Citing frustration, former Clinton officials running in 2018
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — It’s not every day that those who’ve left politics decide to jump back into the ring, but campaign announcements this week by two former Clinton Cabinet members reveal a desire to return to what once was — and a George W. Bush White House lawyer might join them.
“We looked at the politics and we said, ‘We can do better than that,” said Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, in an interview with ABC News after announcing Wednesday that she’s running for Congress in Florida.
Shalala, who’s 77-years-old and a former president of the University of Miami and of the Clinton Foundation, said when she was first asked to consider running for Congress, she had to think about it.
In her debut campaign ad, she made that clear: “Look, running for Congress was never in my plans. But now I realize that everything we fought for is at risk,” she said.
Shalala filed to run in Florida’s 27th Congressional District on Monday within hours of Clinton’s former agriculture secretary, Mike Espy, announcing he’s running for Senate in his home state of Mississippi.
“It’s been some time since I worked in Washington and I have witnessed with dismay the continuing dysfunction,” Espy said in a statement.
Shalala said the timing is just coincidence. Though Espy was a “good friend when we were in the cabinet together,” she said they haven’t spoken in a long time.
And Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, announced Wednesday he was forming an exploratory committee to possibly run for the Minnesota Senate seat vacated by former Sen. Al Franken. Painter made it clear that if he does run, it would be on an anti-corruption message.
“It has gotten a lot worse under President Trump. I have been very critical of many of the conflicts of interest in this White House and of the behavior, whether it’s on Twitter or his personal behavior and his financial conflicts of interest — but we have had a serious problem with money in politics for several decades,” Painter said.
Because there has been a surge in Democrats running for Congress across the board, it’s not surprising some are former cabinet secretaries or administration officials. 2018 is on track to be a big year for many different groups — especially female candidates.
But while people who have never run before and are frustrated with the Trump administration may run regardless of their opponents — be it a strong incumbent or a saturated field — more experienced former officials might choose their races because they know “the strategic nature of things,” said Michele Swers, a professor of American government at Georgetown University.
“Someone with a political background like this, they jump in because they see an open-seat opportunity,” Swers said.
And beyond the know-how in understanding when to run, they also have backgrounds that harken to a time when being in the “establishment” was more respected.
“President Trump being such an anti-establishment figure has stirred up anxiety among establishment politicians, so they may see even more of a need for themselves to jump in the race,” Swers said.
In this case, the three former administration officials found their opportunities in two retirements and one resignation.
In Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, announced her retirement after 35 years in elected office. Shalala is well-known in the community for her time as a college president and the 2016 election revealed an opening for Democratic candidates after Hillary Clinton won her district by almost 20 percentage points.
“It took me a while to answer the question of why do I want to do this but as I got angrier and angrier at Washington, I said ‘Donna, you’ve got to step up again and serve your community’,” Shalala told ABC News.
For those who think only newcomers can bring change, Shalala has a different take: “If you want change, you hire the most experienced, toughest people you can possibly hire. People who can hit the ground running with progressive views and a lifetime of experience.”
“That’s what you do when you have the toughest situation in politics,” Shalala said.
But candidates with ties to former presidents can be linked to their legacies in both positive and negative ways. In the case of Shalala and the Clintons — Democrats have criticized Bill Clinton in the wake of the #MeToo movement — the primaries will be critical.
“It depends on how people voting in your primary view that president’s success,” Swers said. “For Shalala, we’re enough years away from the Clinton presidency. The positive aspect of that is the financial connections, the negative is any negative feelings about Clinton among primary voters might affect her as well.”
Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, thinks Shalala will be a Florida voter favorite — not because of a “long-ago stint” in Clinton’s cabinet, but for her time as a college president.
“You’d have to ask them,” Sabato said in an email interview, “But I doubt they are held responsible for Clinton’s private behavior,” he said.
“And oh yes, Donald Trump is president, and has some serious private-life issues, too,” Sabato said.
Espy, also a former Clinton cabinet secretary, is running in Mississippi on the heels of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s retirement. Cochran, 80, was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and is retiring for health reasons. Espy declined to comment for this story while Cochran is still in office, a spokesperson said.
Espy also previously held a House seat from 1987 to 1993, during which he developed a relationship with Clinton, then governor of Arkansas. When Clinton became president, Espy became the first African American to hold the position of secretary of agriculture.
While both may face questions about Clinton and what role he might play in their campaigns, they also focus broadly on Washington, then and now.
“I think that President Trump has done a disservice to presidents before him,” Shalala said. “We need leadership in Washington that cares about citizens.”
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