Florida Democrat Donna Shalala walked into “an anti-Castro buzz-saw” this week, making her run for retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat even more of an uphill climb.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. District 27, which includes Coral Gables, Cutler Bay, Key Biscayne, Little Havana, Miami, Miami Beach, Pinecrest, South Miami, and Westchester, voted for Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. Until recently, national Republicans considered Ros-Lehtinen’s seat to be unwinnable.
Now Shalala is trailing in the polls, and it’s not hard to see why.
Besides the fact that Shalala is a dinosaur who served for eight years in the corrupt Clinton administration, her opponent, Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, is an attractive, Spanish-speaking television journalist who appeals to the 57 percent of the district’s voters who are Hispanic — mostly Cuban-American. According to Fox News, 70 percent of the district’s constituents are Hispanic, and that cultural connection can make a big difference:
“My opponent is an implant. She doesn’t represent anybody … she cannot connect because we have a cultural code that we share … we may speak Spanish, but it goes over and beyond that,” said Salazar, a Cuban-American Miami native who at one time was a contributor to Fox News. “You need to be part of this city in order to know how it works and how it feels and how it vibrates. If not, you can’t connect.”
Indeed, the 77-year-old Shalala doesn’t speak Spanish and seems to have a tin-ear when it comes to Miami politics. Florida journalist Marc Caputo explained in Politico (emphasis added):
There’s a simple rule in running for Congress in Miami: Don’t campaign with someone who praised Fidel Castro and fought sanctions against Venezuela’s dictatorial regime …
In addition to Cuban exiles, the district also has Venezuelans who despise dictator Nicolas Maduro’s regime and immigrants from Nicaragua, many of whom oppose socialist Daniel Ortega.
Guess what Shalala just did?
In a district filled with Castro-hating Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan exiles, Shalala’s campaign committed an egregious gaffe — and set off a round of Democratic finger-pointing — by posting an announcement that she would hold a campaign event Wednesday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Californian, Rep. Barbara Lee.
In 2016, Lee had said Castro’s death should be mourned.
“We need to stop and pause and mourn his loss,” Lee said in a phone interview with The Mercury News in November 2016. “I was very sad for the Cuban people,” she added. “He led a revolution in Cuba that led to social improvements for his people.”
In her eight meetings with Castro over the years, Lee said, she found him to be “a smart man. A historian. He wanted normal relations with the United States but not at the expense of the accomplishments of the revolution.”
Shalala had the good sense to cancel Lee’s appearance, but the damage was done.
The fact that Shalala even considered having the notorious Castro sympathizer attend her rally had Miami’s Cuban community up in arms. Shalala’s campaign event with Pelosi at her Coral Gables campaign office turned into a major debacle, with protesters pounding on the doors outside and shouting, “Go back to Cuba!” “Commie!” and “Witches!”
If there has been anything close to a Republican “angry mob” this election season, this was it:
What started as a crowd of about 15 mostly Cuban-American protesters grew to about 40 at one point, as they pounded on every door they could find and clamored insults in both Spanish and English like “Nasty Pelosi” and “brujas” — witches.
Some of the demonstrators also condemned Democrats because they said they ignore how Cubans on the island and other oppressed people suffer — some lacking basic needs like toilet paper. It’s a charge members of the party, especially those in Miami, strongly deny.
No matter. The protesters denounced Democrats as “commies” and waved signs supporting Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor, and running mate Jeanette Núñez.
The crowd has grown. They’re striking the door to the building where the event will take place. They’re also screaming “commie” and calling the Democrats “witches.” pic.twitter.com/08ZafRtxwp
— Jimena Tavel (@taveljimena) October 17, 2018
About 10 people are standing outside the back entrance unable to go in. Former Miami Dade county commissioner Katy Sorenson is here. She said she thinks it’s because of the protest that they can’t go in. pic.twitter.com/rhvzpuGlAy
— Jimena Tavel (@taveljimena) October 17, 2018
This gaffe couldn’t have come at a worse time for Shalala, who is now watching the Democratic-leaning seat slip away just weeks before the election.