A House Democrat Reflects on Her Defeat

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S1: Congresswoman Donna Shalala, is that a lot of different jobs? First of all, Representative, how shall I refer to you? Representative Secretary? What do you prefer? Oh, my God. I have so many titles. You do. I guess for the moment, this representative for the last couple of years, Shalala, represented Florida in Congress. Before that, she ran the Clinton Foundation, led three different universities and spent eight years as the secretary of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton, the longest tenure on record, as far as I can tell.

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S2: Yeah, probably no one will ever meet that again because I was confirmed the day after the president was sworn in and no one gets to do that anymore.

S1: I was speaking to one of Slate’s political reporters about this interview before we did it. And he said, you know, I’ve always had this question for Donna Shalala. Why Congress like, why did you want to go there after your long career?

S2: You know, I sort of got pissed off with what was going on in Washington. I’m a political scientist. I’m interested in the legislative process. So as an academic. It was fascinating to me, but mostly it was because I just got pissed off of what was going on in Washington and the seat was open and I figured, what the hell, I’ll just take a chance.

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S1: Shillelagh lost her seat. This year, she’s one of 11 House Democrats who are going to be replaced by Republican challengers come January, leaving Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a dwindling majority heading into a Joe Biden presidency. Shillelagh seat had been reliably Republican for years before she wanted, but plenty of people assumed she was safe. In 20, Shalala herself felt a little differently.

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S2: I felt vulnerable, very vulnerable, because it was a presidential year and Trump was going to do very well. In my district. There was going to be a huge Republican turnout that turned out eighty five percent of their voters and Democrats turned out only seventy five percent of their voters. And that made the difference.

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S1: The representative says part of the reason all those voters turned out is that her opponent unfairly tarred her as a socialist and especially fraught label in a district like hers, which is filled with Cuban-Americans. Your seat was supposed to be relatively safe.

S2: Yeah, I know, but I didn’t trust the polls because I could feel that there was going to be a real challenge in my district. I saw the attack ads, but I also heard from people as I walked through Little Havana, for example, I was called communist once in the primary, but now it became a consistent theme that seems like an upgrade from socialist. I don’t know. It was socialist, communist. I mean, they were all mixed up and that’s all my opponent did.

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S1: So what do you make of the fact that we’re a few weeks out from the election and we seem to have this split ticket situation where Joe Biden won, but down ballot? A number of representatives and people, even at the state level, did not gain ground when that was the argument for Joe Biden to be top of ticket, you know, a few months back.

S2: I think that if we had run against a reasonable Republican, we would have gotten beaten.

S3: Donald Trump so turned off people that were Republicans that they voted for Joe Biden, but they then straight party voted after that and the turnout cut both ways. It both helped Joe Biden the turnout by Republicans. It helped Joe Biden with suburban women, for example, and others that were just turned off by Trump. But it didn’t help the down ballot.

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S4: And Shalala says there was something else.

S1: Republicans showed zero deference to the coronavirus, opting instead to run their campaigns like the virus wasn’t a concern. It meant they could focus on the fundamentals.

S2: They registered a huge number of voters, probably a quarter of a million voters in the last 60 days. They registered five thousand in my district alone. Even though people had poured millions into Florida, we just did not never got the kind of sophisticated ground game that they put together. So we learned a lot of the process. We simply have a lot of work to do.

S4: Today on the show, this month’s election has a lot of Democrats asking what happened. Turns out that’s a question Donna Shalala has been asking herself, too. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

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S1: So part of the reason I wanted to speak with you is that you’ve had so many decades of experience in the Democratic Party and your position has changed over the years. And I was looking back last night at some of the writing that came out about you in the early 1990s when you were nominated to be secretary of Health and Human Services. And this article, it was in The Washington Post. It called you the farthest to the left and most controversial of all of President elect Clinton’s cabinet appointments. Do you look back on coverage like that and kind of chuckle to yourself?

S2: I do, because that didn’t make any sense. I was confirmed unanimously. I had widespread Republican support. They made that up because I came from Wisconsin where I was chancellor, which was a pretty progressive place, far more progressive probably than I was. And I have been running universities for years. So it was kind of a silly evaluation and stereotype that simply wasn’t true.

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S1: Well, you’d enacted rules about hate speech and sexism and you’d been part of admission rules that favor diversity and you’d supported gay marriage early on. All things that we would continue to fight about for a long time.

S2: But there were a large numbers of Republicans in Wisconsin at the time that supported all of those things. Maybe not gay marriage, but certainly all the other things, including affirmative action.

S1: But you did become this lightning rod for a certain kind of conservative, like Rush Limbaugh had a whole song shillelagh to Eric Clapton’s Leelah. Yeah. And I actually I was listening to old audio of his show, and he had a segment where he sort of put you and Hillary Clinton and Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders all together and referred to I think it’s which is it was almost like very early days of the squad.

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S5: Remember the hocus-pocus starring the three Wicked Witch is on the left, Hillary Clinton, Donna Shalala and Joycelyn Elders, these three in Washington. There’s no telling what kind of tricks they’ll pull.

S2: Yeah, you know, simply wasn’t true. If you go to Republicans in the Senate, for instance, that were there during that time, they would argue that I was that I was not far left, that I was willing to work with them, and that we worked out some very important legislation, including the children’s health insurance plan and including getting all the kids in the country immunized. So whatever the stereotype was from a far right, it almost had no no effect on me, either on my confirmation or my ability to work with Republicans.

S1: Donna Shalala ran for her seat in Congress just a couple of years ago. Twenty eighteen. That was the year Democrats won back the House and the progressive wing of the party saw its ranks grow the Miami district Shalala was running for. It had been held by a Republican for three decades, but Shalala bested the GOP candidate by six points. I’m curious how you saw your time in the Clinton administration when you were running for office the first time around. Like, did you see that experience as an asset or did you feel the weight of folks reassessing Clinton’s time in office while you were running?

S2: You know, I didn’t I didn’t get attacked on my role in the Clinton administration. I argued that I knew more about the policies and about implementation and that I would hit the ground running because of my past experience. So no one came up and attacked me on welfare reform, for example.

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S1: But you did have this, like, primary experience where you were attacked from the left and then once you were running, you were attacked from the right and you just must have felt squeezed.

S2: Well, I didn’t like it much and it didn’t make any sense. On the one hand, the left attacked me for being a corporate Democrat and on the other hand, the right attacked me for being a socialist. I mean, you can’t have both. It was funnier than anything else.

S1: Shillelagh is unabashedly technocratic and she’s pretty old school. She won her campaign by talking about how well she understood government. She was not charmed by the twenty eighteen swell of support for progressive proposals. The Green New Deal, Medicare.

S2: For all you know, I’m not a Medicare for all person because I think Medicare is a weak program compared to the Affordable Care Act. And I made that extremely clear. And because many union members have fought for years for a much more comprehensive plan and. Ask them to roll that back, seem to be fundamentally unfair and very costly. The Green New Deal had nothing inside them, but it was just a slogan. So, well, I had a lot of people attacking me from the left and then eventually from the right. That’s politics. And if you don’t want to get into the fire, you just don’t run.

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S1: I wondered a little bit whether you saw running as like a corrective for some of the things that you couldn’t get done in the Clinton administration, like, you know, you had wanted to pass big comprehensive health care legislation. And instead they’re sort of incremental steps, which I think you’re also quite proud of. But did you see being in Congress as a way to go back to these issues that you wanted to do more on?

S2: No, I saw it as a chance to build on what the Obama administration had done, what the Clinton administration and the Obama administration had done, that it was a chance to bring more equity into our country and more fairness. And I was deeply concerned about immigration and about the issues that affected my community. So I have moved on. I don’t look back, I take advantage of that experience, but I don’t look back. I look for the new issues, the environment. For example, we had a very strong environmental crew in the Clinton administration. The Obama administration had a strong crew. And we just have run out of time in terms of. The environment and we have sea level rise here, those are the issues that I focused on, the issues that actually directly affected my community.

S1: Let’s talk a little bit about how the election went this time around, did it feel like you were rehashing the race from two years ago because you were running against the same opponent this time, this Republican woman, Maria Elvira Salazar? No.

S2: It was a completely different set of issues because the president had mismanaged covid our economy when I ran before was in much better shape than it was a disaster. Now, because I represent a tourist area, I represent the cruise lines, the hotels on Miami Beach, the restaurants. It was a completely different race in terms of issues.

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S1: What did that mean? When you went out and spoke to people? Did you feel like those issues were resonating with the voters?

S2: I felt like the governor and the president’s mismanagement of Copan was biting. But I also felt the pressure on the economy because once people ran out of their unemployment and their savings, they just wanted the economy open at any cost.

S1: So you sensed a kind of, I mean, desperation in your constituents. People needed money.

S2: And the other thing that happened was in the previous race, my opponent was opposed to Obamacare and thought it should be abolished in this race. She saw the light and said she wouldn’t abolish Obamacare unless there was a real alternative, because I have the largest enrollment of Obamacare in the country in any rational district. So she she switched her position on that, though she still supported the court case to destroy Obamacare. But that was a nuance in many ways in a campaign but protected preexisting conditions, getting our arms around covid 19, getting the economy open again. These were the great issues of the campaign. And then add a layer on that about socialism.

S1: You’ve mentioned that the Republicans just had a really strong ground game. I think you said they registered 5000 people in there last month, new voters. Could you compare the ground game the Democrats had in Florida versus the Republicans? We didn’t have a ground game.

S2: Nothing because of Colvert. We did not have a ground game. We did put packet’s on people’s doors, but we did not go out and knock on doors and talk to people. We did try to pull voters. We called them, we texted them.

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S3: We followed up with they didn’t vote, but we had no where near the ground game that the Republicans said.

S4: More from my conversation with Florida Congresswoman Donna Shalala after a quick break.

S1: You’ve said in the past that you enjoy fighting politically. I just wonder if you wish you’d fought harder in some particular way and what that would have looked like in your district.

S2: Oh, I think we could have gone harder against the socialism argument, the socialism communism argument. After all, we passed major bills to oppose the Maduro regime in the House, but that didn’t have the effect of a president that was coming into the district over and over again. We all would have had to have a very hard message on socialism and communism, but it was a kind of McCarthyism attack.

S1: It’s funny. I wonder what you think the Democratic Party could have done more to fight against this socialism bugaboo. Because, you know, back when you initially ran for this seat, you didn’t interview with The New York Times and socialism came up and you were firm. You’re like, I’m not for socialism, I am for a social safety net. So you were clearly speaking what you wanted folks to know. Yeah.

S2: When they were pounding the entire Democratic Party, whether it was a squad or Nancy Pelosi, it was hard to get a bite on it. You know, we could keep saying, of course, we’re not socialists. And I kept saying I’ve created more jobs to this community than anyone running for office. Of course, I’m not a socialist. I think we needed some validators. I wish I had gotten Madeleine Albright down here who’s beloved in the Cuban community and has spent her career fighting fascism and socialism and communism and used her as a validator. That’s all they did, was they counted us on that, we pounded them on covid and they pounded us that socialism.

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S1: After the election, there was this rehashing of what the outcome meant and some people said what you’re saying, which is, you know, socialism really dragged everyone down along with things like defund the police. And one criticism that was raised by Representative Alexander Ocasio Cortez, was the Democrats didn’t have a good enough ground game, which you’ve said, but then also online that we had a very sophisticated ground game online.

S2: I mean, most of us are pretty sophisticated by the online efforts that we made, but we have done more on the ground. Yes, but we couldn’t overcome Donald Trump repeatedly himself coming down to Miami-Dade and working both the Cuban Venezuelan in the Nicaraguan community. I don’t I don’t know what happened in the rest of the country, and I can’t generalize about that. But I can say that the fact that for four years they worked on those communities, it made it to and they added a lot more voters that that made a difference.

S1: Now that Donald Trump seems to have lost office, do you feel like that’s going to make the Democrats jobs easier?

S2: A little, but not much, because he’s still going to be around. We still have to build our registration and our ground game, but more than anything else, we have to deliver for the people in our communities. Joe Biden is going to need a two year strategy or we’re going to lose the House of Representatives.

S1: I’m hearing you talk about socialism and the Democratic Party and sort of being hung with this idea. And it can’t help but think back to Rush Limbaugh and how he said things about you that you clearly are saying were patently false. But that didn’t mean that it didn’t sort of set people off. And I wonder if you learned anything from that experience of having to push back against misinformation about you that you think would help the Democrats deal with this socialism problem you think they have?

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S2: I know a lot about propaganda and the repetition. And the discipline of just repeating and repeating until people think it’s true. Of course, we’re going to learn from this and we’re going to do everything we can to retain the House and recoup our losses, but there are always going to be out there. They’re always going to be a group of people that listen to that crap that believe it. This is there are people that that believe that the election was stolen, thousands of millions of people. That believe that this election was stolen, so we’ll learn from this experience, we’ll do better next time and we’ll we’ll do everything we can to hold the house.

S1: In your district, so much of the conversation was about the Latino vote and why it didn’t break more for Biden, and you’ve said Joe Biden’s going to need a big Latin American strategy moving forward. What do you feel like that looks like?

S2: The joke about Miami is the great thing about Miami is it’s so close to the United States, the Hispanics in Miami follow the politics of their country’s. And you have to understand that we just haven’t had a lot of American policy in a long time working to make lives better in Latin America. I think it’s very important we have a lot more democracy until Donald Trump came to office. And we’ve just got a lot of work to do on a real Latin American policy that will help us. But we also have to work on immigration policy, which got pushed down.

S1: Because of culvert, I I wonder what a big Latin American strategy means for a candidate like you because you took so much fire from your opponent for not speaking Spanish and, you know, just lots of she’s not one of us kind of messaging.

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S2: That’s a racist statement. That’s absolutely a racist statement. I know that didn’t work. It didn’t have anything to do with that. It actually had to do.

S1: With a huge turnout of Republicans, I’m just I’m trying to characterize what she said in her messaging to you about you, but it was all about socialism at the end of the day.

S2: She didn’t know anything about the policies. It was all about socialism. Every time she pivot to accusing me of being a socialist, I’m not sure it was as much her as that overwhelming registration with slight voting. Look, I only lost by two percent, so it wasn’t like she ran over me.

S1: I think of you as someone who’s OK, being an incrementalist, like you’ve talked about how Wall and the Clinton administration, the big health care reform wasn’t passed you, you’re really proud of passing CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, about seven million kids. Yeah, exactly. And I wonder if you think in this moment where there’s so much tension in Washington and so much energy with people thinking about, like, how do we do big things? I just wonder if you think there’s a lesson in what you’ve done in the past for folks who are now in Washington?

S2: Well, we have to do big things now because the future of the country is at stake. We’ve got to do something big on the environment. We must do a big infrastructure bill to save the economy. What we’ve done so far that they’ve called stimulus simply has kept people alive. But now we have to turn and really stimulate the economy. There are times when you do incremental steps to improve things, and there are times when you take giant steps. Now is the time to take a giant step. We’ve got to close the disparities gap in health care. So we’ve got to expand the Affordable Care Act and make it more affordable. We’ve got to have a big environmental bill because everything’s at stake there and we must stimulate the economy and for God’s sakes, for our moral good being, we’ve got to do something about immigration. We cannot be taking kids away from their parents and then losing them. So there are times. Lyndon Johnson, for example, Franklin Roosevelt, when you take giant steps and there are times when you compromise and you just get the hands of people in a better situation, at the end of the Clinton administration, there were less poor people than there had ever been in the United States, and kids were healthier than they had ever been because we immunized every kid and because we had the children’s health insurance plan. That’s not a bad legacy. That’s not a bad legacy. And the economy, we had an economic surplus. So you may call it incrementalism, but, boy, where we in good shape at the end of that administration, when it sounds like you’re saying now those little steps won’t be enough.

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S1: It’s a big agenda to hand a president with a divided Congress. Yep.

S2: Yep. But we’ve got to figure out how to do it. We’ve got to rebuild the trust of Republicans for the environment. After all, we’ve had presidents like George Bush, George Walker Bush that were absolutely terrific on the environment that created the EPA. And the environment has been a Republican issue until recently, so I think it’s time for the business community to step forward and for everybody to realize that what’s at stake is the future.

S1: But it seems like that Republican Party is gone.

S2: There’s part of it that’s still there and we’ll see.

S1: What advice would you give to the next person, the next Democrat, to run for the seat you’ve been in?

S2: I don’t know what advice I give them right now because I need to look very carefully. First of all, they’re going to redistrict. So it’s going to be a different district, probably a little more democratic. But my personal advice to them is, if you don’t like being attacked, don’t run.

S1: You’ve got to have backbone in this business. You don’t sound like you’re done to me.

S2: Oh, I’ve never done. I’ve never done. Are you kidding me? I’ve never done. First of all, being in Congress was the most fun I’ve had in years. OK, you’re like, I love the policy work. I feel like you’re the one person who said that. Yeah, maybe. But I loved it. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Half my bills were bipartisan. I just had a ball look, I had no none of the big responsibilities that I’ve had in the last 30 years, leading institutions, I could focus on policy and on my district and on helping people. I could really relate to the people in my community and do everything I could to help them. So it was it was just a lot of fun.

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S1: So how do you want to do that next?

S2: I have no idea what I’ve said to everybody is I’ve got a job to do until January 2nd. And I’ve got to work hard, I’m going to leave with a bang, I’m going to have delivered everything I possibly can to the district, we still have legislation to do. We still have to get a plan together that will save people’s lives.

S4: Representative Shillelagh, thank you so much for joining me. You’re welcome. Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala represents Florida’s 27th District. That’s Miami Beach.

S6: Her term ends in January and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Mary Wilson with a little help from Frannie Kelley. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can send me pictures of your Thanksgiving turkey over on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk and yeah, I’ve already posted photos of mine. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.