On a cold afternoon in January, newly elected Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida made her way to a demonstration in support of stricter gun control on the grounds of the US Capitol.
“Oh my god. This is powerful,” she said in a quiet voice as she approached and saw a crowd gathering. “I’m going to cry.”
At the center of the crowd was a life-sized sculpture of Joaquin Oliver, a teenager killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, nearly a year ago..
For Mucarsel-Powell, gun violence is a personal issue.
More than two decades ago, her father, Guido, was shot and killed outside of his home in Ecuador, the country where she was born and grew up before immigrating to the United States as a teenager.
Mucarsel-Powell was 24 years old when one of her sisters called to tell her what had happened.
“It was a very traumatic experience. It changed all of us,” she said, reflecting on the loss of her father. “You never forget. You learn to live with it, but you don’t forget.”
When she won her election in the 2018 midterms, Mucarsel-Powell made history as the first Ecuadorian-American and the first South American immigrant elected to Congress.
Her life story and the district she represents in South Florida – a community on the front lines of rising sea levels – give her a unique set of first-hand experiences with a set of issues the new House Democratic majority is on track to spotlight: gun violence, immigration and climate change.
Mucarsel-Powell hopes that adding her voice to the contentious debate over those issues – and talking about policy through a lens of personal experience – she may be able to chip away at or help break the gridlock and partisan battle lines drawn around them.
The congresswoman was recently appointed to the powerful House Judiciary Committee and has said that she plans to use her post to work on gun violence prevention as well as immigration issues. She will have one of her first opportunities to do that this week when the committee holds a hearing on gun violence in America.
Moving from Ecuador to the United States: ‘If you look at my story … only in this country that happens’
Mucarsel-Powell’s parents divorced when she was very young, and she, her mother and her three sisters left Ecuador to move to the United States when she was 14.
Her mother, Himelda, didn’t speak English when she first arrived, so she worked during the day and took classes at night and on weekends to learn. Mucarsel-Powell lived with her mother and sisters in a one-room apartment. At the age of 15, she started working at a doughnut shop while her sisters worked a variety of jobs to help support the family.
“Even though at the beginning it was very difficult, we were welcomed in a way that I think we didn’t expect – and we called this place our home quickly after that,” she said.
“If you look at my story and the things that I was able to achieve … only in this country that happens,” she said. “Only in the United States of America, does an immigrant like myself get that chance.”
Mucarsel-Powell calls President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants “offensive” and plans to use her platform to counter the anti-immigrant message coming from the White House.
“He loves to talk about us as criminals and people that commit crimes, and it’s just not true,” she said, referring to the President. “Here I am, a member of Congress and an immigrant.”
“It’s highly offensive, to me, to my mom, to my sisters, to my kids because their mother is an immigrant,” she said. “We need to bring a different conversation to the table, and I’m glad that I am now here to talk about that. I am an immigrant and how dare you call us criminals.”
As a member of Congress, Mucarsel-Powell hopes to focus attention on what’s happening in Central and South American countries that prompts people to leave their homes and immigrate to the United States. And she wants to push Congress to come up with ways that the US can address that underlying situation in those countries through channels like diplomacy and humanitarian assistance.
“We can’t tackle immigration issues here if we are not looking at what is causing these problems in our neighboring countries in South America,” she said, adding that she wants to see the US invest “resources, energy and our diplomatic efforts into working closely with governments in Central and South America.”
Mucarsel-Powell has called for increased humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people as the country confronts political and economic crisis and has introduced legislation to deliver direct humanitarian aid.
A focus on preventing gun violence: ‘Congress talks and then they take no action’
Mucarsel-Powell says that she wasn’t initially planning to make gun violence a centerpiece of her run for Congress. But that changed about a month after she launched her campaign when a gunman killed more than 50 people at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
“Once again, I was reminded that Congress talks and then they take no action,” she said, recalling the aftermath of the shooting. “That’s when I decided that I had to share with everyone my personal story and to make the commitment that I was going to take action.”
She added, “When you meet others that have lost loved ones, that drives you to take action to do what you can so that no one has to go through what you went through.”
Mucarsel-Powell isn’t the only member of the House Democratic freshman class with a personal story about gun violence. Lucy McBath, who represents Georgia’s sixth congressional district, was a prominent gun control activist before she was elected to Congress. She lost her son Jordan Davis when he was shot and killed in 2012 at the age of 17.
“We’re becoming very close friends,” Mucarsel-Powell said of McBath, adding that “it was an emotional day” for both of them when former congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabby Giffords joined House Democrats in early January for the introduction of a universal background checks bill.
Mucarsel-Powell believes that the debate over gun violence changed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, which led to a wave of youth activism in support of stricter gun control.
“I think that really changed the conversation. People started listening. They created a movement,” she said. “These kids, young adults, are holding all of us accountable and they don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”
There is no indication that the Republican-controlled Senate will take up a background checks bill or other gun control legislation, but Mucarsel-Powell still believes that the new House Democratic majority – working alongside activists – can be effective in pressuring the Senate to take up legislation like the background checks bill and other measures.
“There are Republicans in the Senate that are paying attention to public sentiment,” she said, pointing out that public opinion polling shows that a majority of Americans support expanded background checks. “That’s the way that we’re going to get something passed in the Senate.”
“I am optimistic that it’s a different time for us as we talk about gun reform,” she added.
Pushing for action on climate change: ‘We have to be aggressive. There is no other way.’
Mucarsel-Powell flipped a congressional seat from red to blue, defeating incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
But the fact that she represents a swing district hasn’t stopped her from signing on in support of the “Green New Deal,” an ambitious policy proposal to tackle climate change championed by liberal activists and progressive freshman Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Florida’s 26th congressional district is surrounded by water with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other and includes low-lying areas like the Everglades that are on the frontlines of rising sea levels.
When asked if she believes her district is ready to embrace something that critics have described as radical, Mucarsel-Powell answers in a very matter-of-fact way.
“We are ground zero for the effects of climate change in my district,” she said, “We only have about 10 to 12 years to change the direction that we’re taking as it relates to climate change. We have to be bold. We have to be aggressive. There is no other way.”
Adjusting to life in Washington and raising a family while serving in Congress
Now, Mucarsel-Powell has to divide her time between South Florida, where her husband and children live, and Washington, DC.
The congresswoman said she considers herself “very lucky” to have found a furnished apartment that was less expensive than many of the apartments she saw on the market. But added, “It’s a basement. It’s dark and cold, and it’s hard to be here without my family.”
“I think the hardest thing is to be without the kids and my husband,” she said.
Mucarsel-Powell wants to talk about what it’s like to be a newly elected member of Congress with young kids and hopes that speaking openly about it will encourage more women to run for office.
She hopes that mothers who are a part of the new freshman class will “show other women who are mothers that there’s a way that we can do it.”
“We’re figuring it out for ourselves. We don’t know yet. We’re all trying to figure out what’s going to be the best schedule for each of us that works for our kids,” she said. “My kids are in elementary and middle school and they need me.”
Later in the afternoon on the day that she attended the gun control demonstration, Mucarsel-Powell was walking through the hallways of the Capitol and talking to an aide when her phone started to ring.
She stopped walking and stepped to the side to answer a FaceTime call from her 13-year-old son.
When the call ended, she walked back over and resumed an earlier conversation on how she planned to vote later in the day.
Mucarsel-Powell says that she has asked veteran lawmakers like Kathy Castor and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Grace Meng of New York for advice on serving in Congress while also raising kids.
She also says that the diverse class of newly elected women lawmakers are a support network for one another as they all get used to the realities of living in Washington and serving in Congress.
“We share lipstick. We talk about shoes. We share coats. There’s definitely a sense of sisterhood,” she said while sitting in front of a desk in her congressional office with a nameplate on it that spells out in all capital letters, “the future is female.”
“I’m the youngest of four sisters, and I have always had a lot of strong women around me. So this for me is very comforting,” she said, adding, “A lot of us are becoming good friends and helping each other and supporting each other – even when we disagree.”