The oldest freshman in Congress gets back to basics in Miami

Donna Shalala is an analog politician in a digital age.

Not one to talk in 280-character soundbites, the 78-year-old congresswoman is reconnecting with her constituents after two months in Washington in an old-fashioned way: face-to-face conversations.

On Monday, for the second time since she became the second-oldest freshman in U.S. history, Shalala stood in front of a room of constituents from Florida’s 27th Congressional District during a town hall and fielded questions about guns, anti-Semitism and Donald Trump. The Miami Democrat will host five more gatherings before the end of May, including another Wednesday at the Palmetto Bay Municipal Center.

Shalala, who billed the event as a town hall on guns, touted legislation she’s supported to strengthen gun laws, including a bill passed by the House last month that mandates federal criminal background checks on all firearm sales.

“We’ve tried to close a bunch of loopholes,” she said, listing off bills targeting bump stocks and 3-D printed guns.

But the event was mostly open-ended. At one point, she recounted a message from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to newly elected Democratic representatives on their first day in office.

“She said, ‘You’re here to save the country.’ It sent chills up my back,” Shalala said to a small gathering of about 50 people who braved Spring Break traffic to make it to Miami Beach City Hall. “But when you think about it, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

That’s a small audience for a U.S. representative to entertain. Shalala could reach 19,000 people with a single tweet, a forum often used by Trump to dictate national policy. But the former Health and Human Services Secretary is more prone to long, expository statements than Twitter town halls, even if a local tour of her district two months onto the job is a bit unusual in South Florida.

Delegation members have tended to make frequent appearances in public but not necessarily in sprawling question-and-answer sessions. Over the past decade, Miami’s members of Congress have conspicuously avoided town halls during times of controversy. And, in 2019, the concept is almost quaint — interacting with voters when live-streamed Q&A sessions have become staples of congressional outreach.

But Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa, a Miami resident, thinks more of South Florida’s representatives in Congress ought to create time to talk to voters about the issues they want to discuss. And he said Shalala, a bookish politician who tends to be well-versed on issues, is smart to spend time with her district in person.

“Access to a congressperson in South Florida is something really unique,” he said. “I hope that it’s the new normal.”

During her hour-long appearance, the audience lobbed softball questions about the likelihood of getting Republican support for gun control bills, preventing people with mental health issues from accessing firearms, and climate change. Shalala was also asked to address comments made by Muslim Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat representing a Minnesota district, that many interpreted as anti-Semitic. Shalala said Omar’s remarks shouldn’t reflect on the Democratic Party.

Shalala didn’t exactly say she supports the Green New Deal, an ambitious but controversial legislative proposal from the Democratic party’s left wing that has not been supported by party leadership. But she said she would support legislation if it addresses the unique challenges Florida residents face with sea-level rise.

“I can’t solve every problem,” she said. “But I can answer every question.”

Shalala’s next town hall will be 6 p.m. Wednesday at 9705 E. Hibiscus St. in Palmetto Bay. She’s also planning an April 16 immigration town hall in Pinecrest, an April 17 town hall on education in Coral Gables, an April 25 event on healthcare in Richmond Heights, and a May 29 gathering on jobs in Little Havana. For more information, call (305) 668-2285.