At 77, Donna Shalala got ticked off enough to run for Congress

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Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala attends a protest at the Miami International Airport on Oct. 2, 2018. (Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP)
Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala attends a protest at the Miami International Airport on Oct. 2, 2018. (Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP)

Donna Shalala decided to run for Congress back in February when, she says, “I turned on the television and just got pissed off.” She doesn’t even remember exactly “which of the endless parade of things” she was angry about on that particular day, but she is clear about who had made her angry. “The Republicans. And the president,” she said. “I wasn’t too happy with my own party, either. I thought, ‘Shoot, I can do this job.’”

And so began her campaign to represent Florida’s 27th Congressional District. If she wins — and polls suggest she is slightly ahead in what fellow Democrats had thought would be an easy race — she would be a first-term representative, one of 435 members of the House, after a career in which she was usually the person in charge: secretary of Health and Human Services, president of the University of Miami, president of the Clinton Foundation. At 77, she would be about 20 years older than the average House member in recent years and certainly one of the oldest freshmen representatives in a body where power accumulates with seniority.

None of this bothers her, she insisted during a telephone interview with Yahoo News. What all these job — the ones she has held and the one for which she’s running — have in common, she says, is the opportunity to dig deep into policy.

“I’m not starting over,” she said. “I’m a professor at heart. I love to be in the classroom, so I get the biggest classroom of all: the Democrats in the House.”

The district she aims to represent is one in flux. Encompassing Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, it has sent Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to Congress for nearly 20 years. But it has also trended more Democratic recently, voting for Hillary Clinton by 20 points in 2016.

Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring, has endorsed Shalala’s opponent, Maria Elvira Salazar, who, like Ros-Lehtinin, is of Cuban descent. Salazar is well known to the overwhelmingly Latino population of the district after years as a reporter and anchor at Telemundo, CNN en Español and Univision.

Maria Elvira Salazar speaks with members of the media outside a polling station in Coral Gables during the Florida primary election on Aug. 28, 2018. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Maria Elvira Salazar speaks with members of the media outside a polling station in Coral Gables during the Florida primary election on Aug. 28, 2018. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Shalala does not speak Spanish, though she has debated Salazar twice on Spanish-language stations, using an interpreter. She has spent more than a little time during the campaign pushing back on the suggestion that a Latino district should have Latino representation.

“We don’t make decisions in America by what your country of origin is and what language you speak,” she said. “We make decisions on the quality of the candidate.” Then she added: “Of course, if my grandfather had left Lebanon a few weeks earlier with his brothers, I’d have been born in Cuba too.” The cousins who were born in Cuba and who now live in Florida “have done ads for me,” she stressed.

Another thing she speaks of often is her energy — which is an oblique way of addressing any doubts about her age, which she prefers to cast as experience. Early in October, a reporter overheard 56-year-old Salazar asking, sotto voce, for a supporter to encourage friends to vote “because if not … la vieja” (the old lady) might win.

“I’m energized,” Shalala responded. “Everyone on my staff is exhausted, and I’m having the time of my life.” Also, she said, “it’s not wise to attack my age when one-third of the district is over 65…”

Most of what she talks about, though, isn’t age or ethnicity but Donald Trump. She proudly describes herself as “a friend of Hillary Clinton,” who came to Florida to fundraise for Shalala last week. She and the former first lady worked unsuccessfully to revamp the U.S. heath care system during Bill Clinton’s administration. Now, she says, Trump and the Republican Congress “have made war on the health care system of the United States.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joins Shalala during a campaign stop at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club on Oct. 24, 2018. (Photo: Emily Michot/Miami Herald via AP)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joins Shalala during a campaign stop at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club on Oct. 24, 2018. (Photo: Emily Michot/Miami Herald via AP)

Salazar has portrayed herself as a more middle-of-the-road Republican who will try to moderate her party and the president, a positioning that Shalala has disputed.

“She says she is a centrist, that she is going to talk to Trump and convince him of things, but I think that’s naive,” Shalala said. “Sending a Republican to Washington gets to none of the issues that are important to voters. It will not secure votes on an assault weapons ban or climate change. It will not prevent further dismantling of the ACA.”

The answer, she said, is to flip the seat by electing an “experienced” Democrat. “It would take anyone else 10 years to get where I am, to get that stature with others in Congress and hit the ground running,” she said. “I know the players, I know the issues, the system, how you put together legislation, how you develop policy.”

Whether she will have the chance is unclear. An internal poll released by her campaign this week shows her with a 10-point lead over Salazar, while an internal poll released by the Salazar campaign at about the same time showed Salazar ahead by nine points. A New York Times poll from mid-October shows Shalala with 44 percent to Salazar’s 37, while a McLaughlin poll during the same period has Salazar with 50 percent and Shalala with 41.

Early voting has already begun in Florida, and Shalala signed off from her telephone interview with Yahoo to make her way to the polls. It is the first time her name will be on the ballot. She says it will not be the last.

“My mother lived to 103 and was winning senior tennis championships into her 80s,” she said. “I’m just getting started.”

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