Donna Shalala is so well known in Miami she has to tell voters it’s “really me” when she makes campaign calls. Otherwise, she says, some people assume it’s a robocall.
She’s big in Miami: the former University of Miami president who raised academic standards and billions of dollars, boosted the school’s national profile and raided other universities to put the medical school on the map. She was famous even before she arrived, as a Bill Clinton ally and the longest-serving Health and Human Services Secretary in U.S. history.
Outside the university, she eagerly promoted her adopted hometown: “She’d show up herself, not just send the third assistant to the vice president,” former Beacon Council president Frank Nero said of Shalala, who aided his efforts to lure companies to Miami. “She’d come in and she’d tell executives: ‘I could have gone anywhere, but I chose to come to Miami.’ She became one of the best sales people we had for Miami-Dade.”
Yet Shalala finds herself in a tight race against a political rookie for an open congressional seat that Democrats figured would be theirs after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, announced she is retiring. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in the Democratic-leaning district — the highest margin of victory in the country for Clinton in a district currently held by a Republican.
As recently as January, Republicans fretted they were unlikely to find someone for the seat that encompasses Little Havana, most of downtown Miami and Miami Beach. Ros-Lehtinen in 2016 had faced a close reelection against a largely self-funded candidate who did not have the backing of national Democrats.
Now it’s Democrats who are worried: Two recent internal polls showed Shalala either losing or nearly tied with her Republican opponent, Maria Elvira Salazar, a telegenic former Spanish-language TV host who is well known in the district, where 63 percent of the voters are Hispanic.
Shalala, who won a crowded Democratic primary in August, says early polls showed that people know her résumé. But she says the race will turn not on her record, but her character.
“It can’t be ‘I’m Donna Shalala and you ought to vote for me,’ ” Shalala said in a recent interview at a South Miami restaurant. “You have to be out there, talking to people about what kind of a human being you are.”
But there are worries that Shalala, as accomplished as her record may be, isn’t connecting on the trail, especially against a Spanish-speaking television anchor accustomed to the camera.
“Donna’s a very no-nonsense person and that can come across as brusque because she likes to cut to the chase,” acknowledges Katy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade commissioner who created the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami with Shalala’s blessing. “But she’s someone who cares deeply, and that’s reflected by her life and her career.”
Nero, the past president of Miami-Dade County’s economic development arm, said he didn’t know much about Shalala before she arrived in Miami, other than he had heard she was forthright: “I knew she had given Bill Clinton the what for,” Nero said, referring to reports that Shalala confronted Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He found she lived up to the reputation: “She’s a straight shooter, a straight talker and there was no BS,” Nero said. “She had goals, she set them and she achieved them.”
And he said she was an enormous asset when the county was viewed as more of a tourist spot than a business destination.
He credits Shalala with improving the county’s reputation by boosting the university. She spent large and recruited stars, including a cardiologist who helped launch UM’s medical school to national prominence. She also lured top medical researchers from universities across the country to create the Institute for Human Genomics to uncover the genetic roots of debilitating diseases.
Yet her tenure was not without controversy, and some of the disputes threaten to dampen enthusiasm among Democrats: There was a bitter union dispute over wages. And the sale of endangered property to a developer.
Some point to the college’s controversial purchase in 2007 of the old Cedars Medical Center and Shalala’s determination to seal the deal, despite warnings from critics that its medical school was spending too much and that the purchase would hurt Cedars’ publicly owned neighbor and UM partner, Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“Jackson was a single unifying force, whether it was Hurricane Andrew or the race riots we had, the community came together and it was a little oasis,” said Marcos Lapciuc, a Democrat and former member of the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust, which oversees Jackson, who questioned Shalala’s commitment to the community. He said he understood Shalala’s job was to represent the university, but that she did so — with vehemence: “It was win, baby, win and all others be damned.”
More than a decade after UM purchased the hospital, it is still struggling amid rising operating expenses and falling patient admissions.
One of the most controversial episodes of Shalala’s tenure drew national scrutiny, infuriating even her allies in the Democratic Party.
In 2006, university janitors walked off the job in a bid to bring attention to their fight to form a union. Faculty, students and local clergy joined the protests, occupying the university’s administration building, holding a vigil outside Shalala’s home and staging hunger strikes in a makeshift “Freedom Village” along U.S. 1.
Shalala came under fire during the strike, including from a university chaplain who labeled her the “enemy of the working poor.” Two years out from a presidential race, Democrats scrambled to contain the controversy, with then-Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and presidential hopeful John Edwards appealing to Shalala to bring the dispute to a close.
She operated on her terms, and the dispute ended that fall with the janitors unionizing and getting a boost in pay.
Shalala has said she regrets not acting sooner to raise salaries, but that she couldn’t take a role in the unionization effort as a college administrator. Now she boasts on the campaign trail that her first contribution was from a janitor: “In the end it worked out great for everyone,” she said at a recent union rally. Indeed, the union that represented the workers backs her campaign.
“It was a little dicey for a time, but I think for the most part folks have overcome the trauma,” said Monica Russo, president of the Service Employees International Union Florida. Shalala has acknowledged it was a trying time and arranged to meet with any union members who wanted to vent, Russo said.
“Everyone’s had a chance to have their come-to-Jesus with her if they wanted to,” Russo said, who argues that no one knows healthcare better than Shalala.
“We’d love to see her standing up for us on the floor of Congress,” Russo added. “She’s a powerhouse and would be hugely helpful as an advocate.”
Another controversial decision still enrages environmentalists. UM in 2014 sold 88 acres of rare pine rockland to a developer planning to put up a Walmart, an LA Fitness, a Chili’s and 900 apartments on the site. Shalala has defended the sale in interviews, saying the university had the right to sell the land and had support from the county commission to do so.
And she has the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, which says it evaluates the “totality” of a candidate’s record. Shalala has a “long record of advocating for clean energy, public health and climate action throughout her career and we are proud to support her,” said Sara Chieffo, the group’s vice president for government affairs.
Locally, though, environmentalists remain infuriated by the sale of the land and are reluctant to give her a pass. The Miami-Dade Democratic Environmental Caucus endorsed every other Democratic candidate but Shalala in the August primary.
“We knew she was going to win, but felt it was important to draw a line in the sand,” said caucus chair Dustin Thaler. “From a federal perspective, she says all the right things and backs all the policies, but locally, it was tough for us. It’s the story of Miami, development at the expense of the environment.”
Shalala is best known for her healthcare expertise, but she said she’d also champion more federal money to tackle the region’s transportation issues and advocate to fix immigration laws. She favors a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” — along with their families. She notes on the campaign trail that she was part of the White House team that pushed the 1994 assault weapons ban and would back a new one.
“You know I’ll fight for you, you know I have backbone,” she told supporters at a Coral Gables house party. “I know Donald Trump, I’m not afraid of him.”
Once considered one of the more liberal members of the Clinton administration, Shalala faced criticism from the left in the Democratic primary from opponents who fear she’s too moderate, too establishment to fire up Democrats. One rival launched an ad blitz that sought to criticize Shalala’s position on healthcare and for joining the boards of insurer UnitedHealth and home-builder Lennar in 2001. Shalala led the Clinton Foundation after leaving the university in 2015, and some see her two years there as a liability. The foundation’s work came under attack during the 2016 presidential election and it announced it would review its fundraising practices.
Shalala told the Miami Herald that her position on healthcare has been consistent dating back to when she oversaw Hunter College in the 1980s, and said her stake in UnitedHealth has never swayed her politics.
Yet Shalala, who once questioned whether a “single-payer” system favored by progressives could be implemented, now says she favors a Bernie Sanders-style “Medicare Option for All” — but would preserve employer coverage.
Shalala says Salazar’s policy positions are so thin she isn’t sure of where she stands. But she blasts Republicans for attempting to take down the Affordable Care Act, warning that a Texas lawsuit that the Trump administration supports would do away with protections for patients with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer and diabetes.
“That is a disaster,” she said. “What is happening in my judgment is immoral.”
Shalala suffered a stroke in 2015 — and she raises her own hand at events when she asks those with pre-existing conditions to identify themselves. And at 77, she would be the second-oldest House freshman in history. But she says she’s fully recovered and that neither her medical history nor age would be a factor in her service.
“I’ve spent my whole career working with young people,” Shalala said. “People say I’m old. I’m not old. The students at the University of Miami, they don’t think I’m old. They know me better than that.”
A bigger problem in the predominantly Hispanic district is that Shalala does not speak Spanish. Her skills are limited to introducing herself — “Soy Donna Shalala,” she said to cheers at a recent union protest at Miami International Airport. She recently began airing Spanish language TV and radio ads.
To a house party of mostly older Cuban Americans she was direct: This is “the crowd that we need.”
Her experience matters more than the languages she speaks, said Carmen Pina, a Cuban American, who, along with her husband, Severo, hosted their first ever political gathering for Shalala. The couple, virulently anti-Trump, didn’t know much about Shalala until the campaign knocked at their door, but were impressed.
“A 77-year-old woman who wants to stay involved and fight, I said ‘Sign me up,’ “ Pina said. “She is the one with experience. The other one has legs and a mouth.”
A fundraising powerhouse at UM, Shalala has easily outpaced her opponent, raising more than $2 million, twice as much as Salazar, as of the filing period that closed in August.
But Salazar, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, charges that the Ohio-born Shalala is “an implant, she is not from here.”
Shalala says the assertion is code for saying she’s not Cuban and accuses Salazar of taking a page from Trump: “That’s what Donald Trump does, he divides us by our country of origin, by what languages we speak, by what race we are, by what we religion we are, by what our sexual orientation is,” she said.
Shalala, who is of Lebanese ancestry, claims deep ties to the community, thanks to a Lebanese diaspora that emigrated to all points of the globe. Various members of her family, including her grandparents, lived in Miami. There are even Cuban Shalalas — cousins who arrived in Miami a decade ago from the island nation.
Shalala helped them settle in the country and said it’s helped her better understand what it was like to grow up in Cuba and the challenges that new immigrants face in the U.S. Her cousins have made phone calls and cut a Spanish ad — “Mi Prima Donna Shalala” or “My Cousin Donna Shalala.”
“Donna is the granddaughter of working immigrants who came here searching for a better life,” her cousin Maria says in the ad.
“Talk about being of the community,” Shalala says in an interview. “Don’t mess with me.”