Jay Nordlinger looks at the South Florida congressional race between Cuban American Maria Elvira Salazar and native Ohioan Donna Shalala.
Florida’s 2018 Midterms: A 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.
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