MIAMI ― Donna Shalala has led a Cabinet agency and three different universities. Now she is running for Congress, vying with four other Democrats for a shot at a South Florida seat that looks like one of the party’s best pickup opportunities in the midterm elections.
At 77, Shalala would be among the oldest people ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time. But age seems unlikely to stop the preternaturally energetic Shalala’s bid, and it’s not clear anything else can, either.
It was just three years ago that Shalala stepped down as the University of Miami’s president. After a highly visible decade and a half in that position, she has by far the strongest name recognition of any Democratic candidate running. That’s no small thing in a district where ethnic diversity and a splintered media environment make it difficult to reach large numbers of voters at once ― and where the primary, set for Aug. 28, is less than three months away.
Shalala also has easy access to campaign cash and endorsements from organizations like EMILY’s List, the liberal fundraising group that focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights and that Shalala helped found more than 30 years ago.
“Few people have dedicated their careers to fighting for working families the way Donna Shalala has,” the organization’s leaders gushed, citing, among other things, her role in creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program while she was secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton. Today, 9 million kids and pregnant women have access to health care because of that program.
Shalala’s unabashed support for large safety net programs and reproductive rights, along with her efforts to fight hate speech as a university president, helps explain why by the 1990s she had developed a reputation as something of a radical, or what passed for one in Washington at the time. Prior to her confirmation hearings, a pair of conservative Washington Post columnists warned that she was the “farthest to the left and most controversial of all of President-elect Clinton’s Cabinet appointments.”
But a quarter-century has elapsed, the political environment has undergone some profound shifts, and now Shalala is drawing criticism from the other side of the ideological spectrum ― on the left, where some rivals and columnists are arguing she has proved to be an overly cautious, instinctively moderate politician who compromises her principles and sometimes her own integrity.
The basis for the critique is Shalala’s tenure at Miami, where she clashed with labor unions and environmentalists while serving on cushy corporate boards, as well as her close associations with the Clintons, whose centrist streak and cozy relationship with wealthy financiers alienated many of the party’s progressives long ago. More recently, Shalala has attracted scrutiny for her commitment to universal health care, which one of her competitors says is weak, and her self-described wariness about eliminating private insurance in order to enroll everybody in a version of Medicare.
It’s easy to get carried away with arguments like these. The distinctions between Shalala and her rivals are smaller than they seem, especially relative to the gap separating all of them from President Donald Trump and his Republican allies. Still, some differences exist and they raise a genuinely important question: What does it mean to be a progressive nowadays?
The answer may not ultimately affect the outcome of Shalala’s candidacy or many others this November. But it’s likely to loom large once the midterms are over and Democrats start thinking more seriously about their presidential nominee for 2020.
A Likely Democratic Pickup And An Unlikely Candidate
Florida’s 27th Congressional District includes Miami Beach, part of Miami and a swath of the city’s southern suburbs. Since 1989, its representative in Congress has been Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who was in the party’s mainstream before it lurched to the right, transforming her into a relative moderate and, at times, an outspoken critic from within.
The district itself has changed in ways that make Republican politics more anachronistic. More than half of eligible voters are Latino, with the older Cuban Americans loyal to the GOP representing an ever-smaller share of that group. Younger Cubans, Venezuelans and other Latinos are taking their place, with significant Jewish and LGBTQ constituencies also making their voices heard. The Cook Political Report rates the district D+5, which means it is substantially more likely to vote Democratic than the typical district in America. In 2016, it went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 20 percentage points.
The same voters sent Ros-Lehtinen back to Congress by a 10-point margin, testimony to her enduring popularity and history of attentive constituent service. But in Trump’s Republican Party, Ros-Lehtinen has seemed even more out of place.
A Cuban immigrant who was the first Latina to serve in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has repeatedly backed efforts to protect undocumented immigrants who came here years ago as children, often called Dreamers, and to create a path to citizenship even for non-Dreamers who are in the country illegally. Ros-Lehtinen, who has a transgender son, has also spoken out for LGBTQ rights. In 2011, she became the first GOP representative to support marriage equality.
Before the 2016 election, Ros-Lehtinen announced that she would not be voting for Trump and, a few months after he took office, she announced that this term would be her last.
While Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement was not a total surprise, Shalala’s interest in running for the seat was. Just a year before, Shalala had stepped down as president of the Clinton Foundation, where she’d minded the organization’s operations while her longtime friend Hillary Clinton ran for president. Her departure from the foundation ended a streak spanning nearly four decades, back to Shalala’s tenure as president at Hunter College in the 1980s, in which she had been in charge of either a large government agency or major nonprofit institution.
Shalala loves managing large systems, fighting her way through obstacles and dealing with crises ― and has been doing so, it seems, for almost her entire life. When she was an 11-year-old child in Cleveland, a tornado ripped through her neighborhood. Afterward, she took it upon herself to walk into the street so she could direct emergency vehicles. Decades later, at Miami, Shalala presided over a massive expansion in the institution’s medical and research resources, transforming it from a school known mostly for football and its associated scandals to one also known for academics (though still prone to sports scandals).
Shalala’s leadership positions came with real power and, in Miami, they came with some glitz too. The official residence for most of Shalala’s presidential term was a 4.5-acre estate that sits right on the edge of Biscayne Bay. Shalala, standing amid the tropical gardens with her dog Sweetie frequently nearby, would play host there to visiting dignitaries like the Dalai Lama, who, according to the Miami Herald, had his own specially outfitted guest room. (She would also host an annual barbecue for the university’s incoming students, saying a president’s house should be accessible and open to all.)
It’s hard to think of an existence that could be more different than life as a congressional freshman, which typically entails working out of the dreariest, hardest-to-reach offices on Capitol Hill and accepting assignments on the least glamorous committees. The only time newcomers in the House get to be leaders is when they pick up extra shifts as the presiding officer, which means sitting in the House speaker’s chair, bored, while fellow members address C-SPAN cameras and mostly empty seats about their pet legislative causes. Especially for new members who are part of the minority party, which remains a very real possibility for House Democrats in 2019, it can take years to build up clout.
A Clintonite, For Better Or Worse
On a drizzly Saturday morning in late May, Shalala appeared at a Democratic Party forum during a potentially rough interlude in her campaign. She had skipped the previous one, sparking criticism that she was ducking her opponents, and now she would be appearing onstage alongside all four of them: Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, former Knight Foundation program director Matt Haggman, former University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and state Rep. David Richardson.
But if the forum had been a sporting event, it would have been a home game. It took place on the University of Miami campus, in a theater literally next door to the Donna E. Shalala Student Center, which the university named for her when she left. Shalala even wore a green suit jacket, matching the school’s team colors.
A few minutes before the event began, while she was holding court with some advisers and activists in front of the stage, I asked her why she was not off somewhere writing books and giving speeches, or maybe running another nonprofit, rather than sweating out a run for Congress.
“I just woke one morning really pissed off at what was going on in Washington and thought, shoot, I could hit the ground running,” she said.
Nobody questions that last part. Having served in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter and then led HHS under Clinton, Shalala would arrive on Capitol Hill with a more sophisticated understanding of federal policy and operations than all but a few of her peers.
And although Shalala wouldn’t have seniority, her high profile nationally and in the South Florida media market means she would rarely have trouble finding cameras or microphones. That’s a kind of power, too, and Shalala says she could deploy it in ways that would advance progressive causes generally while also serving the interests of her constituents.
“I’m not going to be a baby congresswoman,” she told me, chuckling. “Nobody is going to treat me like a rookie.”
Shalala’s speeches and campaign propaganda make this same point: “Donna Shalala for Congress, qualified and ready to deliver on Day One,” one campaign video says. The ad also includes a photo of Shalala standing alongside both Clintons, which seems appropriate.
Shalala was the longest-serving member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, sticking it out for all eight years even though she was among the secretaries who urged him to veto, rather than sign, the GOP’s controversial welfare bill, and even though she was livid over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At a Cabinet meeting after Clinton admitted his dishonesty, Shalala ripped into him, both for telling lies and for getting involved with an intern. Clinton himself later remembered Shalala as the adviser who had confronted him most brazenly.
I’m not going to be a baby congresswoman. Nobody is going to treat me like a rookie. Donna Shalala, former HHS secretary and president at the University of Miami
Shalala’s ties to the Clintons are probably an asset in an area where Hillary Clinton won overwhelmingly every time she appeared on a presidential ballot, going back to the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama. But Shalala’s association with the Clintons has also been a source of criticism.
“She must be stopped,” Tim Elfrink, managing editor of the Miami New Times, wrote in January, after the first reports she was considering a congressional run. “Shalala is just the kind of Clinton throwback that’s anathema to the party base.”
Elfrink cited an episode from her tenure at Miami that attracted national attention and still sticks in the craw of many local activists. In 2006, janitors at the school wanted to become part of the Service Employees International Union and to do so through a card-check process ― that is, getting signatures on a petition. But they worked for a contractor, not directly for the university, and the contractor was insisting the union hold a formal election, a more arduous process that employers have historically exploited to thwart organizing campaigns.
Shalala convened a committee that recommended substantial pay and benefit increases for the janitors. But when the janitors appealed for her to endorse card check, she refused, saying the university would remain neutral on that question. The janitors fought back, staging sit-ins and a hunger strike ― and waging a high-profile public relations campaign contrasting their median salary (less than $20,000 a year) with hers (more than $500,000 a year).
She must be stopped. Shalala is just the kind of Clinton throwback that’s anathema to the party base. Tim Elfrink, managing editor of the Miami New Times
“If you think of Donna Shalala’s history, she has this persona of being an advocate for poor, marginalized people in this country,” a university chaplain told The New York Times at the time. “In this dispute she’s clearly been an enemy of the working poor.”
Eventually, the contractor gave in and the janitors got their union.
Shalala now says that the university was “too slow” to intervene in that episode. And although that’s not the same as saying that either she or the university took the wrong position, she says her overall record shows she is strongly pro-union.
Andy Stern, former SEIU president, is among those who vouch for her today. During the strike, he said that Shalala, “ostensibly a champion of social justice, deserves to be embarrassed for her hypocrisy.” But in a recent interview with HuffPost, he recalled some extenuating circumstances, including a governing board at Miami that was far less sympathetic to labor than she was.
“It put her in a complicated place ― she was a relatively new president at the time,” Stern said. “She’s generally been very positive toward unions.”
The Democratic Party’s Next Big Fight
Ultimately the depths of Shalala’s commitment to labor might not matter much in Washington, where the debate these days isn’t over how hard to fight for unions so much as whether to fight for them at all. Health care is a different story. Democrats, unlike Republicans, agree that universal coverage should be their goal. But they disagree among themselves on how best to achieve it.
The most sweeping proposal comes from Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent senator who wants to eliminate private insurance and create a new, more generous version of Medicare that would automatically enroll everybody. He calls it “Medicare for all” and, ever since his strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, the phrase has become a litmus test of sorts for progressives, although not everybody uses it in the same way. When Sanders formally introduced the latest iteration of his proposal last fall, nearly two dozen Democratic colleagues, including most of the Senate’s serious 2020 presidential contenders, endorsed it.
One of Shalala’s campaign opponents, David Richardson, the state representative from Miami Beach, favors the Sanders approach. Richardson was Florida’s first openly gay legislator, made a name for himself exposing abuses in state prisons and has been raising serious money of his own through small donations. Last year, he introduced a bill that would create the “Healthy Florida program,” which is basically a state-level version of the Sanders proposal.
Since Shalala got into the race, Richardson has tried to make health care a focal point of the campaign. In a series of campaign videos, he has questioned whether Shalala shares his commitment to universal coverage. He cites a 2007 statement she made on Stephen Colbert’s old comedy show, in which she denied she was “one of those universal health care people,” and her failure to put forward a similarly sweeping proposal of her own.
“Donna had an opportunity many years ago to be a champion for ‘Medicare for all,’” Richardson says in one of the spots. Another says, “Shalala sold out progressive values for personal profits,” tying Shalala’s rhetoric and positioning to her service on corporate boards, including one for UnitedHealth, which is the nation’s largest health insurer.
“This election isn’t just about electing a Democrat, it’s about electing the right Democrat,” Richardson told the Herald. “When voters see the truth they’ll understand there’s a very clear difference between me and Donna Shalala.”
The actual size and significance of the difference is a matter about which reasonable people can disagree. Richardson is correct when he says that Shalala wouldn’t support the Sanders proposal as written. Her version of “Medicare for all” means an enhanced version of the program available to anybody who wants it, while allowing employers to continue offering coverage (and allowing employees to sign up for that coverage) if that is what they prefer.
More immediately, Shalala says, she would focus on making the Affordable Care Act’s tax subsidies more generous and pressuring more states to expand Medicaid.
“The politics are complicated for any of these steps,” Shalala told HuffPost, “but while there are many supporters for Sanders-style ‘Medicare for all,’ I don’t think we can get there quickly and carefully enough without a transitional strategy.” One reason for that circumspection: Shalala was a key player in Clinton’s failed effort to create a universal health care system back in 1993 and 1994.
The end result of the transformation Shalala envisions these days would still be comprehensive insurance for every American, or something extremely close to it, through a system that actually looks a lot like proposals that some serious health care wonks have designed and that groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have endorsed enthusiastically. That’s not atypical for her campaign. The positions she’s revealed on other key issues, including climate change and gun control, are close or even identical to what other progressives support. (Blurring the lines even more, Richardson actually got into his own labor-related dispute recently, while a union was organizing his campaign staff.)
But the worry for her critics on the left probably has less to do with policy specifics and more to do with her general instincts. It’s a nagging sense that when Shalala describes herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” as she routinely does, she puts too much emphasis on the word “pragmatic” ― or that the time she’s spent around wealthy financiers, so many of them instinctively conservative, has tempered her enthusiasm for bold government action. “Miami deserves a progressive leader ― not someone who has to be dragged into the fight,” Matt Haggman, the former Knight Foundation officer running for the seat, said in a tweet.
Few people have dedicated their careers to fighting for working families the way Donna Shalala has. Endorsement from EMILY's List, which Shalala helped found more than 30 years ago
These misgivings should sound familiar because they are the same ones progressives expressed about Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those anxieties are sure to carry over to the 2020 presidential campaign, as progressives contemplating would-be nominees consider what the most recent era of Democratic governance accomplished ― and what it did not.
Jobs have come back but wage growth is sluggish. Millions more have insurance but millions still struggle with health care costs. Emissions are down but the planet is still warming. Addressing these problems, progressives say, requires policy imagination and political courage that Democrats of the Clinton and Obama eras lacked. Those leaders were too quick to compromise, progressives say, settling for less when more was required.
But what looks today like timidity looked more like bravery 30, 20, even 10 years ago. As Shalala points out, GOP ideological extremism traces back to the Reagan era and got a big boost when then-Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia and his cadre of right-wing Republicans won control of Congress in the 1994 midterms. The Clinton administration accomplishments that Shalala cites with pride ― getting health care for kids, boosting incomes for the working poor, introducing new gun violence regulations ― all took place at a time when the very idea of government making a difference in people’s lives was under assault.
Finding the right mix between ambition and humility, vision and pragmatism ― and, sometimes, leftism and centrism ― will be a challenge for Democrats going forward. But maybe the reckoning can wait. The Democratic Party could benefit from leaders determined to push the boundaries of the politically possible. It could also benefit from leaders who have experience governing in the face of hostile political forces. Shalala sounds more like the latter than the former. With 435 House seats up for grabs in November, Democrats can elect some of both.
This article has been updated to include Matt Haggman’s recent tweet.