Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who faces a primary rematch with the candidate she defeated last year by five votes, kicked off her re-election campaign with a call for — and a show of — Democratic unity.
She launched her campaign with a notable new supporter: Barbara Sharief, who finished third in the fiercely fought 2021 special Democratic primary that sent Cherfilus-McCormick to Congress.
Also supporting the new congresswoman’s re-election: Maisha Williams, the late Congressman Alcee Hastings’ stepdaughter — who Cherfilus-McCormick ran against twice, in 2018 and 2020.
Cherfilus-McCormick has been in office about 110 days. One of the central themes in remarks to supporters was that Democrats should be unified, and not devote time and energy to a divisive party primary.
“We can’t afford to have Democrats fighting Democrats,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. So much is at stake, energy ought to be focused on “continuing the work that we started, continuing the fight against Republicans.”
Cherfilus-McCormick said she can do so, constructively. “It’s so important that we elect a leader who can continue the fight, who can fight the fight diplomatically, who understand the needs of the community,” she said.
Hastings died on April 6, 2021, but Gov. Ron DeSantis delayed calling special primary and general elections for months — keeping the Democratic seat vacant for more than nine months, far longer than governors have waited in recent decades.
“District 20 was silenced for nine months. Every moment I have to speak about what needs to be done, to influence what needs to be done, I take those opportunities,” she said.
She cited inflation, including gas prices and the high cost of housing in South Florida — and said one solution is further upping the annual cost of living increases that go to Social Security recipients so they can meet their needs in retirement.
She also said there’s a need to counter what she sees coming every day from Republicans.
“Every morning we wake up” and it seems as if a different Republican is targeting the LGBTQ community — “trying to equate gay people to be some kind of weirdos, which isn’t true. We’re all good people.”
Other Republicans, she said, exhibit xenophobia, “equating immigrants to drug dealers and robbers” coming to the United States to commit sexual assaults.
In politics, opponents in one election often become allies in the next. And that’s what’s happened with Cherfilus-McCormick and Sharief.
Sharief said she “absolutely” supports Cherfilus-McCormick in the congressional primary. “I want her to be able to fight and maintain her seat.”
And Cherfilus-McCormick is supporting Sharief’s campaign for the Florida Senate. Sharief, a former Broward County commissioner and former Miramar city commissioner, is running against state Sen. Lauren Book in a Democratic primary in District 35, in southern and western Broward. Sharief’s primary contest with Book isn’t the kind of internal party unity Cherfilus McCormick called for in her speech.
Book is the Senate Democratic leader, and the contest with Sharief could be the most contentious and consequential legislative primary in Florida this year.
The alliance between Cherfilus-McCormick and Sharief hasn’t been formally announced, but the mutual support was acknowledged by both candidates in interviews after Sharief slipped into Cherfilus-McCormick’s re-election campaign kickoff Monday night in Tamarac.
“We had a tough relationship” during last year’s primary,” said Cherfilus-McCormick, who called Sharief to invite her to Monday night’s event.
But she also pointed to their similarities.
Cherfilus-McCormick, a lawyer, was CEO of Trinity Health Care Services, a home health care company before she was elected to Congress. Sharief, a nurse practitioner with a doctorate in nursing practice, is owner and CEO of South Florida Pediatric Homecare.
Both live in Miramar — and both planned to run for Congress before the April 6, 2021, death of Hastings.
Cherfilus-McCormick said she and other residents of South Florida “need someone in the state [Legislature] who’s a hard worker.”
Cherfilus-McCormick is facing a rematch with Dale Holness, who lost by five votes out of 49,082 cast in the special Democratic primary to pick a replacement for Hastings. Cherfilus-McCormick and Holness each had 23.8% of the vote, Sharief had 17.7%, and eight other candidates split the rest.
In the overwhelmingly Democratic district, the primary winner was the guaranteed winner of the special general election, on Jan. 11, in which she received 79% of the vote.
Cherfilus-McCormick and Holness are running in a reconfigured 20th Congressional District in Broward and Palm Beach counties. It still takes in most of the African American and Caribbean American communities in the two counties, but the boundaries of all congressional districts are changing this year to reflect population shifts uncovered in the 2020 Census.
Cherfilus-McCormick is the first Haitian Democrat elected to Congress. Holness, a former Broward County commissioner and Lauderhill city commissioner, is Jamaican American.
The 2021 special primary was about six months ago, the special general election was four months ago, and the 2022 primary is about three months from now.
Though she’s now the incumbent, Cherfilus-McCormick told her supporters that they face hard work leading up to the Aug. 23 primary. “
“It’s going to be a hard fight. It is. I’m not going to lie to anybody. We’re dealing with a district that has changed. We have three months to win those people over.” Recalling assessments from people early in 2021 who said “we had no chance,” Cherfilus-McCormick said “we’re going to show everybody what we’ve got.”
The winner of the Democratic primary is all-but-guaranteed to win the November election. An analysis from political data analyst Matthew Isbell of the firm MCI Maps found that 76% of the new district’s voters went for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
About 90 people attended the campaign kickoff at the Colony West County Club in Tamarac. It was typical in that the candidate’s supporters milled about snacking on finger foods and Cherfilus-McCormick moved through the group talking with her supporters and posing for pictures.
It was unusual in one respect: there wasn’t a long list of warm-up speakers touting the candidate, just a brief introduction from former Broward Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar.
The audience was diverse, and included some people running for political office, and people active in organized labor and the LGBTQ community.
“This is testament that it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, if you’re a man, if you’re gay, if you’re white, if you’re Black, if you’re Jewish. None of that matters. Look at our faces. We come from every aspect, every place in the world, and we’re still here as one people, one body, fighting one fight … We’re one people. We’re fathers, mothers, daughters, wives, husbands. We’re all the same.”
Williams — Hastings’ stepdaughter who also worked in his office — said many people are startled when they learn she is working in Cherfilus-McCormick’s office. She said she was offended the first time Cherfilus-McCormick ran against her dad. The second time, she began to reassess.
“I love Dale Holness. He’s a friend of the family. [But] I don’t think we need a replacement,” she said.
She said she’s come to see Cherfilus-McCormick as the political heir to Hastings, carrying on his decades of advocacy. “Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is an Alcee Hastings. She’s just female and younger.”