‘A freshman, but not a rookie’: Donna Shalala starts her new career in Congress

Shalala celebrates her win over Salazar for seat in Congress

Donna Shalala and her supporters celebrate her victory over Republican Maria Elvira Salazar Tuesday night for Congressional District 27.
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Donna Shalala and her supporters celebrate her victory over Republican Maria Elvira Salazar Tuesday night for Congressional District 27.

As Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York shivered while waiting for the official House of Representatives photo on a cold November morning outside the U.S. Capitol, Donna Shalala was nice and toasty.

Freshman members of Congress were required to ditch their jackets for the group photo, so Shalala, ever the Miamian, waited until the last possible second to join the group without layers in the 30-degree weather.

She’s used to Washington.

Shalala, 77, who will become the second-oldest first-year member of Congress in U.S. history, greets constituents and fellow lawmakers with the slogan, “I may be a freshman, but I’m not a rookie.” She claims to have found a 15-minute commute from her Georgetown condo to Capitol Hill, a product of her years of working within the highest levels of government and preference for rising early.

After a long career as President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary, leading the University of Miami and a stint as the head of the Clinton Foundation, Shalala is excited to become a low-ranking cog in a 435-person lawmaking body that recently earned a lower approval rating than cockroaches and traffic jams.

“I’m the only one walking around saying this is going to be fun. Everyone else looks tense,” Shalala said.

At least in official channels, Shalala won’t have much power. She can’t lead a committee as a first-year member, and ascending the leadership rung takes time. She hasn’t been assigned to any committees yet, but is looking to sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee or another committee that is likely to address healthcare, though major policy changes are unlikely until at least 2021.

“Certainly, in the first year I’m trying to stay focused,” Shalala said. “The people in this district have a handful of things that they’d like us to do. I listened to the people’s priorities and they made it very clear that they’re deeply concerned about healthcare and obviously about immigration, the environment and sensible gun control.”

But Shalala’s advantage over her peers is that she already knows the key players. Nancy Pelosi has already assured Shalala that she will be a part of any high-level policy discussions related to healthcare, Shalala said.

“I’m a longtime friend of hers,” Shalala said of Pelosi, who is likely to be elected Speaker in January. “She sat on all my committees when I testified before Congress. I know all the leaders and I’ve known them for a long time. They were more junior when I was in Washington and now they’re chairing all these major committees. I’ve made my pitches, I know the people involved.”

House Democrats will spend the next two years largely fighting with President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. Major changes on healthcare policy or immigration are unlikely until at least 2021, and House Democrats will need to strike a balance between attacking Trump and attempting to govern.

Shalala already has one supporter — her outgoing predecessor.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring, and Shalala recently met in Ros-Lehtinen’s one-room office with no windows as she finishes out a congressional career that began in 1989. Ros-Lehtinen urged Shalala to bother everyone in pursuit of her goals, noting that former Miami Rep. Dante Fascell let her sit at a card table when a spot on the Foreign Relations Committee’s dais wasn’t available when she first came to Congress. Ros-Lehtinen ended up leading the committee 22 years later, the first woman to do so. Her portrait now graces a wall in the committee room.

Ros-Lehtinen, a frequent critic of the hierarchical and unpredictable nature of the House, asked Shalala if she was ready for the never-ending political fights in an often slow-moving and reactive institution.

“You’ve got to put your marker out there and do your best because it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Ros-Lehtinen said to Shalala.

The pair of Miami political icons discussed ways that Shalala can best represent South Florida, such as fighting to restore Nicaraguans. Temporary Protected Status, pushing the Trump administration to pursue TPS for Venezuelans and working with Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart on transportation issues. Shalala is hiring a bilingual staff in Miami and will keep Ros-Lehtinen’s district office near South Miami High School.

“The protesters know it, so that’s good to hear,” Ros-Lehtinen joked.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was a champion for immigrants during her long career in Congress.

And Shalala plans to continue Ros-Lehtinen’s tradition of offering Cuban coffee to everyone who enters her Washington office, noting that it was a campaign promise. Ros-Lehtinen, who trains all her interns to make Cuban coffee, plans to gift a coffee maker for Shalala’s new office.

“Our new office has a sink, which is helpful when you’re making Cuban coffee,” Shalala said, noting that the presence of a sink was a determining factor in her office choice.

Building a decades-long congressional career likely isn’t in the cards for Shalala, who will enter office next year as the 14th oldest House member, and the 13 that are older than her have served in Congress since at least 1999. Shalala said she’s not focused on building a long-term legacy like Ros-Lehtinen did on foreign policy, noting that she “never thinks that way.”

“If you asked me that when I was University of Miami president I wouldn’t have been able to answer it either,” Shalala said. “I think day after day of being able to deliver results to the people in the community. Casework is extremely important in the district offices and I want to do everything I can to help people.”

Beyond the policy and constituent work, Shalala also intends to be a political player who can open doors for Democrats interested in the 2020 presidential nomination and Miami’s well-heeled donor scene. She recently raised money with Bill Clinton to whittle down her existing debt from her congressional campaign, and Pelosi and Hillary Clinton both held fundraisers on Shalala’s behalf in the past few months.

“Remember, every presidential candidate will come to Miami because they raise money in Miami,” Shalala said. “It’s like Manhattan, this district in particular. I’ll see all the candidates at one point or another, so do I intend to be involved? You bet.”

Shalala could also face political challenges of her own in the next two years. She won both the primary and the general election by single digits, and didn’t shy away from aggravating portions of the Democratic base by refusing to support Medicare-for-all or abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Her general election campaign against former TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar was closer than expected, though Trump’s presence on the ballot in 2020 could make it hard for any Republican to win in a district where the president is unpopular.

Over the next year, Shalala plans to demonstrate her political skills by helping to “stop the undercutting of Obamacare,” working with both parties to lower prescription drug costs, pushing for universal background checks on firearm purchases and “negotiating a big infrastructure bill that will help South Florida.”

“I think we have a responsibility to do oversight, but not by ignoring getting something done in terms of policy,” Shalala said.

But for all of the lofty policy goals, first-year members of Congress are largely shepherded around Capitol Hill in the weeks before assuming office, learning about security protocols and the intricate rules of the House floor. Many members get lost in the underground tunnels that link their offices with the Capitol. Mucarsel-Powell inadvertently went through a security checkpoint even though members-elect are spared from emptying their pockets when entering the Capitol. The initiation process also includes a lottery where all 85 new members select their slots for a new office. Those near the bottom are likely to end up in a basement or an office without a proper front entrance.

“Gyrations, dancing or visible praying is highly encouraged,” said William Weidemeyer, the superintendent of House office buildings in charge of the draw.

Mucarsel-Powell played her lucky song and FaceTimed with her husband and kids as she drew number 43. Shalala pulled number 13, prompting one audience member to shout, “that’s lucky.”

Shalala said after the draw: “I’m asking for Pelosi’s office,”

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.