The Biscayne Times

Jun 06th
Political Primacy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Andriana Mereuta   
July 2018

The battle to turn Miami blue

Democrats believe they can flip Congressional District 27 from red to blue -- but first they must survive their internal war

OCover_Shotn a Saturday afternoon in June, a few dozen people are chatting away in a Coral Gables office. The common subject is politics, but no one is arguing. They’re here for a single purpose: to flip a congressional seat that’s been held by a Republican for the past 29 years.

And they think Donna Shalala, former University of Miami president, is the best person to do it.

Dressed in a UM sweatshirt and standing at just five feet in height, Shalala makes small talk at this opening of her campaign headquarters. She is surrounded by supporters, a diverse group that includes seniors, millennials, Anglos, blacks, and Hispanics. When a tail-wagging canine walks over, Shalala, a well-known animal lover, gushes with affection.

“He was personally invited!” she declares as she strokes the dog’s head. “He gets walked every day with a Shalala T-shirt.” Crouching lower, Shalala coos to the dog: “You’re collecting votes for me!”

Shalala, a Democrat, wants to replace Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the representative of District 27, a sprawling area of about 750,000 people that includes Miami Beach, North Bay Village, portions of downtown Miami, Brickell, Little Havana, Coconut Grove, Kendall, Pinecrest, and other areas of south Miami-Dade. Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1989, announced in August 2017 that she wouldn’t run for re-election.

If elected, Shalala, at the age of 77, will be second-oldest person to serve a first term in the House of Representatives. (The oldest? That title belongs to James Bernard Bowler, who was first elected as a representative from Illinois in 1953 at age 78.) Shalala also suffered a stroke three years ago, though her advocates insist she has the energy of someone 40 years younger. Indeed, soon after her stroke, she reclaimed a full-time teaching position at UM.

But why do this at all?

CoverStory_2“Everybody has asked me: Why do you want to do this?” Shalala tells her supporters. “The answer is I woke up one morning and I turned on the television and I got pissed off with what was happening to our country. I was mad at the Republicans and the current person who is leading our country, and I wasn’t happy with the Democrats. And I’ve been watching this race for some period of time like a rational person, so I asked my friend Fernand Amandi if he could do a poll and find out if I’d be a viable candidate for this race.”

Amandi is a political science instructor at UM and the president and CEO of Bendixen & Amandi International, a communications and polling firm. According to Amandi, she’ll win because most people in District 27 know her and trust her.

“This is a defining quality,” Amandi tells the BT. “They know her. They like her. And they’re supporting her because of what she has done and what she’s going to do.”

With Ros-Lehtinen heading off into the sunset, Democrats are eager to turn this red seat blue. Ricky Junquera, vice president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, says District 27 is a top priority for Democrats, not just locally but nationwide.

“This is a district we have to win in order to take back the House of Representative,” Junquera explains. “We have to pick up a lot of seats nationwide. This is one of the top targeted districts in the [nation] for a reason -- we have very passionate Democrats in the county, and hopefully, we can flip it.”

DDistrictMapistrict 27 contains a lot of Democrats. Of the 398,685 registered voters living within its boundaries, 35.3 percent of them are registered Democrats, according to a recent Miami-Dade Elections Department report. In contrast, 32.3 percent are Republican. Another 32 percent have no party affiliation. The remaining voters, less than half of one percent, are registered with other parties.

And even though most of the district’s voters re-elected Ros-Lehtinen to a 15th term in November 2016, they preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Clinton received 58.4 percent of the district’s votes, while Trump received only 39.1 percent., a website that, among other things, analyzes political polls and elections across the country, recently declared that District 27 was 83.1 percent likely to be represented by a Democrat after the November vote.

Yet while Democrats are energized by the prospect of flipping the district, they’re divided over who should represent their party on the November 6 ballot.

Besides Shalala, five other candidates are competing in the August 28 Democratic primary election. All have been campaigning longer than she has.

There’s David Richardson, age 61, the Florida state representative for District 113, which includes much of Miami Beach, North Bay Village, and part of downtown Miami. Known for his efforts to reform Florida’s private prisons, Richardson was, in 2012, the first openly gay person elected to the Florida legislature. He’s a retired forensic accountant whose past clients include the Pentagon.

Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, age 44, is an associate professor at Miami Dade College and an outspoken Miami Beach commissioner who was often a critic of Philip Levine when the multimillionaire was that city’s mayor. (Levine is now running for governor as a Democrat.) More recently, Rosen Gonzalez has received media attention for accusing a Miami Beach commission candidate, Raphael Velasquez, of exposing himself while they were alone in her car. Her revelation inspired two other women to come forward with accusations of harassment against Velasquez, which effectively ended his campaign. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Velasquez owing to a lack of evidence, and he’s now suing Rosen Gonzalez for defamation.

Matt Haggman, age 44, is the former Miami program director for the Knight Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to enhance journalism, the arts, and economic development. Prior to working for the Knight Foundation, Haggman was an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald.

And there’s Michael Hepburn, age 35, a senior academic advisor for the University of Miami’s School of Business and a former retail and sports entertainment consultant.

There used to be even more Democrats running in the District 27 primary. That changed in January, when Amandi released a poll asserting that Shalala had the highest name recognition, even more than state Sen. José Javier Rodriguez and Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell. Two months later, on March 6, Shalala entered the fray. Then, on April 5, she disclosed she’d raised $1.17 million in just three weeks. Javier Rodriguez and Russell dropped out of the race, both men citing the state’s newly passed “resign-to-run” law as their reason for quitting. Also leaving the race was former Circuit Court Judge Mary Barzee Flores, who opted instead to run against incumbent Republican Mario Diaz-Balart in Congressional District 25, which stretches from northwest Miami-Dade across the Everglades and up to Lake Okeechobee.

TCoverStory_4here are plenty of Democrats who think Shalala is the best person for the job, as revealed by yet another Bendixen & Amandi poll conducted the first week of June. According to that poll, 43 percent of 600 likely Democratic voters would have cast their ballots for her if the election had been held then. Second place went to “undecided,” at 26 percent. In third place was Richardson, at 16 percent. The rest finished in single digits.

Shalala’s professional résumé accounts for a large part of that support. In addition to being UM’s president for 14 years (2001-2015), she served as secretary of the enormous Department of Health and Human Services for both terms of the Clinton administration. She was also chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987 to 1993, and acted as president of the Clinton Foundation for two years (2015-2017).

“She brings a wealth of experience, and can do a lot for the Democrats in Congress,” says Bob Goldstein, president of the South Dade Democratic Club. “I may not agree with her on every issue, but she’s capable of learning and changing, and she’s a dynamic person. We haven’t had a Democrat running for Congress with these kinds of skills for a long time.”

Experience, Shalala stresses, is what her opponents just don’t have. Her campaign motto: “Ready From Day One.”

“They’re all fine people,” Shalala tells the BT. “But I have the most experience. And I’ve been in the community for a very long time. I’m going to run on what I’ve already done for the community -- created a thousand jobs, had a $3 billion impact on South Florida. So I have a long record to tell the voters about. I feel this community deserves that level of representation.”

But Christopher Norwood, a Miami-based Democratic Party consultant, says Shalala isn’t all that experienced, at least in terms of being a legislator. “Shalala is not ready from day one,” he says. “Richardson is ready from day one. Richardson has served on a legislative body. Shalala has never done that.”

CoverStory_5Not only that, he adds, but Richardson is serving as a Democrat in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature, which will be the environment a Democrat representing District 27 will enter if a blue wave fails to materialize in November.

There are also eight Republicans competing in the August 28 primary. Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro had been considered a likely nominee. Barreiro, who was a state representative between 1992 and 1996, and a county commissioner from 1996 until his surprise resignation on March 31 of this year, has never lost an election. The Barreiro family reportedly has a potent political machine in Little Havana.

But the conventional wisdom changed on June 21, after his wife, Zoraida Barreiro, was defeated by progressive Eileen Higgins in a special election for his vacant District 5 seat on the county commission. (District 5 includes most of Miami Beach, downtown Miami, and Little Havana.) Now Maria Elvira Salazar, a former television journalist who has worked for MegaTV, Univision, Telemundo, Newsmax, and Fox News, is emerging as a front-runner for the Republican nomination.

(Higgins emerged victorious partly because of the support she received from Democrats, including all five of District 27’s Democratic candidates, even though the commission seat is nonpartisan.)

Republican consultants the BT spoke to insist that Barreiro or Salazar could defeat the Democratic nominee for District 27 in November. And Democrats agree that victory is not a foregone conclusion.

DCoverStory_6istrict 27 is a Hispanic-majority district. According to the recent Miami-Dade Elections Department report, 58.2 percent of the district’s registered voters are Hispanic.

Five out of the district’s eight Republican candidates, including Barreiro and Salazar, are Cuban American. Mayra Joli, an immigration attorney with pro-Trump leanings who is running as an Independent, is Dominican-American. As for the Democrats, none of the six is Hispanic.

Hector Roos, a Republican political consultant, thinks the lack of Hispanic candidates on the Democratic side will be a disadvantage in November, and possibly an advantage for someone like Barreiro. “If you have a Hispanic who’s the Republican nominee, and you don’t have a Hispanic running as a Democrat,” he says, “then those Hispanics who are either independent or maybe registered Democrat are likely to throw away their partisan nature and vote for someone who reminds them of their brother or their father, and has a long career of public service in Dade County.”

Juan-Carlos Planas, a Republican attorney providing legal advice to the Salazar campaign, agrees, though he sees it as more of an advantage for Salazar, a recognized face in Spanish-language media. “I think José Javier Rodriguez not running is a big mistake for the Dems,” he says.

Democratic consultant Norwood questions why the Democrats didn’t recruit more Hispanic candidates to run in District 27. “We still have a long way to go in appealing to Hispanics,” he says. “Generally speaking, we don’t have a lot of [Democratic] Hispanics in elected office in Florida.”

Within District 27, there simply aren’t a lot of registered Hispanic Democrats, just 29.6 percent, according to the county elections department. Hispanic voters registered as Republicans, on the other hand, make up 37.5 percent of District 27. Hispanic voters registered with no party affiliation comprise 32.5 percent.

For decades, the county’s Cuban-American voters tended to vote Republican. But that trend has shifted. According to a Pew Research report, back in 2002, 64 percent of Cuban-American voters were Republican or leaned Republican, while 22 percent were Democrats or leaned Democrat. By 2013, though, just 47 percent of Cuban-American voters were Republican or leaned Republican, while 44 percent were Democrat or leaned Democrat.

That shift has likely had an impact. Although Trump won Florida in 2016 with 49 percent of the vote, Clinton won 63 percent of Miami-Dade County’s vote. An analysis by the Miami Herald showed that Clinton actually received more votes in Cuban neighborhoods than did Trump.

Fernand Amandi, himself a Cuban American, says the last couple of presidential elections disprove the notion that Cuban voters prefer Republicans: “Cuban-American voters, like any voters, want the most qualified best person for the job.”

CoverStory_7And the Democrats running in District 27 do have Hispanic connections, if indirectly. Kristen Rosen Gonzalez (who was previously married to a Hispanic) and David Richardson are both fluent in Spanish. Danet Lineras, vice chairwoman of Blanca Commercial Real Estate and a Cuban American, is a major part of Matt Haggman’s campaign. Lineras also happens to be Haggman’s wife.

Shalala, who is of Lebanese descent, has several Hispanics on her team, including Amandi, whose company has been paid $28,000 by her campaign so far; as well as Abigail Pollak, a prominent philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser, who is chairing Shalala’s campaign finance committee.

Shalala has something else going for her: Hillary Clinton’s endorsement, which came on June 18. On the surface, having Clinton’s official backing should be an asset in Miami-Dade County. However, to defeat her primary rivals, Shalala must appeal to a very active progressive wing of the party. Those progressives were not impressed when she skipped the South Dade Democratic Club debate in South Miami on May 15, which was attended by 200 people. Instead, Shalala, an animal lover, attended a screening of a documentary in Coral Gables about the Miami-Dade Pet’s Trust.

Shalala did attend a debate at the University of Miami sponsored by the Florida Young Democrats a few days later. But during the discussion, it wasn’t Hillary Clinton whose name was invoked. Instead, it was Bernie Sanders.

All five contenders were asked “lightning round” questions, such as: Do you support legalizing marijuana? Do you support enacting a single-payer health-care system? Do you support enacting a carbon tax? Do you support banning assault weapons with high-capacity magazines? Do you support raising the minimum wage to $15? Do you support banning charter schools?

The five candidates could answer by holding up cards that said “Yes,” “No,” or “It’s Complicated.” All five, including Shalala, held up “Yes” cards for all the lightning-round questions.

DCoverStory_8avid Richardson won’t let Donna Shalala claim to be a progressive. Richardson, who, as of April 15, has reported $1.08 million remaining in campaign funds, has been airing commercials that first tout his progressive initiatives to reform prisons, ban assault weapons, and impeach Trump. Then the commercials slam Shalala, claiming the former UM president sold out progressive values by giving money to Republican candidates and by being a member of corporate boards like private health insurer UnitedHealth Group and home builder Lennar. One commercial includes a 2007 clip from Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, back when Stephen Colbert played the part of an over-the-top conservative TV host. In that clip, Colbert asks Shalala if she is for universal healthcare. “No, actually I’m not,” she answers.

“I was on a comedy show!” Shalala says, exasperated after the BT brings up the commercial. “It was comedy!” Pressed again, she adds with a frustrated laugh: “I believe in universal health care! I believed in universal health care before anyone was born! I’ve been fighting for universal health care since the beginning of the Clinton administration!”

During the Clinton years, Shalala says, she was involved in crafting an assault weapon ban that lasted from 1994 until 2004, when President George W. Bush let it lapse. She was also involved in first lady Hillary Clinton’s attempted push for Medicare-for-All legislation, which went nowhere. During the UM debate, Shalala insisted she gave far more in political contributions to Democrats than Republicans.

As for her membership on corporate boards, Amandi insists she did that for the benefit of the community. Her affiliation with UnitedHealth, he explains, led to the company giving a $10 million grant to the Jefferson Reaves Sr. Medical Center in Overtown. “She didn’t go on the boards to get insight. She went on the boards to help a community she lived in, which is what she’s done her entire life.”

Shalala did profit from the sale of shares she held in UnitedHealth. According to a February 2005 article from the financial weekly Barron’s, she sold 61,000 shares that year for $5.4 million.

Billy Corben, a local documentary filmmaker known for directing, among other films, The U, about the University of Miami’s football program, has followed Shalala’s career. He, too, doubts Shalala’s progressive credentials, especially regarding marijuana. “She was Secretary of Health and Human Services, and she took a very hard-line position against medical marijuana, against legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana when she had the ear of the president of the United States,” he says.

Shalala’s stance as an environmentalist has also come under fire, owing to UM’s treatment of 138 acres of environmentally sensitive pine rocklands. The South Dade land was given to University of Miami in the 1980s and 1990s by the federal government. The university, in turn, disposed of “hazardous substances” on the property, including “radiated animal carcasses” used in experiments, according to a Miami New Times article.

Following a 2006 lawsuit by the Department of Justice, UM paid a fine of $400,000, which was less than half the cost to clean up the land. Then, after a deed restriction on the property expired, UM sold 88 acres of it for $22 million to a Palm Beach County developer who wants to build a Walmart and mixed-use housing on the rocklands.

Amandi insists that Shalala has been an environmentalist since before it was fashionable. As for the land sale, he says, the decision was made when the “economy hit bottom and they needed to get more revenue for student scholarships.” He adds that Shalala met with environmental activists and agencies for input and set aside more than 100 acres of pine rocklands that will now remain permanently pristine.


Corben actually agrees with Amandi on this point -- UM did really need the money. But he maintains that it wasn’t because of the financial meltdown. Rather it was because UM, under Shalala’s direction, overpaid for Cedars Medical Center. Back in 2007, UM bought the 560-bed hospital from for-profit HCA Healthcare for $260 million. According to a January 2008 Miami Herald report, experts who reviewed the sale insisted that UM paid far too much for the hospital.

Nearly ten years later, in November 2017, the Herald reported that the former Cedars Medical Center, now called UHealth Tower, lost $94.5 million that year alone.

Corben cited other questionable decisions he says Shalala made at UM, ranging from exploiting UM’s football team while cutting funding to that program to UM’s association with three men who were later convicted of running Ponzi schemes.

Therein lies Shalala’s problem. Her high-profile résumé comes with baggage. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Republican political consultant Hector Roos.

David Richardson’s campaign is using that sword to attack her ahead of the primary. Sam Powers, Richardson’s campaign manager, says the state representative has an obligation to bring up Shalala’s record. “This is the first time in a generation that people will have a real chance to elect a Democrat to that district,” Powers says, adding, “This race is not about electing a Democrat, it’s about electing the right Democrat.”

Roos thinks attacking Shalala’s record is Richardson’s best option to emerge victorious in a primary that will be decided by maybe 30,000 registered Democrats. “Shalala is beatable, and for the most part, she’s trying to win this election with star power,” he says. By attacking Shalala, Roos explains, Richardson can raise his own profile. “He’s coming off as a super-progressive. He’s trying to win the primary by running to the left, and that usually does pretty well in a Democratic primary.”

That strategy may have taken a hit, though. Richardson laid off eight of his paid campaign staffers soon after they unionized. A consultant with his campaign told the Herald that the layoffs occurred after the campaign decided to spend money on commercials instead of field organizers.

Meanwhile, Rosen Gonzalez is on the attack, too, although her main target is Richardson. Rosen Gonzalez’s $343,063 campaign has paid former Herald reporter and “Politico Cortadito” blogger Elaine De Valle $4000 for consulting and media blogger advertising. As part of that service, De Valle runs a blog for Rosen Gonzalez called “QuePasa27,” which includes two negative stories about Richardson.

One of the stories, headlined “David Richardson has no record, has to attack Donna Shalala,” points out that all six bills Richardson sponsored in the legislature have died in committee. The second story, headlined “David Richardson snuggles up to Big Sugar as he snubs labor,” reminds readers of his staff layoffs and states that his campaign accepted $14,000 from executives affiliated with the U.S. sugar industry, notorious for its environmental violations and poor treatment of field workers.

Asked why she was targeting Richardson in particular, Rosen Gonzalez replied via e-mail: “He took money from the sugar industry, so he is one of the people responsible for the algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee. This country does not need another hypocrite.”

Rosen Gonzalez is no stranger to controversy. The Miami Beach commissioner was recently admonished by the Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission for trying to use her position to quash the arrest of Erik Agazim, owner of the Lock & Load Shooting Range in Wynwood, after he used a machete to hack up 11 fire alarms in his Sunset Harbour condominium -- while reportedly carrying a rifle and wearing a Kevlar vest and helmet with a flashing light a few days after Hurricane Irma.

She received flak as well when, following a shooting that occurred during 2017’s Memorial Day weekend, she sent an e-mail to the Miami Beach city manager suggesting that the city “give the cops their bullets back” and remove police officers’ body cameras. Today she insists the e-mail was taken out of context. “This was a labor issue and had nothing to do with anything other than an ineffective chief of police,” she says. “I voted in favor of body cameras.”

Republican consultant Roos says that Rosen Gonzalez’s tactic of attacking Richardson makes sense in that they’re both fighting for progressive voters who may be reluctant to support Shalala. Still, Rosen Gonzalez’s assaults on Richardson only add to a narrative that District 27’s Democratic primary is descending into a political bloodbath.

For her part, Shalala says she refuses to engage in negative campaigning: “The Democratic Party will destroy itself as Republicans often do when they don’t run positive campaigns. Frankly, the public wants positive campaigns. They’re tired of people criticizing each other, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans.”

OCoverStory_10n the same day Shalala celebrates her headquarters opening, Matt Haggman has his own campaign office party on Bird Road in southwest Miami. There are balloons, a table filled with Cuban snacks, and dozens of smiling people, most of them young. That isn’t an accident. Haggman says his campaign has been recruiting college students at universities across Florida, including the University of Miami.

“We have one student who’s from Randolph College in Virginia,” he says. “He doesn’t even live here. He came down to work on the campaign for the summer. It’s what this is all about. Fundamentally, this is about connecting with people, where they are, understanding their concerns. That’s how we’re going to find our way forward in our politics.”

After nearly a year of campaigning, Haggman has raised $1.12 million. A chunk of that money has already been spent, yet as of March 31, Haggman still had $870,247 in cash on hand. He’s also aiming to raise an army of door-knockers and canvassers to accompany him as he meets district voters.

On this day in early June, he proudly celebrates the fact that his team just knocked on its 12,000th door. “Our focus has been building the biggest and most robust ground game in the race,” he tells the BT. So far, that ground game includes seven employees and around 50 volunteers, many of whom are college students. (That number doesn’t impress the Shalala campaign’s Amandi: “We have over 350 volunteers, and we’re just getting started.”)

Recently Haggman has been rolling out commercials that communicate his theme -- it’s time for new energy and new people in Congress. One of the ads even takes a jab at Shalala: “Donna Shalala, she’s had her chance. It’s time for a new day.”

In another commercial, Haggman declares his intention to dismantle the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, which has been at the forefront of Trump’s deportation policy.

Haggman can use the attention. According to Bendixen & Amandi’s June poll, he’s running fifth, with just five percent of likely Democratic voters stating they would cast their ballots for him. That’s below Rosen Gonzalez, who had the support of eight percent likely primary voters, and just ahead of Michael Hepburn, who appealed to just two percent of likely voters. Hepburn, incidentally, has raised just $23,717 and has $10,338 left in his campaign treasury.

Nevertheless, Haggman soldiers on. It’s basically his only job. He resigned from his post at the Knight Foundation, where he was forging entrepreneur programs throughout Miami-Dade County. He did it for one reason, says his wife, Danet Lineras: Trump.

“Matt’s always been interested in politics and he’s always thought about running for office, but then he’d say he never had the time, he’d come up with excuses,” Lineras recounts. “But when Trump got elected and we saw what was going on and I was complaining every day about the situation in the country, he said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to run for Congress.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely! You have to do it.’”

Lineras later adds: “And then when he said he was going to quit his job --” she pauses to make a face -- “I said okay because he has to do this. You have to do this 100 percent.”

Haggman’s motivation sounds similar to Shalala’s. Nevertheless, Trump’s name isn’t brought up very often during the primary debates. That’s because Democrats are trying to concentrate on issues like health care and education, explains Caroline Rowland, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party.

Roos sees the logic in that, too, especially leading up the general election. He maintains that Trump really isn’t that unpopular. According to a June 18 Gallup poll, Trump has a 45 percent overall approval rating. While that’s lower than previous presidents during their first 18 months in office, his ratings are going up, Roos says.

There is no doubt, however, that Trump is inspiring people in Greater Miami not only to run for office as Democrats, but also to volunteer for Democratic candidates. Back at Shalala’s campaign headquarters, Derek Pretto tells the BT that he’s just moved back to Coral Gables from Panama after selling his business there. “I’ve never volunteered for a campaign before,” he says. Yet after living abroad, he’s witnessed firsthand how America is perceived with Trump as president.

And Shalala? She’s the only candidate he’s familiar with on the Democratic side. “My mother got her Ph.D. at UM,” Pretto says. “I met [Shalala] a couple of years ago. I felt she was a pretty good candidate.”

Pretto also likes Shalala’s views on Medicaid expansion. His son is diabetic. “That’s why we’re here,” he says. “We just couldn’t get the medical care we needed in Panama. That’s what drove us to sell our business and come here.”

Even so, he adds, it’s been pretty tough getting health care for his son, “even with Obamacare.” Pretto is hopeful that Shalala can help move the U.S. toward a single-payer health system. He’s suffered enough from the relentless anxiety of trying to find adequate health insurance.

“It’s very scary,” he says. “We were a couple of months out of pocket, and it’s an unbelievable experience -- just the insulin alone is $800 a bottle.”


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