The candidates gather for a photo op prior to the forum.

Democratic presidential candidates debate issues ranging from health care and education to immigration reform
UM hosts historic forum

With the nation’s growing Hispanic population expected to play a key role in deciding the outcome of the 2008 election, seven of the Democratic presidential candidates converged on the University of Miami campus Sunday evening, addressing issues of interest to the Latino community in a first-of-its-kind forum broadcast in Spanish.

The 90-minute forum, held inside UM’s BankUnited Center, was televised nationally in prime time on Univision, the most watched Spanish-language television network in the nation.

Democratic candidates Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Chris Dodd, Senator John Edwards, Senator Mike Gravel, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Senator Barack Obama, and Governor Bill Richardson took part in the form.

With an audience of 3,500 looking on, the candidates spoke on a wide range of issues, responding to questions on the war in Iraq,  foreign policy, healthcare, education, and immigration reform.

For the University of Miami, the forum was comparable in importance with the presidential debate the institution hosted three years ago.

The candidates gather for a photo op prior to the forum.

“This event proclaims our burgeoning status as a major American institution of research, learning, and enlightenment,” said UM President Donna E. Shalala. “It recognizes that we are the epitome of the exhilarating mixture of cultures and customs that make our nation so special.”

The forum also offered UM students, more than 1,500 of whom attended the forum, the opportunity to engage in the political process at almost every level. Students attended debate watch parties held at two locations on the Coral Gables campus. More than 120 students volunteered for the forum, greeting the hordes of reporters, photographers, and television camera crews who poured into the media filing room.

For senior biology major Christa Belgrave, the experience of volunteering for the event will stick with her for the rest of her life.

“How many students are able t-o say they saw history in the making? I’m excited to be a part of this. It’s not only a great way to top off my four years here but it also shows that my generation is taking initiative when it comes to being involved.”

Approximately 1,500 UM students attended the event.

Edie Stark-Menneg, a junior psychology major who volunteered in the media filing room inside the  BankUnited Center, put the event in a historical perspective, noting the forum’s female, African-American, and Hispanic presidential candidates. “I’m taking a creative writing course this semester, so I’m sure I’ll be able to use this experience in some way on one my assignments,” she said.

Sophomore Kevin Patel, a premed major from India, called the forum “the biggest volunteer opportunity” of his UM career. He is taking an international studies course this semester and hopes he’ll have the chance to use the experience as part of a class assignment.

Four UM students—third-year law student Preston Clark, senior Alexander Correa, junior Shajena Erazo, and junior Andrea Linares—were interviewed on stage by Univision after the forum ended.

“The debate was really a recognition of the growing importance of the Hispanic population in the United States as voters,” said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, a think tank examining critical issues affecting countries in the Western Hemisphere.

President Donna E. Shalala chats with Univision news anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, who moderated the forum.

Indeed, more than 16 million Hispanics will be eligible to cast ballots in next year’s election. Addressing issues of concern to this growing segment of the population is crucial, experts agree, but it doesn’t mean Hispanics don’t follow issues that are of importance to the general population.
“There are interests that tend to predominate in different ethnic groups,” says George Gonzalez, associate professor of political science in the School of Business Administration. “But predominately, political and economic interests transcend ethnicity.”

For UM’s BankUnited Center, it was another stellar affair the venue could add to its growing list of powerhouse events.

For the seven candidates who took part, the historic forum could play a key role in informing Hispanic voters of the candidates’ stances on issues. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group, representing nearly half the total population growth between 2002 and 2006.

As such, the candidates addressed several issues of importance to that segment of the U.S. population, with the Iraq war, health care, and education all being addressed. But it was immigration reform that took the spotlight, with all of the Democratic candidates saying that they would address the issue in their first year if elected.

In Spin Alley, following the forum, the candidates comment on their policy positions.

More U.S. border security, a stronger relationship with Mexico and Central America, initiating a pathway to legalization, and getting at the underlying causes of immigration, including deteriorating economic conditions in the region, were among some of the strategies candidates said they would push for.

Candidates addressed the nation’s health care crisis, calling for universal health coverage. With one out three Hispanics in the nation dropping out of high school, they advocated measures to help curb that statistic, including boosting early childhood preparation, initiating more after school programs, and renovating deterioting school buildings.

Univision Network news anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas moderated the forum.

Click here to view the press release. (Presione aquí para la versión en español)