that and somebody who wants to hitch their wagon to Donald Trump and all his failures. So that is what is really on the ballot here. Are you going to help the people of Southwest Florida or do you want more crises after crises after crises? I am ready to fight for ordinary people,” she said.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg


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