MIAMI — Hillary Clinton recently texted Donna Shalala a photo of her and Bill’s dogs wearing “Vote for Shalala” bibs. But the former president and former presidential candidate will not be joining Shalala on the trail.
“I’m using my own machine, no one else’s,” she says, smiling. “It’s Shalala time.”
As the Democratic Party tries to move on from the Clintons and their long hold on party politics, Shalala couldn’t completely separate herself from them even if she wanted to. Alumni of the Clinton Foundation help staff her campaign office. A number of her donors are from Clinton world. And many of the attacks lobbed against her in the race for the Democratic nomination in the race for Florida’s 27th Congressional District are reminiscent of those made by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) against Clinton in the 2016 primary campaign.
Shalala’s opponents have called her a corporate Democrat and part of the establishment, arguing that her ties to businesses make her the wrong candidate for the moment. The Miami district, represented by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban American in Congress, is considered a key pickup opportunity for Democrats in this year’s midterms.
As Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Shalala is arguing that her experience in government and beyond, giving her ties to businesses and governments worldwide, should be seen as a plus. Shalala says she is comfortable embracing her record, including serving as President Bill Clinton’s health and human services secretary for all eight years of his term and running the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was campaigning for president.
“I have no problem defending the Clinton Foundation or defending the magnificent work it does around the world or defending my past. And if they wanna run against me on that, bring it on,” Shalala said. She noted that in the 1990s, her views were mocked as being too liberal by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who had a regular segment called “Shalala Time.”
But however liberal she was then, her rivals outflank her now, as the party embraces its left.
David Richardson, 61, Shalala’s pugnacious closest rival and Florida’s first openly gay state representative, has released ads with old footage of Shalala telling talk-show host Stephen Colbert, in his role as a faux conservative commentator, that she was “not one of those universal health care people.”
Shalala was, with Hillary Clinton, the public face of Bill Clinton’s health-care policy, including the attempt to expand coverage that ended in a bruising defeat and was used as a cudgel against Democrats in the 1994 midterms as they lost the House majority. She then became an early backer of the Affordable Care Act, arguing that a single-payer system wouldn’t fly.
Now, Shalala is coming out in support of a more progressive health-care system, similar to one embraced by Sanders. She says that it is not as much of a shift from previous positions as Richardson is trying to make out and that she is not influenced by her time on the board of a major insurer.
While her opponents try to push Shalala to the left, she’s happy to point out that voters here picked the more centrist candidate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
“In this district, the Clintons are very popular. She won by 20 points. She beat Bernie by 50 points,” Shalala said.
While Shalala has name recognition, Richardson has moved ahead of her in fundraising thanks to a late surge, having pulled in $2.2 million to her $2.1 million. Matt Haggman, a former Miami Herald journalist, has brought in $1.4 million.
The likely Republican nominee in the district seems to be Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban American ex-journalist for Telemundo and CNN. The district still has a large Cuban population — Shalala has a cousin whose family is Cuban do the voice-over for a Spanish-language ad — but it has seen an influx of non-Cuban Hispanics and has generally moved to the left.
Even as Shalala embraces her ties to the Democratic establishment, they can still complicate her answers. She refuses to say whether she would vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker if she wins as part of a Democratic takeover of the House even as many in her party — including her primary rivals — say they wouldn’t. Pelosi has become the star of many Republican attack ads, as the GOP tries to paint a vote for any Democrat as a vote for Pelosi and a liberal agenda. But Shalala also says she would defend her longtime friend “to the death.”
Shalala’s actions outside of her time with the Clintons have also drawn attacks from her rivals. She ran the University of Miami from 2001 through 2015, and she’s been hit over the sale of an environmentally sensitive plot of land and donations to Republicans she made while there. She defends the political giving, saying it went to candidates who support the university and that she’s given many times more to Democrats.
Richardson has also gone after Shalala for her ties to corporations, including her time on the boards of insurer UnitedHealth and home builder Lennar. He closes out an ad attacking her with a narrator intoning, “Dollars for Donna, Nothing for Us.” (Or, in the Spanish-language version, “Dolares Para Donna, Para Nosotros Nada.”)
Shalala said she was fine with embracing her experience.
“Bill Clinton said I might be the most qualified person to ever run for Congress outside John Quincy Adams,” Shalala said. “I just wanna know what this Quincy Adams did.”