Shalala cites students as motivation behind Congressional run: ‘It’s time for me to step up again’

Former UM President Donna Shalala, 77, is running to occupy Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's vacant seat in Congress. Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida's 27th District.

The idea to run for a Congressional seat has been stirring in Donna Shalala’s mind for a while. However, for the former University of Miami president, the idea came to fruition after listening to students in her class as disagreement with President Donald Trump’s policies hit a high.

“I’ve been getting angrier and angrier at what’s going on in Washington,” Shalala said. “And frankly, I’ve been talking to students – students in my class. I’m worried about your future, and it’s time for me to step up again and do public service again.”

While Shalala filed to run on March 5, she didn’t officially announced her bid to enter the congressional race for Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat until March 7 in a video announcement on her website. In the video, Shalala said her goal is to create a truly “great” America – not one that Trump has envisioned. Speculation surrounding Shalala’s potential bid for public office has been surfacing for months. She joins the crowded race with seven Democrats in the running for the seat representing Florida’s 27th District.

Republican representive Ros-Lehtinen, a UM alumna, has been in office since 1989. Shalala is running as a Democrat. Still, Ros-Lehtinen said she knows Shalala will present voters with “great policy platforms like many others in the race.”

“I’m excited that so many excellent candidates are running to represent the best congressional district in our nation,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an email to The Miami Hurricane on March 5. “It has been the honor of my life to represent South Florida in Congress … I always root for Canes and in this race, I’m rooting for our community to pick the best candidate, whoever the voters decide that is.”

However, Shalala said out of everyone, she’s the most fit to serve in the position because she’s been around generations of college students for decades. She said she knows what the struggles and aspirations for college-aged students are and her previous experiences in Washington provide her the ability to serve the people of Miami best.

“I think I have a better sense of your dreams and of opportunities than almost anyone else,” she said. “It’s not just my resume. I have all the experience, I know the substantive issues, but it’s my ability to hit the ground running from day one to deliver for the people of Miami.”

UM Professor of Political Science Gregory Koger specializes in legislative politics and political parties and said Shalala’s extensive track record in Washington, having served as the secretary of Health and Human Services during the Bill Clinton presidency and ties to the city of Miami, including her tenure as president of UM, make her odds “very good.”

“That’s really going to help her in a primary where there’s 10 other candidates that are struggling with name recognition that she already has,” Koger said.

Not only is Shalala the most recognizable candidate to enter the race, but at 77, she’s also the oldest candidate vying for the seat. In 2015, Shalala suffered a stroke a few months after stepping down as president of UM.

However, she said those factors don’t make her any less qualified to run for public office. She said she’s “recovered” from the stroke.

“Old is a number,” Shalala said. “It’s just a number. It has nothing to do with energy or knowledge of the issues or willingness to serve or passion for the community.”

Shalala said she’s fully equipped to take on the demanding job on Capitol Hill because she’s already had an even more stressful job – being a university president. She said as president, she was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Shalala said being a member of Congress will not be the most stressful job she’s had if she’s elected.

While Shalala served as university president from 2001 to 2015, she also held another job before announcing her run for congress – president of the Clinton Foundation. From late 2015 to April 2017, Shalala served as the foundation’s head. The foundation has been investigated by the FBI and come under public scrutiny for possible links between donations and official actions.

While Shalala called the Clintons “friends” and was “honored” to be asked to join the Clinton Administration’s Cabinet in the ’90s, she’s not leaning on their name to win the election.

“I had a distinguished record before I joined the Clinton Administration,” Shalala said. “I had a distinguished record after I joined Clinton Administration … but this election is about Miami. I don’t need the Clinton machine. I’ll use the Shalala machine.”

Koger said Shalala’s high-profile status makes her a tough competitor.

“When she decided to run think it made an already crowded race more exciting,” Koger said. “I think she’ll probably come in as a front runner based on name recognition.”

For now, Shalala said she’ll focus what’s most important to her – teaching the 200 students in her “U.S. Healthcare Crisis: Politics and Policy” class before she leaves for the fall semester to focus full-time on the campaign.

“That’s my first priority,” she said. “Not the election, not the campaign. It’s finishing my class this semester.”

However, Shalala said she’ll split her time between the two as best as she can and make sure she lives up to her slogan of “Ready on day one” if she’s elected.

“That’s exactly what will happen,” Shalala said. “I’ll hit the ground running … I’m experienced enough. I’m not a rookie.”