Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

A Hot Race in Miami

Maria Elvira Salazar (Justin Azpiazu/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
The battle to succeed a veteran Republican in Congress


Every two years, there are 435 races for the U.S. House. Most of them are uninteresting. Some are interesting. This one in Miami is very interesting. It is for an open seat, and it features two remarkable women — three of them, actually, if you count the independent candidate, which you should. The race is “like a telenovela come to life,” says Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the outgoing congresswoman.

A telenovela is a Latin American soap opera, and Ros-Lehtinen is outgoing in more ways than one. She is retiring from Congress, yes. A Republican, she began her House career in 1989. But also, she is famously friendly and ebullient. She has loved her job in Congress, “even the fundraising,” as she says.

Ros-Lehtinen fled Cuba with her family when she was a girl. In Washington, she has been a steadfast champion of freedom, democracy, and human rights — not just for Cubans, but for all, wherever they may live. As Speaker Paul Ryan said in 2015, she “sticks up for the vulnerable and the voiceless.”

Her district is the 27th, here in Miami-Dade County. It is a “tricky” one politically, she observes. The district includes Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, and Little Havana. It is 72 percent Hispanic. This number includes Cubans, of course, but also Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, among others. Many have experienced political oppression where they came from.

This is a district that leans Democratic, by about five points. And it was supposed to be the easiest Democratic pickup in the nation — virtually a cakewalk. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump here by 20 points. At the same time, however, Ros-Lehtinen was winning a quarter of those Hillary voters. And something happened on the way to the cakewalk: The race in the 27th is now a dead heat.

Your Republican nominee is Maria Elvira Salazar, known universally by her first name alone — or rather, by her first and middle names together: “Maria Elvira.” She has been a television journalist for 35 years. She is a striking woman with a big personality. How do you pronounce “Elvira,” by the way? Well, in Spanish, it’s “El-vee-rah.” But for Anglo audiences, the candidate goes with “El-vie-ruh.” This name is established in American culture, she points out to me. Think of the country song, a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys in 1981: “Elvira, Elvira, my heart’s on fire, Elvira.” Think, too, of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the horror-movie hostess from the 1980s. She brought serious cleavage to television, as the candidate notes.

Your Democratic nominee is Donna Shalala — whose last name throughout the district is pronounced “Shah-lah-lah.” To America at large, she is “Shuh-lay-luh.” For both terms of President Clinton, she was the secretary of health and human services. Clinton once referred to her, affectionately, as “little one” (seeing as Shalala stands five foot, max). She was born and raised in Cleveland. As Americans do, she has moved around, and she was president of the University of Miami from 2001 to 2015. Thereafter, she was president of the (ill-starred) Clinton Foundation.

Back in the ’90s, I heard Shalala say, “My father was head of Lebanese for Taft” — meaning Robert Taft, the Ohio politician who was known as “Mr. Republican.” His daughter Donna has certainly been a Ms. Democrat. She has done a lot in her long career, or careers. She served in the Peace Corps and became a political-science professor. In the Carter administration, she was an assistant secretary at HUD. She was president of Hunter College, in New York City, and also of the University of Wisconsin, before she joined the Clinton cabinet.

George W. Bush appointed her and Bob Dole to lead a commission on wounded servicemen. Bush then awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Clinton had awarded Dole this medal before.)

And now she is running for the U.S. House. Her campaign seems to be stalled, while Maria Elvira’s is surging. Some lefties in the district complain that Shalala is not lefty enough — too moderate. Chances are, Hillary Clinton will come in to help her out, motivating the female vote. Bill Clinton will probably not come in, in this era of “Me Too” sensitivity.

A big question is, Why is she running? Why does Shalala want it — want the U.S. House — at this stage? (She is 77.) I would have liked to ask her but was unable to secure an interview, after days of (pleasant) communication with her press secretary. But I can tell you something about her mother — who might regard Donna as in mid career.

Edna Shalala lived to 103 (1911–2014). She was a tennis champion, including an over-80 champion. She taught school for 15 years and then earned a law degree. Passing the bar at 41, she practiced a full 50 years, until 91. When she could no longer play tennis, she switched to golf.

Maria Elvira Salazar is a Miami Cuban, born and bred. Her parents came here in 1960; she was born in 1961. One of her grandmothers was Elvira. This older Elvira took great risks to oppose the Communists. Maria Elvira’s mother, Marta, owned a shoe store in Havana — a shoe store for kids. It had a carousel in it. One day, the Communists showed up at the store and said, “This belongs to the people now.” Today, Marta is 83 and still burns at the Communists. She is also an eager campaigner for her daughter.

Maria Elvira went to the University of Miami — before Shalala’s time as president — and later to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, for a master’s. “I had major fights with liberals about Cuba,” she says. In her career as a journalist, she has worked for Telemundo and Univision, among other networks. She had her own show, Maria Elvira Live — “like The O’Reilly Factor,” she says. She covered wars in Central America. And she interviewed Fidel Castro. She was the only Miami journalist — the only exile-community journalist — ever to do so.

“He’s the devil,” she says, still using the present tense. “You feel the energy, the devil-like energy. It pounds on your flesh.”

Donna Shalala is well-known in Miami, and so is Maria Elvira Salazar. She has 82 percent name recognition, she tells me. “And the viewers are the voters. I don’t even have to introduce myself,” on the campaign trail. “I don’t even have to explain myself. They tell me, ‘Oh, I know you, Maria Elvira! I know you’re a good person.’” Also, Salazar has this advantage over Shalala: She can campaign in both English and Spanish, switching between the two languages effortlessly.

I ask her why she is running. “Love and gratitude,” she answers. Love of country — which many Americans feel — and gratitude, which is especially strong in the breasts of exiles and refugees. When she speaks this boilerplate, she does so with the ring of sincerity.

And what are the issues in the campaign? Salazar talks about jobs and the economy. Whatever you think of Trump, she tells audiences, the economy is doing well. And the Democrats have been hijacked by the extreme Left. Do you want to continue on the economic path we’re on or go socialist? Many of the voters — Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans — know socialism. And don’t like it. Okay, what about immigration? This is a challenge for a Republican candidate here, Salazar tells me. The stance of President Trump and his GOP is not popular in this district.

Salazar believes that she can have an influence on immigration policy. She thinks that the president can be an effective reformer — a surprise reformer — and that this would benefit him politically. “One of the things that I will tell Trump once I meet him is, ‘You can be for immigration what Nixon was for China: Wake up and smell the votes!’”

The Democrats will hang Trump around Salazar’s neck. And Shalala is a national star. But Salazar is utterly confident of victory in November.

There is a third candidate, a wild card, an independent — a woman named Mayra Joli, who is an Afro-Dominican beauty queen and an all-out Trumper. Her official bio lists a slew of titles, all in 2015: Mrs. Coral Gables, Mrs. Miami, Mrs. Dominican Republic, and Mrs. Caribbean Coast. For years, she was a Democrat, and even contributed $500 to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But then she caught the MAGA bug and joined Latinas for Trump.

She shows up on television, as a pundit and a personality, and “you would be surprised how famous I am in this community,” she told the press last year. She skipped the Republican primary, opting for this independent candidacy instead. She touts all the ways she is like Donald Trump: She doesn’t need the money, she doesn’t need the fame, and she doesn’t even drink. She simply wants to help her man implement “America first.”

On one issue, however, she differs with him, although she absolves him of blame: “Mr. Donald Trump doesn’t have the right people around him telling him how immigration works.”

What effect will Mayra Joli have on Election Day? Will she take votes from the Republican nominee, Maria Elvira? Or will her votes have little effect one way or the other? They will probably have little effect, but she is, again, a wild card.

The race to succeed Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the 27th District of Florida is pretty interesting and colorful now — but it has been even more so. Jeb Bush, a resident of the district, tells me about the Miami Herald’s endorsement in the Republican primary. The paper endorsed a candidate who wound up finishing sixth, in a field of nine. This was “an unusual candidate,” as the paper conceded.

Last year, she told the Miami Herald — and several Spanish-language media outlets — that she believes in extra-terrestrials. She says when she was 7, she was taken aboard a spaceship and, throughout her life, she has communicated telepathically with the beings, which remind her of the concrete Christ in Brazil. There you have it.

There you have it. Yet more spice for our unique American stew.

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