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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Donna Shalala made it official Wednesday by formally announcing she was running for the Congressional seat being vacated by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
It was not a well-kept secret.
Nevertheless, Shalala’s entry will generate a national buzz around a race that wasn’t expected to illicit much interest outside of South Florida.
“You know I woke up one morning and I turned on the news and I thought we’ve got to do something, and do something serious,” Shalala told CBS4 News in her first interview as a congressional candidate. “We are facing the test of who we are. It’s so fundamental and it really is about the character of the country and how we treat each other and how we are seen by the rest of the world. So I decided to jump into the race.”
With Ros-Lehtinen retirement, Democrats see Florida’s 27th Congressional District as an easy seat to pick up in their bid to take over the House. Hillary Clinton won the district by 20 points.
Shalala enters an already crowded field with six other Democrats, many of whom have been in the race for nearly a year and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. A recent poll by her campaign shows her with strong name identification and well ahead the rest of the field that includes state Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, state Representative David Richardson, former judge Mary Barzee Flores, and former Miami Herald reporter Matt Haggman.
“I think I’m the strongest candidate,” Shalala said. “I think I can serve the people of Miami. I think I can hit the ground running going to Washington. I know something about Washington. I certainly know the issues and the issues people in this community care about.”
Shalala, 77, is the former president for the University of Miami, served as the Health and Human Services Secretary during the Clinton Administration, and more in charge of the Clinton Foundation.
While her association to the Clintons may make her popular in that particular district, it could create different problems for Shalala. Her possible Republican rivals – County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and Angie Chirino, the daughter of singer Willy Chirino – are expected to use Shalala’s ties to the Clintons to appeal for donations from across the country. Even some of her Democratic rivals have said they can raise money for themselves off Shalala’s friendship to the Clintons by appealing to Bernie Sanders supporters across the country.
Shalala had a simple message for those who will attack for being close to the Clintons.
“Bring it on,” she said. “They’ve been friends of mine before they were married by the way. I don’t need the Clinton machine. I’m very proud of my relationship with them. I think the Clinton Foundation is extraordinary. I’m going to use the Shalala machine. I know thousands of people in this district most of them are quite young because they graduated from the University of Miami.”
There is one area that may prove trickier for her to navigate in the age of the #MeToo Movement – her support for Bill Clinton throughout the Monica Lewinski affair.
Shalala described the #MeToo Movement as “transforming our attitudes about what’s acceptable not only in the workplace but in every part of our society.”
“And it’s probably the third wave of the women’s movement,” she said. “I can’t imagine anything more important. My whole career I’ve had zero tolerance for sexual harassment.”
She said as a university president she has always demanded employees and students be treated with respect.
“So I have no tolerance for any of that kind of inappropriate behavior by anyone who either works for me or goes to school in an institution I’m responsible for,” she said.
Given her beliefs, Shalala was asked if Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency after he was caught lying about his affair with Lewinski.
“No,” Shalala said.
Longtime Clinton ally, New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand recently said she now believes Clinton should have resigned.
“I know she did,” Shalala acknowledged. She said it was a difficult time for her.
“It couldn’t have been a more painful period for all of us,” she noted. “If you look at the front page of the Washington Post during that time, you’ll know that the cabinet member that confronted the President was Donna Shalala. And so I told him what I thought about his behavior at the time.”
She could have resigned in protest but made the decision to stay.
“I stayed,” she said. “I’ll tell you everybody stayed and you know why they stayed, Number 1, because they didn’t want to cause a constitutional crisis because we had work to be done, because we were serving not just the President of the United States, we were serving the American people. Do you think it wasn’t painful for all of us? It was. But we stayed because we cared about the jobs we were responsible for and for the people that we served. The people from Miami can expect the same thing from me.”
Does Shalala believe she loses her moral authority to call out President Trump for his misdeeds because she supported Bill Clinton?
“No, absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
Asked, if she sees a double standard, Shalala replied, “I don’t. I don’t. I don’t see it as a double standard.”
Shalala says she will stress a number of issues in her campaign including increased funding for education.
“Everything the Trump Administration has done is to take resources away from our public schools,” Shalala said. “The center for creating Americans especially in a community of immigrants like ours is well funded public schools.”
Watch Jim DeFede’s full length interview with Donna Shalala here.
Shalala is also calling for immigration reform that will allow millions to remain in this country.
“They ought to find a pathway to become good citizens of this country,” she said. “We’ve got to find a way, a fair way of dealing with the immigration issue. We have a large number of people in this country that have no chance of getting citizenship and we have to find a pathway.”
She noted her grandmother was turned away from Ellis Island and came into the country illegally through Mexico.
Shalala also talked about job creation and the need to both improve healthcare and protect the most vulnerable among us.
“Whoever heard of a President that wanted to cut food stamps or Medicaid or a political party that wanted to cut Medicare,” she said, adding: “What I want to make sure – which our governor seems to forget – is that we pay taxes to Washington. We ought to get our fair share back.”
In a sign that political skills need work, she gave a somewhat confusing answer on whether President Trump should be impeached.
“Given what he’s done so far, I would love to see him be replaced,” she began. “But I don’t want him to be replaced by [Vice President Mike] Pence. What I want us to focus on doing is checkmating him and that’s by taking the House back. We have to flip this seat and another 30 seats. In addition to that we have to do everything we can to get closer control of the United States Senate. So yes, if we have the opportunity would I vote to impeach the President? Absolutely.”
One question she was ready to answer were the concerns about her age. The House works on a seniority system and given that she is 77, she was asked how long she could be expected to remain in Congress if she’s elected.
“Well let’s see,” she began. “My mother practiced laws into her nineties and she passed at 103. I see a big future ahead of me. Look I hit the ground running. I don’t have to wait ten years just to work on seniority. I know the leaders of congress. I know how the system works. I’ve testified at length. So you are sending someone down who knows all of the issues, who knows the politics in Washington, who’s not afraid of anyone and who is passionate about the people of Miami and our community.”