After a largely self-financed campaign that promised “universal basic income” from the government of $1,000 a month to people making $75,000 or less, Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick won a special election Tuesday to replace the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings in Florida’s 20th District.
A home health care company executive, she will be the first Haitian American Democrat in Congress.
Cherfilus-McCormick was leading Republican Jason Mariner 80 percent to 18 percent when The Associated Press called the race less than 10 minutes after polls closed. Three other candidates were also running.
Mariner, an advertising executive who ran on an “America first” platform, is a convicted felon whose legal right to hold office was in question because he did not complete a process required by state law to restore his civil rights after his imprisonment. He posted a letter from a lawyer on his campaign website calling the questions surrounding his eligibility “weak,” “baseless” and “nothing more than clickbait.”
The real contest for Cherfilus-McCormick in the deep-blue district covering parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties came in November, when she won the Democratic primary by just five votes. She beat 10 other candidates, including several high-profile current and former elected officials, who questioned her self-funding and may challenge her again for a full term.
Cherfilus-McCormick spent more than $2.7 million on that campaign, allowing her to blanket the district with TV and digital advertisements. Nearly all of the spending came from her personal wealth; she reported raising only $135,000 from contributors through Dec. 22.
Cherfilus-McCormick addressed criticism from her opponents and her priorities in Congress in an interview this week just before the election. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You are going to be sworn in at a time when the 20th District has been without representation in Congress [since Hastings died in April 2021]. What are the most pressing needs of your district?
A: Our biggest priority is to position ourselves in a place where we have more jobs and to feel more stable when it comes to our economic needs. … Also what’s very important to us is health care. In our district, we have so many seniors, so many people right now who are impacted by COVID. … But we also see a rising need when it comes to mental health. Mental health has been something that, traditionally, our district didn’t talk about. But now it’s just becoming so overwhelming, with anxiety from our seniors to our children.
Q: What is your response to critics who say your universal basic income proposal is an unrealistic goal for one member of the House to accomplish?
A: Any change that we’ve ever had, it started somewhere. In the beginning, they always say that it’s unfeasible. These kinds of programs are being [passed] all around the country. Once we realize that we have so many people in our district who cannot afford to pay their rent, who cannot afford to pay for the electricity or survive right now because of the effects of COVID-19, then we realize how realistic it is. On top of that, if we see how much we’ve been able to erode childhood poverty through the child tax credit, we see that all these things are feasible. But without the will or the want to, it’s always going to be impossible, because you don’t want to do it.
Q: Democrats in control of Congress have allowed the enhanced child tax credit to expire, and there is some question as to whether that can be back on the table. Given that it’s so hard to get something like that through, when people have already been getting a check in their accounts every month, what do you think is the political reality of getting through an even bigger program?
A: It’s going to have to be consistent. The child tax credit was for children and families, but then seniors were left out. And looking at the realities of COVID, as we go forward, looking at the housing market, community members are going to start demanding help. They’re going to ask, “What did you do to help me survive this housing crisis? Did you allow me to fall into poverty and lose my home? Or did you help me?”
Q: In the primary, some of your competitors criticized you for spending so much of your own money on the campaign. What’s your response to that?
A: We had a message. … Most of the money I used was to employ people in a district to go knock door to door. … The rest of the money, we used to advertise so people could understand what the issues were. So we didn’t run ads just saying, “Oh, I’m a health care executive. And I’m wealthy,” That’s never what I said. I said, “This is what I want to do for you.” … The reason they really want to say I can’t do it is because they didn’t care enough about the community to do it themselves.
Q: Regardless of the special election outcome, you’re going to have to run again in November, and it looks like some of the people who ran in the primary are probably going to file again. Any thoughts, as you’re looking toward that race, about what you need to do to make your case?
A: Everybody who’s saying they’re going to run again, they’re going to lose again. The people stood up, and they said what they had to say, and they said it loudly. We’re not going to be distracted by all of these threats. … Last time when they ran, they had the power of their seats. They had years of experience. They had money, they raised a whole bunch of money, which they said equated support. Now everybody’s running without being an elected official, except for me. So if I can whip you without being an elected official, guess what? I’m going to do it again.
Q: You are going to become the first Haitian American Democrat in Congress. What perspective does that bring to the Democratic Party, and what can Congress in general do to help Haiti?
A: We haven't had anybody who actually comes from the diaspora, to understand the dynamics that are going on with Haitian Americans in the United States and Haitian people in the country. So representation and having someone comment on that is huge, but not just to comment on Haiti, but comment on the entire Caribbean and how we can actually increase our relationships and our trade. … We just want a real shot at equality.