Donna Shalala

U.S. Representative for Florida's 27th Congressional District, newly elected Donna Shalala recently accepted a request from Islander News to sit down with her to discuss the top issues of interest to Key Biscayne.

The former president of the University of Miami, and Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, expressed a visible concern regarding the upcoming Ultra Music Festival on Virginia Key.

She said business on the Hill has been moving along well at a frenetic pace. She believes her purpose in service is to pave the way for the next generation and she talked about how the Parkland teenagers have inspired her to further their issues on gun control and lowering the voting age.

Congresswoman Shalala said her issues are what Key Biscayne has identified. She said ultimately it is all about fixing crumbling infrastructure. The following are highlights from the conversation.

“My agenda is the agenda that the people of Key Biscayne have identified…as far as I’m concerned the agenda that the people identify is my agenda,” Dr. Donna Shalala.

IN: Ultra is nearly upon us and there is a great deal of anxiety among the residents about an event of that magnitude on Virginia Key, can you talk about that…

DS: I think it’s a big challenge. Let’s see what happens. It’ll all be based on the experience but my real concerns are about protected wildlife and the manatees and the crocodiles…the organizers say they’ve done some things to minimize the environmental impact so let’s see and we’ll hold them accountable.

If you look at the impact of Ultra on the environment, on protected species in particular, the beach erosion, sewage going into the water, the necessity of putting utilities underground…all of this comes together. It’s all infrastructure. It’s all environmental protection.

IN: What can Key Biscayne residents do to make sure these urgent environmental, infrastructure needs are addressed?

DS: They have to keep the pressure on elected officials to pay attention to their issues. In particular they shouldn’t think of themselves as a small town, they are absolutely critical to South Florida, Key Biscayne is…I can see it from my balcony. I am reminded myself that I represent Key Biscayne as well.

I love the beach, they are the most beautiful beaches in the world and I’ve spent a lot of time out there.

I know the elected officials…we just have to keep the pressure up to get our fair share of federal money back and our fair share of state money back at the same time.

Any environmental impact is going to have an impact on Key Biscayne, and anything that happens to Key Biscayne is going to have an impact on the rest of Miami and South Florida…both transportation and environmental questions have to be integrated.

IN: You are having a town hall meeting tonight on climate change, it has been a big topic on the key with different points of view...

I haven’t met anybody opposed to climate change. For us its life or death. We may have different strategies to get there but I have not met one climate denier the whole time I campaigned and in the town meetings because for Miami, for South Florida, its life or death. We don’t have the choice. We have to follow the evidence, the scientific evidence.

IN: Can you talk about top issues like bacteria on the beaches, bridge maintenance, and the undergrounding of utilities?

DS: These are all the serious issues of Key Biscayne…it’s the beaches, and crumbling infrastructure and climate change that’s going on. We’ve asked the Army Corp of Engineers to include Key Biscayne in the Dade County Beach Erosion Control and Hurricane Protection Project. What they’re doing is they are beginning a feasibility study and I’ve taken the lead in sending a letter to the Army Corp of Engineers and all the members of the Miami Dade Delegation have now signed it. So we’ve insisted they include Key Biscayne which they hadn’t done originally, and that will be very important.

It covers a number of things…it has to do with re-nourishment and basically saving the beaches and erosion protection for hurricanes. It means federal investment, and Key Biscayne has to be included because it’s an important part of the coastline.

We are always going to push the Corp of Engineers to complete their studies to make the kind of investments we need to make. We need to make sure that Florida gets the kind of investments from the Corp of Engineers and gets them quickly. The state also has to make sure it does its fair share with the Everglades with the clean water initiatives. The Everglades Restoration Project is absolutely critical to all of us.

The governor seems to be on top of many of these water and environmental issues he seems to care about them so he is a Republican I’m a Democrat but I’m enthusiastic about anything he will move on and move on quickly and devote the resources to.

The undergrounding decision to put all the utilities underground is also critical and I realize that Key Biscayne has to figure out a way to pay for it.

My goal is to get an infrastructure bill that will help everybody in South Florida and that’s really flexible enough that we can deal with sea level rise, as well as our public transportation challenges, so those are our major initiatives for the new session.

IN: How have your first few months on Capitol Hill been so far?

It’s been frenetic but we’re getting some work done, we’re getting bills introduced on the environment.

We passed two bills on gun control, we passed two bills to close loopholes and to require people to register…back ground checks. We will pass bills on paid family leave, on a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage spread out over a period of time…we passed bills on improving voting rights. So we are really moving and it’s moving very quickly.

IN: In this Islander News issue we are pleased that you will be a part of the finale of local women’s stories as part of our March coverage for Women’s History Month. Can you talk about your philosophy and inspiration?

DS: Never give up. That’s what this country is about…you never give up, you always keep working.

I think I’m here to make sure the next generations have better opportunities, that’s my philosophy to make sure they have better opportunities then I had. So I did a couple of things first of all I was inspired by the kids all over our community who marched with Parkland students.

And actually last week I had an opportunity to vote for a sixteen year old voting age. I talked a number of my colleagues into doing it, we had 125 votes out of a Congress of over 300, that’s a lot of votes. But it was also symbolic for me because I did it for the Parkland kids but I also did it because I believe in the next generation and want them to be involved early on.

So my philosophy has always been to reach down and help other women. But in particular to think of the next generation of young people that are going to lead…to lead Key Biscayne, and lead the country.