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Meet Donna Shalala, the 77-Year-Old Freshman (in Congress, That Is)

Who says anyone is ever too old to do anything?! Here’s how the already-accomplished Donna Shalala is tackling a new role well into her 70s.

Donna Shalala has moved through high-level roles in higher education and government for decades now. She served as president of the University of Miami from 2001 to 2015; before that, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001; and prior to that, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Never one to rest on her laurels, though, Shalala, a staunch Democrat, recently decided to roll up her sleeves and play a part in politics at a very hands-on level. She ran in a surprisingly tough race to represent Florida’s 27th Congressional District and was elected to the House of Representatives in November 2018.

I may be a freshman, but I’m not a rookie.

Given that she’ll celebrate her 78th birthday next February, she is the oldest “freshman” in her class and very close to the oldest ever to serve (Representative James Bowler of Illinois, elected at 78 in 1953, holds that distinction). Shalala says she decided to jump in and run for office, representing her constituents, after seeing the president on TV and disapproving—strongly—of his actions. She’s now ready to serve, often saying, “I may be a freshman, but I’m not a rookie.”

Donna Shalala: Knowing the Game

Despite her lofty career credentials, she now enters a new kind of job, far from her past experiences, where she had big teams to whom to delegate (she can’t lead a committee, for instance, as a first-year member of Congress). But Shalala says she’s excited by the chance to serve in a new way.

“The people in this district have a handful of things that they’d like us to do. I listened to the people’s priorities,” she told the Miami Herald, and they made it very clear that they’re deeply concerned about healthcare and obviously about immigration, the environment and sensible gun control.”

When asked if she should let the younger generation take precedence in Congress, she snapped back: “What am I stepping aside for? Do they have better ideas than I have? The answer is, no.”

Her colleagues think she’ll be a natural in this new path.

“She’s smart; she knows the game,” Representative-elect Deb Haaland of New Mexico, told the New York Times. “It’s not about age. It’s about strength, humanity—it’s about willingness to step up and fight.” As more women enter our political realm, Shalala provides an excellent example that age should never stand in the way of diving into new challenges.

By Janet Siroto


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