Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) defies many of the generalizations made about the freshman women of the 116th Congress.
She’s not new to Washington: She was the secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years under President Bill Clinton. Unlike her high-profile freshman peers, she’s a centrist: She managed to win in a district that was helmed by a Republican member for the past 30 years. And she’s far from a millennial: At age 77, she is the oldest freshman woman ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
I spoke to Shalala about what it was like to run for Congress in her late 70s, and how she decided to launch a new career at an age when most people start to wind theirs down. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: On the campaign, did people discriminate against you because of your age?
Donna Shalala: There always was a little bit of ageism. The people I ran against, who were all younger than me, kept talking about new ideas. And I kept saying, what are they? Tell me what they are. Show me. Medicare-for-all? That’s not a new idea: Single-payer has been around forever. Socialized medicine? That started with Franklin Roosevelt. Abolishing ICE? That’s not an idea; it’s a complaint about the policies of the Trump administration, which I agree with. I’d say to them, “I know what a new idea is because I know what the old ideas are.”
CK: In the 2020 race so far, there’s been a lot of talk about the age of a few of the candidates: Biden, Sanders and Warren would all be over 70 if they were to take office. Does that matter?
DS: It’s the first time I’ve ever seen so much ageism [in an election]. I don’t think age has anything to do with anything. I actually don’t. My mother lived to be 103. She practiced law into her 90s. The presidency is a four-year or an eight-year term.
CK: What made you decide to run for Congress — your first elected office — in your late 70s?
DS: You know, I just turned on the television, and I got pissed off. I was so devastated when Hillary lost .... We had been friends for so many years. And I was so angry at what was going on in Washington. I had been following the [2018 congressional] race in my district … The Democrats had some very fine people running, but I didn’t think any of them could actually flip the seat.
CK: Do you think the Democratic Party expected to flip your district in 2018?
DS: Well the Democrats definitely wanted to flip it, but the national Democratic Party wasn’t giving it any help. They just assumed it was a Democratic district, since Hillary had won so handily in 2016. But I didn’t. I thought it would be trickier than that.
It had been a Republican district for 30 years. It’s a centrist district. In my opinion, you couldn’t win with just Democratic votes, because it’s about a third Democratic, a third Republican and a third independent. You had to have broader appeal.
CK: Were you more moderate than your competitors in the primary?
DS: Pretty much everybody was to the left of me in terms of their politics. I had to run somewhere down the center-left, hold the Democratic votes but add Republicans and independents.
If there is anything I resent, it’s the media narrative that all the freshman congresswomen are a bunch of lefties. There are probably three or four true “lefties.” But you couldn’t win in my district like that. You couldn’t win in my state like that.
CK: You have significantly more political experience than many of your freshman colleagues. Has that experience been helpful in Congress so far?
DS: Well I wasn’t actually a politician. I had a high-level government job, as the U.S. secretary for Health and Human Services, but no one ever described me as a politician. I am basically an academic who runs large, complex institutions. That’s what I do for a living.
The new women in Congress have all had real jobs. We come at politics from the point of view of being a fighter pilot, running a business, being a nurse, being a doc. We come at politics like the founders wanted us to: as citizen legislators. We come at it as citizens who just decided that they needed to step up. As a result, we are very difficult for the leadership to manage.
CK: Your career also started out in quite an unconventional way. You were one of the first members of the Peace Corps. How did you decide to do that right out of college?
DS: Well, I couldn’t figure out what to do my senior year, so I decided I would apply to everything: graduate school, law school, a few journalism jobs. I must have sent out a hundred letters, and I got a whole bunch of acceptances, including the Peace Corps. I separated them all out on my bed, and I stood there. My roommate came in and said, “What are you gonna do?” And I said, “I’m going to figure out which one is the next great adventure.”
We were the first group to ever go to Iran, in 1962, and I taught English at both the medical school in the city of Ahvaz and the agricultural college out in a rural village that we lived in.
It was probably the best and clearest decision I’ve ever made in my life.