Donna Shalala wants to run for Congress. She’s trying to decide whether she should.

Donna Shalala conversa con el Miami Herald sobre su plataforma electoral.
Donna Shalala conversa con el Miami Herald sobre su plataforma electoral. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Donna Shalala wants to campaign for Congress. She’s just trying to decide if she should.

The former University of Miami president and one-time Clinton Cabinet member is, on today her 77th birthday, mulling a first-time run at elected office. With Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen slated to retire from an eastern Miami district pegged by Democrats as a gimme, there’s perhaps never been a better opportunity.

And in Shalala, Democrats have never had a bigger name to try to flip the seat.

But nearly a month after a Miami polling firm began testing the waters, Shalala remains on the fence. In an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald on Wednesday, she said her hesitancy isn’t about will or any question about whether she’s the party’s best candidate for the job, but about the logistics of what a candidacy would mean.

“I’m weighing the kind of work that it will take to get elected. I want to make sure there’s support out there for my candidacy,” Shalala said. “I’m not weighing whether I have the energy or the passion or smarts to do the job. But I’ve got to take a look at the district and the issues and talk to a lot of people in our community.”

Shalala, who has taught a University of Miami political science class of about 200 students since stepping down as Clinton Foundation president last April, says she’s motivated to run by President Donald Trump’s “hurtful” policies. The Coral Gables resident says she wants to go to D.C. to push for solutions to Miami’s traffic woes and fight for environmental protections, good-paying jobs and public education.

Shalala, the granddaughter of a Lebanese immigrant who sneaked through the U.S.-Mexican border after being turned away at Ellis Island, says she’s also deeply invested in fighting Trump’s immigration plans. And she believes that if she did get elected, she’d head into Congress with the connections and gravitas to push policies from the get-go.

“We have to stop bad people from doing things to good people. I think I can do that,” she said. “I don’t think Donna Shalala is going to be a freshman.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, is retiring in November. Democrats are gunning for her seat. Miami Herald

News of Shalala’s interest in the seat rocked the looming Democratic primary last month when Miami polling firm Bendixen & Amandi began calling voters to gauge public opinion — a poll the firm and Shalala say is still being “refined.” A crowded field of progressive hopefuls, including city commissioners Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Ken Russell, state lawmakers David Richardson and José Javier Rodríguez, former judge Mary Barzee Flores and ex-Miami Herald reporter Matt Haggman, began to prepare for what the race would look like if the former Health and Human Services Secretary jumped in.

Some went on a preemptive attack, questioning whether she’d be the right fit in a party moving further to the left and seemingly away from the Clintons, with whom she has close ties. Barzee Flores, for instance, recently criticized Shalala’s tenure as a director of home builder Lennar Corp., which she blamed for contributing to the real estate market meltdown in 2008.

“As more members of this community learn about her record, they’ll be appalled,” Barzee Flores said.

“I’m going to run a positive campaign on the issues,” Shalala shot back Tuesday, in an interview conducted at Bendixen & Amandi’s Coconut Grove office. “The women’s movement fought for years to put women on corporate boards. You don’t cut and run when the economy goes down.”

Shalala’s record, for all its successes and accolades, does leave her open to being outflanked on the left if she gets into the race. Her 14 years as University of Miami president, for instance, have been widely hailed as a resounding success but also include an episode where a university chaplain called her an “enemy of the working poor” during a nationally watched hunger strike by UM janitors seeking to unionize.

But her potential warts as a candidate aren’t likely what’s holding her back.

Rather, Shalala would be getting into a race already loaded with candidates who’ve collectively raised millions of dollars. And despite her substantial credentials — including stints atop two universities before joining the Clinton administration in 1993 — many of her potential supporters may have already made commitments.

Katy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade commissioner who created the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami with Shalala’s blessing, told Shalala as much when they spoke recently.

“Donna Shalala is a wonderful public servant who’s served this community well,” said Sorenson, who’s supporting state Rep. David Richardson. “I think she’s getting in a bit late.”

If she does run, Shalala says she wants to fight for Medicaid, and plans to bring a track record of creating jobs to Washington with her. She says she’ll make up her mind over the next month.

“The mechanics of running for office,” she said, “you have to fully understand before you make the plunge.”