Buoyed by her name recognition and fueled by rage at President Donald Trump, Donna Shalala won a nationally watched race for a Miami congressional district Tuesday, flipping a Republican-held seat to boost Democrats’ chances of taking the U.S. House.
Shalala defeated Maria Elvira Salazar, a veteran Spanish-language TV news anchor with no political experience. At 77, Shalala will become the second-oldest House freshman in U.S. history. And, as the former president of the University of Miami, perhaps one of the most accomplished.
“This campaign was always not about me, but about our community and about our future,” Shalala told a crowd of cheering supporters Tuesday night at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club. “And bringing us together is absolutely critical for our future.
“Tonight I want you to hear a message of unity,” she said.
Shalala, who ran for office saying she was “pissed” at Washington, D.C., and frequently blasted Trump’s immigration policies, had a blunt message for the president, decrying as “un-American” the “hate that has infected all of us.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
She said her election sends a message to Washington “that we want our community back, we want our country back and we want our state back. We want it back for the kids who are scared to go to school, we want it back for the LGBTQ community. We want it back for the workers at the airport who don’t make much money, we want it back for the Haitians and the Hondurans and the Nicaraguans and the Venezuelans and the Colombians and the Cubans.”
“And Mr. President, ready or not here we come,” she said, as loudspeakers blared “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.”
Shalala congratulated her opponents, Salazar and Mayra Jolie, calling their participation proof that it is the “year of the woman. And the fact they put themselves on the line is important.”
Salazar took the stage at the Hilton Miami Blue Lagoon resort ballroom about an hour later, where approximately 150 of her supporters had gathered, and congratulated Shalala.
“The results are not what we expected,” said Salazar, who repeated her concession speech in Spanish. “But thank God we live in a country where we can vote without fear.”
Shalala will succeed Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican who became the first Hispanic woman to serve in Congress after being elected to the House of Representatives in 1989. Ros-Lehtinen had endorsed Salazar but issued a statement Tuesday congratulating Shalala.
“Donna is committed to public service and her many contributions to our South Florida community will serve her well as she represents this diverse district in the halls of Congress,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The seat was one national Democrats were counting on to take control of the U.S. House, and Shalala benefited from what observers say is an increasingly blue tint to the district. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016 by nearly 20 points — the widest margin in the country in a district held by a Republican.
Shalala won the majority Hispanic district despite not speaking Spanish, but she told reporters after her victory speech that she had worked the district “from Little Havana to Richmond Heights” and didn’t neglect any community. She said it didn’t make a difference to voters that she didn’t always speak their language.
“What was important is what was in my heart and whether I could tell them how much I love the community and how much I was willing to fight for them,” she said.
And voters said Tuesday they rewarded Shalala for her career, particularly at the University of Miami.
“Shalala has the real experience and the know-how,” said Mercy Paloma, a 62-year-old Realtor and Democratic Party volunteer who drove voters to the polls all day while wearing two rubber bracelets for Shalala on her wrist and a Bill Nelson bumper sticker on her messenger bag. She dismissed Salazar as “a TV personality,” adding, “she knows how to kayak, but going to Washington against the lions? You gotta have the chops.”
Shalala relied heavily on her ties to UM, where she served as the president from 2001 until 2015, boosting the school’s national profile. She cited her career working with younger people to deflect concerns about her age. And a string of controversies at the school that Republicans sought to highlight in a barrage of ads in the closing weeks did not seem to hurt her.
Jeff Kaplan, a 51-year-old lawyer, said he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about his vote for Shalala, but believed she was a good university president and her skills would translate to Congress.
“A big research university like that, it’s a microcosm of a political system,” Kaplan said. “She was able to navigate those political waters.”
Shalala voted Tuesday morning at the Coral Gables Fire Station on Old Cutler Road, telling reporters that she had consistently been ahead in the race and that internal polls that surfaced several weeks ago that suggested otherwise were misleading.
“People in all parts of our community have gotten to know me even better,” said Shalala, who enjoyed tremendous name recognition before she entered the race. “And I don’t have a party I have to defend or a president I have to defend.”
She said she believed that her emphasis on healthcare had hit a chord with voters.
“The threats to healthcare are real,” she said, noting that 100,000 people in the district are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act — one of the highest participation rates in the country. “What’s on the ballot is not just Donald Trump, but real things that affect people on an everyday basis.”
Shalala, who emerged victorious out of a contentious Democratic primary, campaigned as the only candidate who could arrive in Washington and not need any training.
“The important thing to me is that I deliver from Day One for the people of Miami-Dade,” she said.
Salazar, who had voted early on Oct. 31 at the West Dade Regional Library in Miami, made several stops at precincts on Tuesday, taking selfies with volunteers and talking to voters.
She told reporters that she wanted to follow in Ros-Lehtinen’s footsteps: “She was really the center and that’s what I want to be — the center.”
A longtime Spanish-language TV personality and journalist, Salazar, 56, had easily won the GOP primary over veteran politicians. She told reporters that her television celebrity — she spent three decades at Telemundo — helped her turn “viewers into voters.”
To appeal to the blue-leaning district, Salazar sought to position herself as a moderate Republican with no ties to Washington, in Ros-Lehtinen’s mold. But her stances on specific issues were often vague or contradictory. Though she voted for Trump, she was critical of his zero-tolerance immigration policy. But she supported his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats early on believed they had the advantage in the district.
They were enthused with Shalala’s candidacy, given her name recognition, her experience as the longest serving Health and Human Services secretary in U.S. history and prodigious fundraising skills.
Shalala, for her part, said voters never had to figure out where she stood. Once considered one of the more liberal members of the 1990s-era Clinton administration, Shalala faced criticism from the left in the Democratic primary from opponents who feared she was too moderate and too establishment to fire up Democrats that have been trending further left.
But Shalala campaigned largely on Democratic standards, embracing more gun control and increased funding for transportation projects and climate change. She also embraced her fellow women candidates in the congressional races, calling it the “year of the woman,” with 197 women candidates across the country running for the U.S. House and Senate. Though she once questioned whether a “single-payer” system favored by progressives could be implemented, she backed a Bernie Sanders-style “Medicare Option for All” with the condition that employer-provided coverage would be preserved.
“I have not widdle-waddled on the issues the way my opponent has,” she said Tuesday as she cast her ballot in Coral Gables. “You know where I stand on healthcare, you know where I stand on gun control You know where I stand on the environment.”
Herald staff writers Alex Harris, A.J. Guardino, and Rebecca Rae Ripley contributed to this report.