Locked in a tight race for a Miami congressional seat that until recently looked like a November layup for Democrats, Republican Maria Elvira Salazar cast herself Wednesday as the moderate heir apparent to retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, saying she would consider an assault weapons ban, support a carbon tax and vote to give certain groups of undocumented immigrants a path to legality.
During an interview with the Miami Herald Editorial Board, the former broadcast journalist and political commentator opened up about her political platform, which had been unclear to the point that Donna Shalala, her Democratic opponent, could barely identify how they differ. Salazar said she wants to do “whatever makes sense to the community,” even if it means “respectfully” standing up to President Donald Trump, whom she called an “unconventional figure.”
“The president has used pretty insensitive words,” Salazar said of Trump’s rhetoric on minorities. “I will talk to him in a nice, respectful way, because I do respect the institution of the presidency. I respect the American electoral process and the American electoral process gave this result.”
Salazar, who spoke to the editorial board minutes after Shalala, said she would be open to supporting universal background checks on guns and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the country at least 15 years. She also said she’d vote for the carbon tax proposal by Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo, which would provide $700 billion for infrastructure by taxing coal and natural gas emissions, if it had any chance of becoming law in a Republican-controlled Congress.
“I want to step into the center,” Salazar, 56, said. “Whatever makes sense to the community, to the whole country, is what we need to do.”
Until Wednesday, Salazar, a political novice who is well known in Miami-Dade’s Hispanic community from her TV show, has mostly kept the details of her policy positions to herself. She trounced a crowded field in the Republican primary, during which her opponents ignored issues of policy and tried to drag her down by casting her as soft on Cuba.
For the most part, however, Salazar signaled that she would mostly follow in the footsteps of Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate within the GOP and mentor to Salazar.
Shalala, the former president of the University of Miami and the former Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton, told the Herald editorial board Wednesday that she couldn’t say how she and Salazar differed because Salazar has so far offered few details.
“I have no idea,” Shalala said, asked about their policy differences. “I just don’t know what her positions are on anything.”
Shalala, 77, said she had scoured Salazar’s website and listened to interviews, but was still at a loss. But Shalala stopped short of criticizing Salazar for failing to detail her plans, noting she was a first-time candidate.
“To be fair to her, she’s got to think through what are this administration’s position on a whole range of positions,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to go hard against her on positions or her experience, but it does mean I want to be careful.”
She said she knew the Republican positions on issues: “I just don’t know what she’s adopting,” she said. She said she’d only met Salazar once: “She came running in and did a selfie,” Shalala said.
She ridiculed, however, Salazar’s call to allow health insurance to be sold across state lines. Trump and many conservatives support changing the law that prevents insurance from being sold across state lines. But Shalala called it “one of the sillier ideas in healthcare.” She noted that patients who bought cheaper healthcare plans in other states would have a difficult time finding providers in their home states.
And, she said, patients would have no recourse with the insurance commissioner in their home state. She said she would start to improve healthcare by shoring up the Affordable Care Act, along with looking at expanding Medicare, which she said does not cover long-term care.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do on quality care and access,” she said. Shalala argued that she’s the better candidate because of her record of delivering for the community, beyond elevating the University of Miami.
Shalala, who during her time under the Clinton administration helped push for an assault weapons ban and the introduction of federal background checks and waiting periods on gun purchases, has been vocal in her support for gun control and universal healthcare.
On healthcare, Salazar said that she would only support repealing the Affordable Care Act if a viable alternative were also presented and that she did not support removing pre-existing conditions from coverage options. She said the best way to reduce premiums was to “allow the forces of the free market to invade” the healthcare industry.
“We have a mess in the healthcare industry,” she said. “I believe competition is the mother of good quality.”
Salazar, a Cuban American whose parents fled Cuba’s dictatorship, labeled Shalala an outsider who won’t be able to connect with the Hispanic-majority community.
“She’s not part of the melting pot,” she said. “[Candidates] have to be able to connect with all of you.”
Shalala has been forced to answer for recent polling numbers showing the race for District 27 is much closer than previously forecast and the perception that her campaign was operating in “sleep mode.”
“We haven’t been under the radar at all,” she said. “We have a huge field operation. There’s been an enormous amount of activity.”
Although she does not speak Spanish, Shalala, who is of Lebanese descent, said that she is “deeply rooted in the community,” noting that various members of her family, including her grandparents, have lived in Miami since after World War II.
“I fit into this ethnic environment of extended families and relationships,” she said. She noted her grandmother arrived in the U.S. illegally, crossing the border with Mexico after being turned away at EIlis Island. “If you look at my immigrant family under Trump’s new rules, because they had no money, they would have been excluded.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Salazar would support a path to citizenship for certain groups of immigrants living in the country for long periods of time. She supports a path to legal status for those immigrants.