In the scrum to replace the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the congressional representative of an increasingly left-leaning district, one name is emerging that could potentially clear some of the Democratic field: former University of Miami president Donna Shalala.
Shalala, a former member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet and the recent head of the former president’s foundation, has been rumored for weeks to have an interest in Ros-Lehtinen’s seat, which is up for grabs in November. Fueling speculation, voters in the district, which stretches from Miami Beach through Coral Gables and Kendall and down to Homestead, have been polled recently about Shalala.
One voter who spoke to the Miami Herald said the live poll touched on Shalala’s age, university tenure and time at the Clinton Foundation. Politico Florida reported that the poll compared Shalala to the large field of Democratic primary opponents, and included a bonus question about impeaching President Donald Trump.
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So is Shalala thinking about a return to politics?
For now, she’s not saying. She declined to respond to text messages and voice mails left on her cellphone Monday and Tuesday.
Shalala, who turns 77 next month, would instantly alter the dynamics of the election, which has attracted a large Democratic primary field. A political consultant for a candidate in the race said Monday evening that her candidacy would be a “game-changer.”
Shalala enters with a proven ability to raise money, having overseen a fundraising campaign during her 14 years at the University of Miami that topped $3 billion. She also served for about two years as the unpaid head of the Clinton Foundation, before leaving in 2017 to return as a tenured professor in Miami, where she has an endowed chair.
Her time at the helm of the university was widely celebrated when she stepped down in 2015.
Still, her candidacy wouldn’t be flawless. During her university presidency, an athletics department scandal erupted involving booster Nevin Shapiro and the university’s football team. Also under her watch, the university riled environmentalists by selling 88 acres of rare pine rockland to a developer planning to build a Walmart, and controversially decided to buy Cedars Medical Center.
But she's held prominent positions — she was secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration — making her the closest thing to a household name in the race, and remains friendly with the retiring Ros-Lehtinen, who once called her “one of the most profound educational leaders of her generation.”
Right now, Mary Barzee Flores, Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, Mark Anthony Person, State Rep. David Richardson, State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell are candidates in the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, Ariadna Balaguer, Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and Angie Chirino are candidates.