Politics & Government

‘Angry’ Shalala says Trump motivated her run for Congress

Donna Shalala talks about her interest in running for Congress last month at the offices of Bendixen & Amandi International in Coconut Grove.
Donna Shalala talks about her interest in running for Congress last month at the offices of Bendixen & Amandi International in Coconut Grove. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Donna Shalala says she’s running for Congress because she’s angry.

At Trump. At his administration. At Congress.

On Wednesday, the former University of Miami president officially rolled out her campaign to succeed the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, releasing a video on her campaign website. She filed her statement of candidacy earlier this week, immediately becoming the favorite, though vulnerable, candidate to take a seat that many expect will flip to Democrats after decades of Republican control.

“Everything we fought for in our lives is under attack under the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’” Shalala said in the video. “Running for Congress was never in my plans. But now I realize everything we fought for is at risk.”

Shalala, 77, says the ruling party in America has frustrated her by undercutting education, the working class, the environment, civil rights for women, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. In an interview with the Miami Herald, she also said she’s disturbed by the lack of federal legislation following last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Frankly, what’s going on in Washington really made me angry,” said Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary under Bill Clinton in 1996, when Congress passed a law banning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence. “Elected officials ought to make decisions based on evidence. If you stop us from collecting the evidence, you’re doing real damage to making public policy.”

Shalala has never run for office before, and most recently served as head of the Clinton Foundation after retiring as president of the University of Miami, where she still teaches political science. Internal polling suggests it’s her race to lose, but she enters a crowded field of well-funded but lesser-known Democrats who’ve already shown that they’ll go after her record at the University of Miami, in the private sector and with the Clintons.

Though Shalala has stockpiled accolades and made many friends in South Florida and around the country, her opponents will have ammunition to use against her. Her disputes with unions at the University of Miami and her role in the university’s sale of protected pine rockland to a developer planning a Walmart are likely to come up. Her stints with Lennar and UnitedHealth Group, among other issues, already have been used in attacks.

But unfazed, Shalala doled out platitudes to her opponents during an interview about her candidacy, referring to the crowded field of well-funded state lawmakers, attorneys, businessmen and local commissioners as “wonderful people.” She said the district needs her experience.

“I know something about Congress. I know the issues cold. All the issues,” she said. “There’s so much going on in this country, particularly in Washington, that I believe this community needs to send to Washington a very strong advocate, someone who can hit the ground running.”

Mary Barzee Flores, Michael Hepburn, Matt Haggman, David Richardson, José Javier Rodríguez, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Ken Russell have been running their campaigns and fundraising for months. But having raised billions of dollars for the University of Miami during her 14 years there, it’s improbable to think that Shalala is entering the race without a hefty base of financial support.

Shalala said she’s still working to name her campaign finance chair, but has assembled a “Miami-based team,” including Bendixen & Amandi International for polling, Thom Mozloom from the M Network, and Craig T. Smith, a political strategist who worked for the Clinton White House and served as a senior advisor to the Ready for Hillary Super PAC. Her treasurer is Mark Diaz, former vice president of budget and planning for the University of Miami.

Shalala also has friends around the country, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently offered to help when the two met face to face.

What will be interesting to watch now that Shalala is officially in, following weeks of speculation that she’d run: whether anyone drops out of the race. The Florida Legislature may put pressure Wednesday on some local and state officials seeking the office, by sending a resign-to-run bill to Gov. Rick Scott that would force city, county and state politicians to resign their seats in order to qualify for a congressional run, making such a foray more risky.

Shalala’s polling showed her that her age and medical history — she suffered a stroke in 2015 — won’t count against her in the August primary. She also told the Miami Herald that she remains in touch with the new, more progressive direction of the party.

“I've been a progressive and an activist all my career,” Shalala said. “I’ve spent my career working with young people.”

Shalala, who lives in Coral Gables, said she’s going to give Miami a strong voice in Congress.

“The people in Washington don’t seem to properly represent Miami or the people in this country, they don’t seem to see the harm they're doing this country,” she said. “Real damage is being done by our elected officials in Washington. Frankly, we have to checkmate them.”

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