Miami-Dade County

Running to turn Congress blue, Donna Shalala under fire for backing Miami Republicans

Donna Shalala
Donna Shalala

Two of Donna Shalala’s Democratic rivals in a congressional primary united Thursday to lambaste the former University of Miami president for backing Republican candidates in the past — including the GOP congresswoman who holds the seat today.

“Democratic primaries are about core democratic values. This is just another example of Donna Shalala being on the wrong side of an issue,” Mary Barzee Flores, a lawyer and former state judge, said during a joint conference call with rival David Richardson, a retiring state representative and certified public accountant. Richardson called the list of GOP candidates backed by Shalala “jaw-dropping.”

david richardson 2

A Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton and a confidante of former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Shalala is running in the Democratic primary to succeed Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The surprise retirement announcement last year by Ros-Lehtinen attracted a flock of Democratic candidates in Miami’s left-leaning 27th Congressional District, including State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman.

Shalala gave $1,000 to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in 2015, in the run-up to the Miami Republican’s 2016 race against long-shot Democrat Scott Fuhrman. Shalala also donated $14,500 to Republican state lawmakers over the last 10 years, including sitting State Sen. Anitere Flores, former speaker Will Weatherford, and ousted state senator Frank Artiles, according to a summary released by the two campaigns.

In a statement, the Shalala campaign noted she was a founding member in the 1980s of EMILY’S List, a political organization that raises money for female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.

The statement called Shalala “one of the most iconic and celebrated members of the Democratic Party” who has given about $250,000 to Democratic candidates over the years. The figure dwarfs the nearly $20,000 in Shalala donations for Republicans running in partisan elections at the state and national level cited by the Flores and Richardson campaigns.

The statement hinted at the often transactional nature of political donations made from businesses and large institutions who rely on lawmakers’ support in Tallahassee.

mary barzee flores

“Over the years,” the statement said, “Donna Shalala developed professional relationships with a wide and bipartisan spectrum of personalities, including elected officials who, at election time, asked her to donate to their campaigns. She makes no apologies for those contributions.”

Shalala also gave to Republicans running for nonpartisan county races, including Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the 27th District contest.

The two rival campaigns noted Shalala did not support Democrats challenging Republicans in closely watched races, including when Rodriguez ran a successful state senate campaign in 2016 to unseat Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who received $1,000 from Shalala in the previous election cycle.

Politico first reported on Shalala’s Republican donations in a Tuesday story about Fuhrman marveling at the nerve of her campaign asking him for money after she didn’t support him when he ran as the Democratic nominee against Ros-Lehtinen in 2016. “GFY,” Fuhrman wrote.

As a national figure and former head of UM, Shalala easily brings the biggest name to the race to replace Ros-Lehtinen, whose criticism of Trump and her more liberal views on immigration and gay rights have helped keep her popular in a district that Clinton won by 20 points in 2016.

Donna Shalala says goodbye to students at a graduation ceremony on Friday, May 8, 2015, in Coral Gables — one of her last official acts as UM president. Shalala is leaving the private university to head the Clinton Foundation.

The other Democrats running in the race see Shalala’s time at UM as a liability, given the school’s sale of rare parkland forest to a developer who wants a Walmart there and a 2006 strike by school janitors seeking higher wages. The roster of 19 Florida Republicans who received money from Shalala extends that criticism. Artiles, who received $500 in 2011, sponsored a bill in 2015 to impose transgender restrictions on bathrooms across the state. David Rivera, a former member of Congress who received $500 from Shalala in 2009, was later connected to a campaign-finance scandal.

Barzee Flores and Richardson both acknowledged giving donations to at least one Republican candidate in the past — Barzee Flores gave $100 to a state attorney general candidate, her campaign said, and Richardson, the first openly gay member of the state legislature, said he donated to a gay Republican in Massachusetts.