Barbara Lee never came to Miami.
But the mere mention of the California lawmaker’s name on the programming flier for a campaign event in Coral Gables was enough to trigger a protest, a call for South Florida Democratic candidates to divest from her campaign contributions and an attack ad from a Super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The congresswoman, who turned heads in 2016 by praising former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro after his death, was listed as an expected guest at a “Get Out the Vote” event on press releases issued by the campaigns of Democrat Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Despite the protest flare-up outside the event Wednesday — a crowd of mostly Cuban-American demonstrators yelled and waved anti-communism signs — Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell said Thursday that they will not return the $5,500 Lee donated to their campaigns ahead of the November election.
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Lee, whose name was scrubbed from the event without explanation, donated $2,000 to the campaign of Shalala, who is running in Florida’s 27th Congressional District against Republican Maria Elvira Salazar.
Lee also donated $3,500 to Mucarsel-Powell, who is running in Florida’s 26th Congressional District against incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
In a statement to the Herald, Salazar campaign spokesman Jose Luis Castillo hammered Shalala for agreeing to appear alongside Lee and declining to return Lee’s donations.
“[Her] total disconnect and lack of empathy with this community is appalling,” he said. “Barbara Lee’s longtime admiration for Fidel Castro is deeply offensive to the Cuban community, as well as all freedom-loving people everywhere.”
After Castro’s death in 2016, Lee told the San Jose Mercury News that “we need to stop and pause and mourn his loss” and that she was “very sad for the Cuban people.”
“He led a revolution in Cuba that led social improvements for his people,” Lee said then, adding that during her eight meetings with Castro over the years, she found him to be a “smart man” and a “historian” who “wanted normal relations with the United States, but not at the expense of the accomplishments of the revolution.”
The candidates said they disagreed with Lee’s sentiments toward Castro and argued that the views of their donors are not necessarily representative of their own views, although demands that candidates return money from unsavory or controversial figures have already been an issue in the race for District 26.
“By this logic, Congressman Curbelo agrees with billionaire Rex Sinquefield, who has given him $5,400, that the public school system is a product of the KKK, and he agrees with [former] Rep. Ron DeSantis, who gave him $3,000, on his racist belief that Floridians would “monkey” our state up by electing our first black governor,” said Melvin Felix, a spokesman for Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign, in a statement.
Curbelo’s campaign, which argued that Mucarsel-Powell was engaging in bad-faith attacks, noted that the Republican had conceded to similar demands in the past. Earlier this year, he agreed to donate a portion of at least $6,000 in campaign funds given to him by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Pat Meehan after it was uncovered that Meehan used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment case and that he had referred to a female staffer as his “soul mate.”
And after similar demands from Curbelo months later, Mucarsel-Powell said she would reject a $5,000 donation from the political committee headed by Rep. Tony Cardenas, a Democratic congressman from California who was accused of molesting a teenager. She said the money was donated to a women’s group, although Curbelo’s campaign has cast doubt on how much of the money Mucarsel-Powell donated.
“For Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to try and insinuate that a former member of the Miami-Dade County Public School Board does not support public schools or that someone who has personally experienced discrimination is a racist is disgusting and desperate,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a Curbelo spokeswoman, in response to Mucarsel-Powell’s statement.
Mucarsel-Powell “took thousands from a [Nicolás] Maduro and Castro sympathizer then welcomed her to campaign in the community where the victims of these murderous regimes have taken refuge,” Rodriguez said.
On Thursday, the Congressional Leadership Fund released a Spanish-language radio ad titled “Castro” that hits Shalala for scheduling the campaign event Lee was supposed to attend.
“Donna Shalala is not from Miami, she doesn’t speak Spanish and she doesn’t represent our community,” the ad from the political action committee says. “Why else would Shalala want to campaign with a congresswoman who praised Castro and defended the ruthless regime in Venezuela?”
The ad is the latest fallout from Wedneday’s botched campaign appearance with Shalala, Mucarsel-Powell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that was marred by the small crowd of Cuban-American protesters outside who shouted and banged on the windows of Shalala’s campaign headquarters. Lee was not present at the event, but press releases issued Tuesday by the campaigns of Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell listed the California lawmaker as an expected guest.
“As her underperforming campaign continues to struggle, it’s become crystal clear that Donna Shalala just doesn’t understand the Miami community and the 27th district,” said CLF communications director Courtney Alexander. “This week, Shalala even associated with a Congresswoman who praised Fidel Castro and defended the ruthless Maduro regime in Venezuela. This is a slap in the face to exiles in Miami — South Florida voters deserve better than Donna Shalala.”
Mike Hernandez, a spokesman for the Shalala campaign, slammed Salazar for being aligned with a political committee affiliated with President Donald Trump and with political committees affiliated with Charles and David Koch, like Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy and Freedom Works for America.
“Maria Elvira Salazar accepted money from Trump’s PAC. Does she support ripping kids out of their parents [sic] arms?” he asked in a statement to the Herald. “She accepted money from Koch. Does she support privatizing social security and drilling off our coast?”
CLF, the Paul Ryan-affiliated political committee, has invested at least $84 million around the country over the past two years in an attempt to help Republicans win House seats in a year where Democrats are expected to make gains. It didn’t get involved in Shalala’s race until this week, a sign that national Republicans see an open seat vacated by retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that Trump lost by nearly 20 points in 2016 as competitive for the GOP.
CLF has also been running TV ads attacking Mucarsel-Powell and has bankrolled a ground operation in Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s district for over a year.