The November ballot will look the same for voters in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, but a lot has changed since Donna Shalala, a Democrat, defeated Republican Maria Elvira Salazar in 2018.
Last time, polling showed a neck-and-neck race between the former University of Miami president and the Spanish-language television personality. Democrats at the time were publicly critical of Shalala’s campaign, saying she hadn’t done a good job reaching voters.
Now there’s no talk about the race being a toss-up. Outside groups that spend millions on TV ads in competitive races aren’t bothering to put money behind either candidate, a sign that Shalala is expected to keep her seat.
Shalala, a one-term congresswoman, spent the last two years in the House of Representatives passing bills promoted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, holding town halls before the coronavirus pandemic ended them and being one of the leading anti-Bernie Sanders voices among Democrats when the socialist Vermont senator was leading in the Democratic presidential primary.
Salazar, the challenger for the second time, has spent the last two years working as an independent TV host and launching a new campaign for the same seat within a year of her first unsuccessful try. She’s posted campaign videos on her YouTube page next to interviews of public figures like Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on COVID-19 best practices.
But with Shalala favored to win the seat again, Salazar has started changing her messaging. In a recent TV interview with CBS4 Miami, she said, “if you like your Obamacare, you can keep it,” despite years of efforts by Republicans to repeal the law. She followed that with an assertion that Shalala’s “corruption” is the most important issue in the race — though she provided no evidence backing up the allegation.
Shalala, who worked as President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary and as UM’s president before winning elected office, said she is relying on her work in the district — which includes most of coastal Miami-Dade County from Miami Beach to Cutler Bay — to secure her seat. The district voted for Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.
“I have two years of keeping my promises. I don’t have to run on my resume,” Shalala said in a recent interview. “I can run on results. My leadership on healthcare, my leadership on children’s issues — I have delivered on the issues I identified during the campaign. Healthcare, the environment, gun safety and a set of international issues.”
Shalala was the second oldest first-year member of Congress in U.S. history when she beat a group of Democratic primary challengers running to her left in 2018 and eventually, in the general election, Salazar. For the most part, Shalala has voted in line with Democratic leadership on major legislation and said her hardest decision was breaking with her committee chair, a fellow Democrat, on surprise medical billing legislation, a bill that would change how insurance providers and hospitals bill patients. Shalala said the bill disproportionately benefited insurance companies at the expense of hospitals, a major employer in her district, and voted against the bill in committee.
But Pelosi hasn’t put the surprise medical billing legislation up for a final vote yet, so Shalala’s toughest moment on the House floor to date is when she decided not to vote on a symbolic resolution from Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart condemning Bernie Sanders’ comments praising aspects of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
The resolution was tacked on to her bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products. Shalala skipped the vote, prompting House Majority Leader to accuse Shalala of “hiding” from her constituents.
Mostly, though, she said her views have easily lined up with the Democrats who control the House.
“I have not had to make a tough decision on legislation,” Shalala said. “[With Democrats] in the majority, it’s been easy for me. This district is so easy to represent because whether they are Republicans or Democrats, they believe in the social safety net.”
But Salazar, a TV journalist whose first run for office was the 2018 contest, is trying to turn Shalala’s voting record into a negative, increasing her attacks on Shalala in recent weeks. During an interview with CBS4 Miami’s Jim DeFede she lobbed an accusation of Shalala’s “corruption” but failed to offer any specifics or proof.
Though she did not agree to an interview with the Miami Herald for this story, she told DeFede that she’s focusing on “jobs and the economy” in her campaign.
“I’m going to create out of my congressional office, if I’m elected to Congress, an employment center,” Salazar said to DeFede.
And while she’s campaigned in Florida’s 27th Congressional District since March of 2018, Salazar hasn’t taken a firm position on Obamacare, even though the district contains the most Obamacare recipients in the country, about 88,400 according to a 2017 estimate from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Shalala says there are now more than 100,000 Obamacare recipients in the district.
On healthcare in 2018, Salazar said she supported what she called “the forces of capitalism to invade and to penetrate the healthcare industry.” In 2020, her healthcare position appears to align more with Democrats who want to maintain and expand Obamacare.
“If like your Obamacare, you can keep your Obamacare,” Salazar said to CBS Miami. “There is no way that we can repeal Obamacare if we do not offer something better or equal. Obamacare needs to stay the way it us unless we can provide a better plan, a cheaper plan for more people.”
Shalala supports expanding Obamacare with a public option but does not support Medicare for all, a comprehensive national health program that would replace private insurance with a government-run system. If reelected, Shalala said she’s aiming to get a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee responsible for taxation and a likely legislative home to any major healthcare bills.
“That’s where I can have the biggest impact, particularly [on] Ways and Means, which will have the lead on bringing back the economy as well as the big healthcare programs,” she said. “That’s the most powerful committee in Congress and I’m going to try to take a shot at getting on it.”
Shalala’s already snagged one high-profile congressional assignment: she’s one of three lawmakers appointed to an oversight panel responsible for monitoring $500 billion in taxpayer money used for coronavirus-related payouts to large businesses. The two Republicans and two Democrats who lead the House and Senate were given one pick for the committee. Shalala was Pelosi’s choice, a signal that the Miami lawmaker remains close to the House Speaker, who is likely to remain in charge next year if Democrats maintain their majority.
Shalala’s appointment to the Congressional Oversight Commission led to scrutiny of her vast portfolio of stocks and assets. In response to criticism that she held a financial stake in companies that could apply for federal bailout money — a process she was charged with overseeing — Shalala said she sold most of her stock in 2019 to create a blind trust.
But Shalala never reported the stock sales — 556 in total — until April 2020. Federal law requires members of Congress to report all stock transactions within 45 days.
“I missed the deadline in the process of selling everything,” Shalala said. “I was doing that in 2019 and we didn’t get it finished and we should’ve disclosed the transaction. I take full responsibility for that.”
Shalala also failed to report two additional stock sales in April 2019 and March 2020 within 45 days, part of a deferred compensation agreement. Shalala’s spokesperson said the sloppy bookkeeping “came to light because her advisers she relies on weren’t monitoring this closely.”
Salazar said it was another instance of Shalala’s corruption.
“People are sick of politicians like Donna Shalala who think they are above the law,” Salazar tweeted. “Congress[women] are elected to go to Washington to represent the needs of their district not to line their own pockets. Donna Shalala has now broken the law several times.”
The first violation of the law triggered a $1,200 fine. The House Ethics Committee has yet to weigh in on the second violation.
But Salazar went further in her first TV ad, saying Shalala “broke the law to enrich herself off coronavirus.” The ad, which seeks to introduce Salazar to voters and attack Shalala, offers no evidence for the claim and doesn’t explain it.
Shalala’s campaign responded with a cease-and-desist letter to Salazar, calling the claim false and defamatory.
The campaign between Salazar and Shalala isn’t expected to be as competitive as the one between first-year Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. That race has triggered a total of $3.9 million in spending from outside groups.
But there’s only been about $92,000 spent on Shalala and Salazar’s race.
Both parties typically spend heavily on races they think are close.
There is one potential scenario where Salazar could make the race close: if Cuban-Americans, who polling shows are more likely to support Trump in 2020 than in 2016, turn out in droves in South Florida.
Shalala said Trump inevitably will do better among Cuban-American voters this time because when the last presidential election was held, Trump’s attacks on Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush — Republicans vying with him for the presidential nomination — were still fresh.
Also, Salazar is already a familiar face to many older Cuban voters in the district, from her long career in Spanish-language TV.
Even if there’s a swell of Cuban support for Trump in her district, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is likely to win it based on 2016, when Trump lost it by nearly 20 points. Shalala also said Biden will “put conditions on any discussions with the Cuban regime and he has a strong anti-regime position,” another point that will likely play well with Cuban-American voters.
Shalala said she’s worked on building name recognition and trust among Cuban voters in her district after her lack of fluency in Spanish during her 2018 campaign made some Democrats nervous in a district that is 72% Hispanic. She did 21 in-person town meetings that were translated into Spanish before the pandemic hit and continued holding virtual meetings over the last six months.
“The people in Little Havana know me. The people in senior centers know me,” said Shalala. “The guys in Little Havana that play dominoes, when I go there they yell ‘La Shalala.’ I’ve been able to reach the community and everything I’ve done has been in Spanish and English.”
Shalala said Cuba and Venezuela will continue to be a focus in Congress if she wins. She passed legislation that prevents the U.S. from selling crowd control gear like rubber bullets and riot shields to Venezuela and said she has “no respect” for the Cuban government.
“That regime has destroyed the country and destroyed lives,” Shalala said. “I’m more of a hardliner than most Democrats.”