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 on Wednesday -- a crowd of mostly Cuban-American demonstrators yelled and waived anti-communism signs -- Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell said Thursday they will not return the $5,500 Lee donated to their campaigns ahead of the November election.
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.