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Six years ago, Janelle Perez moved back to Miami after working on Capitol Hill — as a GOP staffer.
Now, Perez, a 34-year-old co-owner of a Medicare managed care company, is running for Congress as a Democrat.
Perez will run against Republican U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, a Democratic-leaning seat that changed party hands in 2020 after Republicans performed well in South Florida.
“I want to unite families and bring people back together,” Perez said in an interview with the Miami Herald ahead of a campaign launch event on Wednesday in Little Havana’s Domino Park. “I feel like after 2020 and having Donald Trump as president, families have been completely divided by the political rhetoric. I have a 4-year-old girl. The way the political climate and direction the Republican Party is going in is not a future I want to give to my daughter.”
Perez, who has never run for office, said she’s been in touch with national groups like the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List, a group that backs Democratic women seeking office.
Her viability as a candidate will depend, in part, on her ability to raise money and name recognition, the Democratic Party’s national strength in a midterm election year where history suggests Republicans could make gains, and the outcome of redistricting that could favor one party or another in Florida’s 27th Congressional District.
Perez, a Pinecrest resident, said she’s committed to running against Salazar even if the district lines change. She said her decision to run for Congress was prompted by Salazar’s vote in February against the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation by amending the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act.
“That was an attack on who we are and our lives,” said Perez, who is married to Monica Perez and is the chair of Miami’s LGBTQ+ advisory board. “I feel like in my career this is a great opportunity for me, our company is doing well and I have the time to focus on this and dedicate myself to this.”
She, along with state Rep. Michele Rayner, would be the first LGBTQ members of Congress from Florida if elected in 2022.
Raised Republican but a change of heart
Perez said she decided to run for the House of Representatives, as opposed to running for local office or the state Legislature, because of her experience in Washington with federal issues. She previously worked as an intern and staffer for Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the House Foreign Affairs Committee before leaving Washington in 2014.
“I come from a conservative family, my parents are Cuban American and they are exiles,” Perez said. “I was raised in a GOP household, and I went to Lourdes Academy.”
She added that it “felt only natural” to work for Ros-Lehtinen as a young Republican interested in foreign policy. Her graduate school thesis was titled “Fighting Terrorism With Foreign Aid: A Case for Continued U.S. Assistance in Latin America.”
But around the time she left Washington, Perez was diagnosed with cancer and “started to realize I’m not so much of a Republican.”
“So I made the switch when I moved back from Washington, D.C.,” Perez said.
She then worked as an analyst for the mortgage lender Columbus Capital Lending before helping to launch Doctors HealthCare Plans Inc., a managed care company in Coral Gables that was founded by her father Martin Perez in 2017. She is a co-owner of the company, which employs about 100 people, and works there as a network development contract specialist, according to her LinkedIn profile.
If elected, Perez said she would consider herself a “moderate Democrat,” noting that she strongly supports keeping the Cuba embargo in place and thinks the Democratic Party should forcefully oppose the communist regime in Cuba after widespread pro-democracy protests last month. Salazar, a former TV journalist who is also Cuban American, has spent the last month calling on Biden to do more on Cuba and leading rallies in Miami and Washington with the Cuban exile community.
“I’m against lifting the embargo. I’m for more sanctions,” Perez said. “That’s one issue for me that I do not stand with the progressive Democrats. I see myself as a moderate Democrat. I see myself as a Miami Democrat. This community is not an extremely progressive constituency.”
In 2020, Salazar managed to beat incumbent Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala by nearly three percentage points despite President Joe Biden’s beating former President Donald Trump by just over three percentage points in the district, which includes Miami Beach, most of Miami and coastal areas of Miami-Dade County. But Biden’s 2020 performance in the district was much worse than Hillary Clinton’s 19% margin of victory in the same territory in 2016, one of the reasons why Shalala lost and Democrats across the state under-performed in 2020.
Redistricting may bring changes
The district is likely to be slightly different in 2022. Florida gained one U.S. House seat as a result of the 2020 Census and while the new seat is most likely to be drawn into Central Florida, its addition and shifts in population within the state will necessitate new lines for the state’s 28 U.S. House seats, which will be drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Perez is the first candidate to officially announce a run against Salazar in 2022, though Shalala has said she plans to decide whether or not to run once the new district lines are finalized next year. Another potential candidate, former state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, was recently nominated by Biden to lead the Labor Department’s unemployment programs.
Salazar, who has faced criticism from the far right after voting with Democrats to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, does not have any GOP primary challengers.
Perez said the GOP’s strong performance in Miami and Salazar’s upset victory was due, in part, to continuing charges of “socialism” coming from Republican politicians. She said her personal story and ability to communicate in Spanish will help neutralize those attacks in 2022.
“I’m a product of capitalism,” Perez said. “The reason I stand here before you today is because of the success of capitalism. If the Republican Party decides to attack me on issues like that, I have a record of showing just who I am and my values and my family story. I cannot be attacked on those issues.”