A Miami Democrat promotes his platform — by running as the anti-Shalala

Florida's Rep. David Richardson, right, who is running for Congress, and Rep. Kionne McGhee talk to the media after their surprise visit to Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center to inspect the facility in October 2017.
Florida's Rep. David Richardson, right, who is running for Congress, and Rep. Kionne McGhee talk to the media after their surprise visit to Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center to inspect the facility in October 2017.

As a forensic accountant, David Richardson spent decades breaking down financial documents and finding their flaws.

He's retired now. But he hopes the same skills will help him build a new career in Congress.

Ever since the Democratic primary ballot was set last month for Florida's 27th congressional district, the 60-year-old state lawmaker has been sifting through the details of his opponents' records and pulling at loose ends. He's focused on former University of Miami president Donna Shalala, whom he's labeled a "double-dealing corporate Democrat" and attacked for joining corporate boards after stepping down as Health and Human Services secretary in 2001.

Negativity can backfire, and Richardson's own record isn't immune to scrutiny. But by running a campaign that is nearly as anti-Shalala as it is pro-Richardson, he hopes to contrast and promote his progressive platform with the Democratic stalwart's long and complicated political history.

“What I’m doing is exposing the truth about her record," says Richardson. "She has a duty to respond, not to me, but to the voters.

Convincing everyone that an Emily's List co-founder and Clintonite is a "phony" Democrat, as he's called her, is a tall order. And Richardson is sober about the risks of going negative on Shalala in what some are calling the "year of the woman." But he says her jump from Bill Clinton's cabinet to corporate boards makes her part of the problem.

Almost as soon as the deadline passed to make the Aug. 28 ballot, Richardson reached into a $1 million campaign account and unleashed an ad blitz that seeks to villainize Shalala for once opposing universal healthcare and for joining the boards of insurer UnitedHealth and home-builder Lennar in 2001. Shifting gears, he laid off field staff and went all-in on TV commercials.

Shalala, who has yet to file her federal financial disclosure, has mostly ignored Richardson. She declined to comment for this article through a campaign spokesman.

Donna Shalala José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

But media reports and Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that Shalala earned around $680,000 in compensation as a UnitedHealth board member before leaving in 2007, and in 2005 sold 61,000 shares of stock worth more than $5.4 million. Shalala also earned at least $730,000 in deferred compensation, stocks and options during her 13 years and two stints at Lennar. She resigned in April from her second stint on Lennar's board in order to seek Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat in Congress.

While on both boards, Shalala's corporate life at times rubbed up against her duties as University of Miami president.

UnitedHealth held contracts with the university, and the company and its clients paid nearly $50 million to UM's health system in the final year Shalala spent as a corporation director, according to SEC records. Shalala played no role in those contracts or transactions, according to the company's federal filings, and left in 2007 as the university purchased Cedars Medical Center, ensuring an increase in business between the insurer and university.

When she served on the Lennar board, company CEO Stuart Miller served on the University of Miami board. She left Lennar in 2012 in expectation that Lennar CEO Stuart Miller would become UM's vice chairman, citing a potential conflict.

Richardson hopes to seize on these details, and also on the companies' somewhat rocky histories. UnitedHealth, for instance, was accused by the federal government last year of intentionally over-billing a Medicare program by the billions (in years after Shalala left the board). And Lennar, which was quietly gifted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax rebates in 2009 through a bill created to expand unemployment benefits, has been criticized for contributing to the housing bust.

In one of his commercials — which Miami political reporter Jim Defede referred to as "nasty" during a recent interview on Facing South Florida — Richardson claims Shalala "profited off the housing crisis."

Shalala's time on corporate boards is no secret. But Richardson's opponents — Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez — haven't used the same tone or strategy. Haggman, who was a Miami Herald real estate reporter covering Lennar during the housing crisis, says Richardson's tactics are off-putting to voters.

"It’s always difficult to attack a woman running for office. Especially these days," said Katy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner who backed Richardson before Shalala got into the race. "It's not the advice I would have given David."

But not attacking may not work either, considering that Shalala's internal polling showed her entering the race with an immediate double-digit lead earlier this year. And the strategy has earned Richardson some points with one important constituent: Ros-Lehtinen. During a recent discussion about the Republican primary field, she openly wished someone from her party would adopt his aggressive style, pointing out that Richardson prodded Shalala into appearing at a debate last month — and then during that debate challenged her to three more.

"You need a forceful leader to force the debate just like David Richardson has been the guy leading the charge and challenging Hurricane Donna," she told the Miami Herald.

Richardson says he's just doing with his campaign what he's always done: following the money.

After starting as a junior accountant working for the Pentagon, the Department of Defense quickly tapped him to work as a forensic accountant. Richardson left to work for Ernst & Young, and then launched a DC boutique auditing and accounting firm, in which he specialized in working for clients seeking government contracts.

It's an experience that has served Richardson well in his six years in Tallahassee, where, working in a Republican-controlled Legislature, he is perhaps best known for investigating inhumane conditions at state prisons. Now, he's investigating his opponents.

"I've been doing this for many, many years. My history as a forensic auditor and a CPA is playing a significant role in the way I’m approaching this campaign," he said, pivoting to Shalala. "Every time I peel back the onion I find another problem."

Richardson, though, has some warts of his own.

He's taken $10,000 from Big Sugar executives at a time when every Democrat running for Florida governor has renounced the industry's money, and has been accused of using misleading or alarmist emails to encourage the slew of small-money donations he uses to tout his grass-roots bona fides. The Campaign Workers Guild said Monday that the pro-union, pro-labor candidate met a unionization effort by campaign workers with "anti-union intransigence."

He also has suffered the needling of a Shalala supporter who learned that he helped set up a lunch for seniors at a Miami Beach non-profit that was sponsored by Florida Power & Light — widely seen by Florida Democrats as a corporate boogeyman.

Richardson says he's got a six-year track record that shows he's beholden to no one.

"I went there and publicly announced because of transparency that the lunch was being provided by FPL. I never got any money. I never touched any money," Richardson said of the Christmas party, explaining that FPL had asked him after Hurricane Irma where and how it could help people in his district. "I’m not embarrassed to say it ... It was a $500 or $600 lunch that the FPL Foundation paid for directly to provide seniors some lunch."

Richardson contends that he's the progressive candidate in the race. In running to the left, he's hoping the party's politics have shifted enough that a candidate who molds himself after Bernie Sanders will be able to knock off a Clinton confidante.

"This election isn't just about electing a Democrat, it’s about electing the right Democrat," Richardson said. "When voters see the truth they’ll understand there’s a very clear difference between me and Donna Shalala."