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Shalala, Salazar Make Final Rounds With Voters In Tight House Race

Sam Turken
Democrat Donna Shalala spoke to about a dozen voters Tuesday morning at a Miami Beach restaurant.

With less than a week before Election Day, Donna Shalala and Maria Elvira Salazar remain locked in a tight congressional race in Miami-Dade County that will have a critical impact on deciding which party controls the future U.S. House of Representatives.

Salazar, a Republican, has touted her deep ties to the district as a former television journalist in South Florida. And she's highlighted controversial decisions Shalala made while president of the University of Miami. 

But after trailing Salazar midway through the race, Shalala—a Democrat—now has a slight lead, according to a recent independent poll by the New York Times and Siena College. She's counting on her experience in government as a former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary to help her win the traditionally red 27th House district. 

"I can list for you all the bipartisan legislation that I actually have both designed and passed," Shalala said over eggs, coffee and cuban toast to about a dozen voters Tuesday morning at the restaurant Puerto Sagua in Miami Beach. "I've spent most of my career dealing with policy issues."

Democrats need to win at least 23 congressional districts Nov. 6 to take control of the House. The District 27 race has drawn attention from across the country.

Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently campaigned with Shalala in Coral Gables. And the super PAC aligned with House speaker Paul Ryan has supported Salazar with ads attacking Shalala.

Democrats initially thought the district would be an easy win for the former university president. Although Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—who is now retiring—has held the seat for more than two decades, Clinton carried the district by nearly 20 percentage points against Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

But Shalala, 77, won the Democratic primary by just four percentage points. And she's since faced language bariers in a district where nearly 60 percent of voters are Latino.

During their two debates—both in Spanish—the 56-year-old Salazar, a Cuban-American, along with independent candidate Mayra Joli answered each question in Spanish. Shalala, who does not speak Spanish, wore an earpiece through which her opponents' words were translated to English.

She's now relying on ads in Spanish and surrogates to reach Latino voters who do not speak English.

Salazar, who often campaigns at senior centers, has portrayed Shalala as out of touch with voters in the Miami area. Shalala, an Ohio native of Lebanese descent, has lived in the Miami area for more than 10 years.

But Salazar said the Democrat doesn't understand the needs of the district. After voting at the West Dade Regional Library on Wednesday, Salazar criticized Shalala for running an exclusive university that most people in the district cannot afford to attend.

"She has not worked here all her life like I have," said Salazar who has reported for Spanish-language networks CNN Español, Telemundo and Univision. "I know the whites, the blacks, the Jews, the Haitians, the Cubans, the Venezualans, the Hondurans, the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans. You need to know who those people are in order to represent them."

Credit Sam Turken / WLRN
Republican Maria Elvira Salazar (center) discussed her standing in the race after voting on Wednesday.

Shalala rejects the notion that she's a Miami outsider. She's campaigning on having created thousands of jobs for local residents.

And in a district that had the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the country last year,  she continues to highlight her experience with healthcare policy. Her campaign is also trying to tie Salazar to Trump.

During the breakfast stop on Tuesday, Shalala criticized Trump for creating divisions across the country. Her campaign has said Salazar would vote in lock step with the president if elected.

"If the Democrats can take over the House of Representatives, we can finally have those checks and balances that we learned about in school," Shalala said.

Salazar has distanced herself from Trump on certain issues. She's said she believes in climate change, has expressed support for both a carbon tax and assault weapons ban and would also vote to give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

But on Wednesday, she echoed Trump's sentiments about birthright citizenship. 

Trump vowed on Tuesday to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship for children born to noncitizens. In response, Shalala tweeted that Trump is "blantantly attempting to rewrite" the Constitution, which has been interpreted to guarantee the birthright provision. 

Salazar also initially denounced the proposal, saying the Constitution protects birthright citizenship. She called on Trump to instead focus efforts on immigration reform.

But on Wednesday, Salazar appeared to shift her stance alongside Sen. Marco Rubio—who also voted at the West Dade Regional Library. Both Republicans said foreigners are travelling to the U.S. just to birth children and take advantage of the citizenship provision. 

"The president is saying what I think my community shares, the fact that we do not want abuses," Salazar said.