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.”
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