Sept. 29, 2020 by David Silverberg
Southwest Florida congressional candidates Democrat Cindy Banyai and Republican Byron Donalds traded jabs last night, Sept. 28, in a broadcast debate that was civilized and substantive—a rarity in the age of President Donald Trump.
While neither candidate landed a knockout blow, Banyai hammered Donalds for his connection to and protection of Trump’s policies and approach.
This was particularly in evidence when it came to taxes.
“We should close loopholes, much as [those] we’re seeing with our president, Donald Trump having paid only $750 for the past two years in taxes,” she said. “That is unbelievable and unacceptable in a fair and just country.”
Both candidates are running for the seat in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island.
The hour-long debate was conducted without an audience in the studio of public media station WGCU on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. Reporters used questions previously submitted by the public. It can be seen in its entirety on the WGCU Facebook page.
WGCU sponsored the debate along with the Gannett Company newspapers, the News-Press of Fort Myers and the Naples Daily News of Naples. The candidates were questioned by Amy Bennett Williams, a reporter for the News-Press, and John Davis, a WGCU reporter and assistant news director. Julie Glenn, WGCU news director, moderated. Questions had been submitted by the public.
The candidates took starkly different positions on a variety of issues but also agreed on some matters, chiefly the need for environmental protection.
Summaries of the candidates’ statements, in the order they were raised and the candidates’ responses, follow:
Mask mandates: Donalds opposed mask mandates, arguing that the choice of whether to wear a mask is up to the individual and not local government to impose. Banyai called mask wearing a patriotic duty and likened the power of local government to mandate masks to setting traffic rules and speed limits.
Pandemic response: Donalds praised Trump for his coronavirus response to date. Banyai called Trump’s response “the biggest failure in history” and said the nation needs to pull together to fight the disease the way the Taiwanese government responded to the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s.
Continuing the environmental work of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), the retiring congressman: Banyai called for coordinated action at the local, state and international levels to protect the environment and expressed support for the Florida Green New Deal. Donalds said science remains unsettled on the human role in climate change and warned that a Green New Deal would have a negative economic impact. He blamed the California wildfires on a failure to clean up forest floor brush.
Local environmental control: Donalds believed that environmental policies and regulations should be done at the state level. Banyai said that the state’s failure to act to protect the environment meant that local authority to establish environmental rulemaking was essential.
Steps to protect water purity: Banyai called for holding polluters accountable and supporting research on water quality like that done at the FGCU Water School. Donalds praised Trump’s and DeSantis’ actions to date.
Preventing oil exploitation off Florida’s shores: Both candidates supported continuing the current ban on oil exploitation in the Gulf of Mexico.
Land development: Both candidates called for responsible land use and federal support for conservation and local efforts to regulate land use. Donalds emphasized the need to protect property rights. While Banyai agreed that property rights need to be respected, she emphasized the public’s right to access common resources like beaches and called for participatory practices at the local level.
Taxes: Both candidates agreed on the need to simplify the tax code. Donalds is a supporter of a federal flat tax. Banyai called for closing loopholes and made the point that taxes not just an “input-output” form of financing, but a form of stakeholding in the government.
Balanced budget amendment: Banyai opposed a balanced budget amendment and called for policies and actions that would help people in need. Donalds favored a balanced budget amendment and said that it worked in Florida.
Education: Donalds said that “money should follow the child” and called for school choice. Banyai said that “public education is a public good and public dollars should remain in the public realm” and not be siphoned off by for-profit charter schools.
Affordable college education: Banyai called for investments to make public college education free. Donalds said that the government cannot “lend infinite money” for college education.
Amendment 2, raising the minimum wage: Donalds opposed it, Banyai supported it.
Attracting light industry and providing affordable housing: Both candidates expressed support for small business. Banyai said that Southwest Florida has a “donut economy” with small retail and service workers at the bottom and wealthy retirees at the top but without a healthy center. The local economy needs investment, grants and support for small business to fill in the middle, she said. Donalds called for diversifying the local economy in a sustainable way and maintaining a consistent business climate.
Extending the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP): Donalds supported extending PPP and blamed House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) for lack of progress in coming up with a second stimulus package. Banyai also supported extending PPP and a second package and blamed Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for lack of progress.
First, all concerned—the questioners, the moderator and the candidates—handled themselves with maturity and professionalism, which was a welcome relief. There were no insults or personal attacks, no emotionalism or melodrama, the time limits were respected and the candidates conducted a reasoned discussion that stuck to the issues. All are to be congratulated.
The debate was helped by not having a live audience to cheer or interrupt the dialogue.
The debate also marked a sea change from 2018 when Rep. Rooney simply refused to debate and his disdain was taken at face value by local media and civic groups, which didn’t challenge him.
All that said, the candidates’ policy differences were stark but unsurprising. Donalds is a Trumper and Banyai is a progressive. Nothing anyone said altered that reality.
From a progressive viewpoint (which is, after all, the viewpoint of The Paradise Progressive), Donalds’ praises of Donald Trump sounded absurd on their face and his Trumpism forced him into defending the indefensible.
He praised Trump’s coronavirus response, his support for environmental funding in Florida (which Trump initially shortchanged in 2019 and only relented after pressure from Florida officials), blamed the California wildfires on forest management practices (a Trump hallmark) rather than acknowledge the impact of climate change, lauded Trump’s environmental record (?!) and blamed Pelosi for the stalemate blocking new relief for people and businesses harmed by the pandemic. His longstanding opposition to local masking mandates echoes Trump’s opposition to protecting the American population from the coronavirus.
Donalds’ support for Trumpism overshadows and negates any more reasoned positions he may take on the limits of government authority and economic sustainability.
Banyai effectively riposted Donalds’ positions and did so emphatically and effectively. She had a good command of the facts, was well prepared and was an effective debater.
Neither candidate is likely to have swayed people whose minds are already made up. However, if undecided voters were watching, they got a very good sense of the two candidates and their strengths and positions.
The debate was particularly important for Banyai’s underdog campaign, giving her exposure that she does not otherwise get from paid advertising, in contrast to Donalds’ support from outside ideological super political action committees.
The true test of the results of the debate will be seen in the only poll that counts—the election.
Voting is now under way. Collier County sent out its mail-in ballots last week and as of this writing had received back over 4,000 ballots. Lee County is scheduled to send out its mail-in ballots today.
Liberty lives in light
©2020 by David Silverberg