Bruising Democratic primary looms in race to replace Ros-Lehtinen

Florida State Rep. David Richardson has invested in ads going after Donna Shalala, who has a lead in the polls over him and three other Democratic candidates.
Florida State Rep. David Richardson has invested in ads going after Donna Shalala, who has a lead in the polls over him and three other Democratic candidates. Miami Herald Staff

Democrats believe they have a good shot to claim an extra seat in Congress this November as Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen prepares to retire.

But it also appears increasingly likely that the party's nominee will head into the general election bloodied and bruised.

Foreshadowing a long and contentious primary for the Miami congressional seat, state Rep. David Richardson launched two commercials Tuesday (here and here) that promote his record in the Florida Legislature and attack former University of Miami president Donna Shalala over her stance on healthcare. The ads — the first on TV from any Democratic candidate in the race not named Shalala — tout Richardson's advocacy for Medicare for all and contrast that with a 2007 clip from a Shalala appearance on the Colbert Report in which she said she didn't support universal healthcare.

"You're not one of those universal healthcare people are you?" asks Colbert, who at the time had a running shtick as a faux conservative on Comedy Central.

"No, actually I'm not," responded Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary in the 1990s when the Clintons tried to pass the Health Security Act.

Richardson's campaign says he's putting more than $100,000 into the commercials. Shalala contends the spots — which end with the slogan "Dollars for Donna, nothing for us" — misrepresent her current position and history on healthcare.

"I've been for it. It's on my website," Shalala said during a debate Saturday at the University of Miami, during which all the candidates said they would support free or low-cost healthcare as a constitutional right. "Let me remind you, what I’ve also said is Medicare has to be enhanced before we do it for all. It doesn’t have long-term care, it does not have dental benefits and it doesn’t have eyeglass care. I want universal healthcare and enhanced Medicare for all."

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A review of DonnaShalala.com after the debate and again Monday evening, however, turned up two commercials that say she supports "affordable healthcare for all" but made no mention of "universal" healthcare or Medicare for all. Overnight, a page was added explaining her healthcare platform, including a pledge to work "towards universal, high-quality, affordable health care for Floridians and all Americans."

Donna Shalala says Richardson's commercials challenging her stance on healthcare misrepresent her current position and history on subject. José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

In a statement, Shalala's campaign said she believes that Medicare as it currently exists provides worse coverage than many people already have and needs to be improved before the government tries to expand the "1960s-era program." Shalala has made similar statements recently, including at a November Harvard University forum called "Universal Healthcare: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?"

Healthcare is sure to be a contentious point among the two candidates, who are also competing with Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez to be the Democratic contender in Florida's 27th congressional district. And both Richardson and Shalala have the money for a firefight: Richardson with $1 million cash in hand at the start of April and Shalala with $1.1 million.

Early polls have shown the well-known Shalala with a comfortable lead in the race, which Richardson contends is a two-person contest.

In his commercials, and on an appearance on the "Only in Miami Show" on 880 AM Monday evening, Richardson ripped Shalala for joining the boards of home-builder Lennar and for-profit insurer UnitedHealth Group after her stint in Clinton's cabinet.

According to Barron's, a weekly newspaper published by Dow Jones and Company, Shalala sold 61,000 shares of UnitedHealth in 2005 worth $5.4 million. She also received annual compensation on the board. In a WPLG Local 10 interview this month, she said she spent her time on the UnitedHealth board advocating for affordable healthcare and noted that she secured a $10 million grant to improve medical resources to people in Overtown.

"David Richardson’s claim that Donna Shalala’s board service didn’t result in any benefits to Miami-Dade County is false," said Fernand Amandi, a Shalala consultant. "Donna Shalala in fact, used her position on the board to further the interests of the community, delivering $10 million of grant funding from the United Health Foundation to the Jefferson Reaves Sr. Medical Center in Overtown to improve primary healthcare services to members of the community."

But Richardson hopes to portray her as profiting off her time in the Clinton administration.

"She has really sold out the Democratic party to the corporations," Richardson said.