Donna Shalala is running for Congress in bid to replace Ros-Lehtinen

Donna Shalala filed paperwork to run for Congress, shaking up a crowded Democratic field seeking to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Donna Shalala filed paperwork to run for Congress, shaking up a crowded Democratic field seeking to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Donna Shalala, the former University of Miami president and Health and Human Services secretary, is officially running as a Democrat to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, according to Federal Election Commission paperwork filed Monday.

Shalala, 77, has never run for elected office, but her presence shakes up a crowded Democratic primary in a district that includes most of Miami Beach, downtown Miami and coastal Miami-Dade County. The district favors Democrats, as Hillary Clinton defeated President Donald Trump by 19.7 percentage points there in 2016.

Shalala did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.

Fernand Amandi, a pollster and political consultant who has been advising Shalala as she contemplated her candidacy, said she planned to speak later in the week.

“She will declare her intentions officially on what she plans on doing Wednesday morning,” Amandi said.

Shalala had been toying with a bid for just over a month, conducting internal polling with Bendixen & Amandi International to gauge public opinion for a potential run. The poll, conducted in late January, showed her taking 24 percent of the vote against the primary field. Her next closest competitor received 10 percent.

When word spread that she was polling, speculation began about whether candidates would drop out given her obvious name-recognition and fundraising advantages. But on Monday, Shalala’s opponents were consistent in their message: bring it on.

“I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to contrast my values and my record with that of Donna Shalala’s,” said Mary Barzee Flores, a former state court judge whose candidacy could be the most affected by the arrival of yet another woman in the race.

Shalala has taught a University of Miami political science class of about 200 students since stepping down last April as president of the Clinton Foundation. Her 14 years as University of Miami president 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.

“As someone who has worked for minimum wage, I will always fight for working people. But when she had the chance, Mrs. Shalala fought to pay workers poverty wages without benefits,” Barzee Flores said

Barzee Flores and Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez have attacked Shalala’s record since news of her interest first surfaced. Four other candidates, state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, state Rep. David Richardson, former Miami Herald reporter and Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell have each raised over six figures so far, and have dismissed evidence that she immediately becomes the front-runner simply by filing her papers to run.

“Voters deserve a vigorous debate in these tough times, and I welcome Dr. Shalala to the primary,” State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez said Monday night.

Matt Haggman, a former Knight Foundation executive, issued a statement that didn’t even mention Shalala, but hinted at criticisms over her age and long-standing ties to Democratic party luminaries Bill and HiIlary Clinton.

If Shalala were to win the Democratic primary and general election, she would become one of the oldest first-time members of Congress in U.S. history.

“This campaign is about the future of South Florida,” Haggman said.

Related stories from Miami Herald