Donna Shalala wins Democratic primary for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat

Donna Shalala greets supporters at a watch party held at Ball & Chain in Little Havana.
Donna Shalala greets supporters at a watch party held at Ball & Chain in Little Havana. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Donna Shalala fended off a well-funded challenge from her left to emerge victorious in the Democratic primary for retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat, setting the stage for a Democrat to represent Little Havana in Washington.

The 77-year-old Shalala bested state Rep. David Richardson, her closest competition for the Democratic nomination, who argued that Shalala wasn’t liberal enough for a Democratic electorate angry with Donald Trump’s presidency. Shalala’s long career included stints as the president of the University of Miami and the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

“Ready or not, here I come,” Shalala told the crowd of about 100 people gathered at Little Havana’s Ball and Chain. “November 6th is the day, it’s judgment day in Miami.”

Shalala won close to 32 percent of the vote compared to Richardson’s 27.5 percent.

Also running in the Democratic primary were former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn. Rosen Gonzalez finished in third with about 17 percent of the vote despite being outspent by Haggman.

Shalala spent her 5 minute victory speech throwing shade on Republicans and touting her decades of experience in government and academia.

“I will campaign on one positive question, what have you done to improve the lives and opportunities of those in our community?” Shalala said. “Have you created thousands of good jobs, have you created a world-class medical system and provided healthcare to thousands of our citizens who could not afford great care, have you spent a lifetime fighting for healthcare for all and have you won healthcare for millions of children? Have you successfully passed a 10-year ban on assault weapons and have you transformed a university into a model of environmental leadership? My name is Donna Shalala, I have done those things and more.”

She also criticized GOP nominee Maria Elvira Salazar, parroting an unsuccessful line of attack on the broadcast journalist by her primary opponents who argued that Salazar was overly friendly with Fidel Castro during a televised interview 23 years ago.

“I do not know who the Republican nominee will be,” Shalala said. “I suspect it will be the candidate who was perhaps captivated by Fidel Castro.”

The Democratic primary turned into a proxy for the ongoing national debate between the party’s liberal and centrist wings on issues like instituting Medicare for all, abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and impeaching Trump. Shalala never shied away from those policy stances during the primary, though she did not unequivocally support universal, government-provided healthcare, doing away with the nation’s internal immigration enforcement force tasked with carrying out deportations and starting impeachment proceedings on Trump on day one if elected.

Just after 8:30 Richardson, surrounded by about 100 well-wishers grabbed the microphone around the corner Little Havana and conceded defeat.

“We came up a little short, the numbers are in the board,” said Richardson. “But were all still winners in my book. I’m so proud of what we did.”

Richardson said they fought for the right things: Medicare for all, a living wage and Dreamers.

“I’m proud of the principles and policies we fought so hard for,” he said.

Shalala, a longtime Miami educator and fundraiser has close connections to the Clintons and enjoyed an advantage in name recognition usually afforded to incumbent members of Congress.

Asked if Richardson was confident she would conform to some of the liberal policies he pushed during the primary, the state Rep. hesitated.

“No, I don’t know that at all. She won on her platform, so she has a right to use her platform. She’ll have to decide whether or not we’ll have the conversation.”

Olivia Coto, a 20-year-old University of Miami student who grew up in Coral Gables, was eager to vote for Shalala on Tuesday. Coto said she voted for Shalala due to her previous experience as UM’s president and because she was a woman.

“I’ve been here my whole life and I think it’s time we have a strong Democrat in the position,’‘ she said. “And also it’s time we have a woman in power who thinks about what’s best for a woman,” she added. “With what’s happening in our country — if I’m being honest - I am voting not based on who will help the economy, but who will help with women equality and other social issues.”

About an hour after the results were tabulated, Shalala, Richardson and Haggman all gathered together at Ball and Chain to declare unity for the general election. Democrats are confident they can flip Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in November, as Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in the district by more than 19 percentage points. National Republicans could even punt on the seat if the national map appears too grim, and Miami incumbents Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart are facing tough races this November.

“On Election Day November 6, we take back our country, we take it back form the corrupt leaders in Washington and their enablers in Congress.”

Samantha Castro contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty