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Shalala Wins 27th Congressional District After Tight Race Against Salazar

Donna Shalala addressed supporters soon after her race was called on Tuesday night.
Sam Turken
Donna Shalala addressed supporters soon after her race was called on Tuesday night.

Donna Shalala, a Democrat, won a long-held Republican congressional seat in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, giving her party a crucial win in its bid to retake the House of Representatives.

Shalala defeated Maria Elvira Salazar, a well-known television journalist, by about six percentage points in a race that attracted national attention.

A former Health and Human Services secretary and University of Miami president, Shalala touted her political experience and connections throughout the district throughout the race. And she capitalized on voters’ disapproval of President Donald Trump.

“We want our community back, we want our country back and we want our state back,” Shalala said at her watch party at the Coral Gables Women’s Club Tuesday evening. “This campaign has always been about the American Dream, about making sure it’s there for everyone. And Mr. President—ready or not here we come.”

At 77, Shalala will become the second oldest House freshman in U.S. history. She will succeed Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is now retiring after holding the seat for more than two decades as a moderate.

Democrats have prized the seat in their quest to retake the House ever since Hillary Clinton won the district by nearly 20 percentage points against Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Shalala, who does not speak Spanish, faced obstacles and language barriers in a district that is nearly 60 percent Latino.

Salazar cast herself as a moderate who could be independent of Trump. Shalala, she said, was out of touch with the Miami community. At one point during the campaign, Salazar led in major non-partisan polls, surprising Democratic officials who thought the race would be an easy win.

But Shalala said she worked the entire district and sold her experiences in government and at the University of Miami. She noted throughout the campaign that she created thousands of local jobs while the university’s president. And she cast herself as a unifier who could work across the aisle.

“This campaign was always not about me, but about our community and about our future,” she said at the watch party. “Some people would like to divide us” and “we just cannot let that happen.”

Shalala's win came on a night when fellow Democrat Debbie Mucarsel Powell flipped the neighboring 26th district, defeating two term incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. Both races received national attention from both parties as House speaker Paul Ryan's aligned super PAC supported Salazar with ads attacking Shalala. Clinton also campaigned with Shalala as the race reached its final stretch. 

Supporters at the watch party said Shalala’s understanding of healthcare and education were key to her victory. The district had the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the country last year.

“To come into Congress with all her life experience and her decisiveness, she’ll be a real winner, a real leader,”  Paul Verkuil said. “She knows the issues better than anyone.”

Verkuil said Shalala may be able to negotiate a deal with Republicans to keep and improve the Affordable Care Act.

Immigration was also a major issue throughout the race. As Trump relied on his hard-line stance to boost candidates in other parts of the country, Salazar had to respond to his comments about eliminating birthright citizenship. Salazar at first denounced Trump’s stance on the issue, before saying that some people take advantage of the system.

Shalala, however, said throughout the campaign that undocumented immigrants must be given a pathway to citizenship. Michelle Maldonado, a University of Miami religious studies professor, said that message resonated.

“I’m a Cuban-American, the daughter of Cuban exiles, someone who’s married to an immigrant as well,” Maldonado said at the watch party. "She is someone that has always championed immigrants and immigrant families.”

Shalala listed several issues she would focus on as soon as she takes over the seat. She said she wants to extend Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans and Nicaraguans and also guarantee a future in the U.S. for millions of recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as Dreamers.

She said it won’t be easy trying to work with Trump, who she has known for decades.

“But he responds to strength,” she said. "We’re sending him a message that we’re strong and that we want our country to be brought together.”

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After living in North Carolina the past four years, Miami native Sam Turken is back in the city he’s always called home.