Sunshine Race

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick hopes the third time’s a charm in FL20

The healthcare executive is carving a niche as a pro-Israel progressive in the race to succeed the late Rep. Alcee Hastings

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Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick

While she may not explicitly cast herself as such, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick seems to be carving out a niche for herself as something of a pro-Israel progressive among the half-dozen leading Democratic candidates vying to succeed the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) in South Florida’s special House election next month.

Cherfilus-McCormick, a 42-year-old healthcare executive now mounting her third bid for the seat, is running to the left of all but one of her most formidable opponents on a number of domestic issues, advocating for progressive policies such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. In a more populist vein, she is also proposing a “People’s Prosperity Plan” that would provide voters with a universal basic income of $1,000 a month.

When it comes to Israel, however, Cherfilus-McCormick, a religious Christian of Haitian descent, holds views that are more aligned with the Democratic mainstream. She rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, favors continued — if not increased — U.S. military assistance to the Jewish state and supports recent legislation that would give Israel $1 billion to replenish its Iron Dome missile-defense system — the subject of a heated intra-party debate last month on the House floor.

“I would definitely have voted to fund the Iron Dome, just because Israel has a right to defend itself,” Cherfilus-McCormick said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “More importantly, because Israel is one of our biggest allies, we actually play a part in ensuring that they’re able to defend themselves. Our partnership is just too deep for us to have to even make an issue of whether we should or shouldn’t. That is a priority.”

Her perspective is somewhat notable as a growing faction of far-left lawmakers — whose views on domestic issues Cherfilus-McCormick largely seems to share — have amplified their criticism of the Jewish state following a flare-up in violence last May between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, deepening divisions over American foreign policy toward Israel within the Democratic Party.

It was possibly  that dynamic that led some local Jewish community leaders to assume that  Cherfilus-McCormick might align with anti-Israel voices in the House, according to Richard Stark, who chairs the Broward County Democratic Party Jewish Caucus and co-hosted a candidate forum last month. 

In June, Cherfilus-McCormick notched an endorsement from Brand New Congress, the progressive political action committee that has previously backed Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who are among the most outspoken Israel critics in the party.

Cherfilus-McCormick is “pursuing support from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party,” Stark told JI, “and if that’s the case, then I would expect” she would “fall more in line” with the view “that Israel’s got to be scrutinized.”

But Cherfilus-McCormick dispelled such assumptions in a conversation with JI, vowing to uphold the pro-Israel values espoused by the late congressman whose seat she hopes to fill. During his time in Congress, Hastings, who died in April at 84, was known as a champion of Israel committed to advancing Black-Jewish relations, and Cherfilus-McCormick pledged to “extend” his legacy on that front if she is elected to the House. 

“We are so intimately tied,” she said. “We have to support each other.”

Until recently, Cherfilus-McCormick had been sharing the pro-Israel progressive lane with at least one other candidate: Omari Hardy, a left-leaning state representative who expressed broad support for Israel during the recent forum in which candidates addressed issues of particular interest to Jewish voters.

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick

But in an interview with JI last week, Hardy reversed course, explaining that, after careful consideration, he now supports BDS and conditioning aid to Israel. The 31-year-old lawmaker also opposes supplemental Iron Dome funding and vowed he would have voted against the measure if he were in Congress.

Such views appear to have cost him politically in Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which, while majority Black, is also home to a sizable Jewish community in Tamarac and includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Recent editorials in the leading local newspaper, South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, which endorsed him, have taken issue — in one case quite stridently — with his controversial foreign policy stance.

Cherfilus-McCormick, for her part, disagreed with Hardy’s approach. “At this moment, Afghanistan has been retaken by the Taliban; Iran, who by the way funds Hamas in Palestine, is charging towards a nuclear weapon; and we have new threats from terrorist organizations such as ISIS-K and Boko Haram,” she told JI in a strongly worded statement last week after Hardy went public with his views. “This is not a time to play politics with national security and the security of Israel is paramount.”

“Rep. Hardy is entitled to his opinion,” Cherfilus-McCormick added, “but I strongly oppose weakening Israel in any way and endangering the lives of millions.”

Cherfilus-McCormick has hardly established herself as an outspoken advocate of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the manner of Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) or Arizona state Rep. Daniel Hernandez, to name two high-profile Israel supporters who identify as progressive.

And the congressional hopeful largely stands in alignment with the other leading candidates in the 11-way race — including such moderately aligned elected officeholders as state Sen. Perry Thurston, state Rep. Bobby DuBose and Broward County Commissioners Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief — who have all expressed support for Israel.

But Cherfilus-McCormick claims an affinity for the Jewish state that extends back to childhood, when her Haitian-born parents became strong supporters of Christians United for Israel after they immigrated to the U.S. and began traveling to Israel every other year on religious pilgrimages.

Cherfilus-McCormick never accompanied her parents on those trips, but said that she and her husband had been planning a similar pilgrimage of their own with a local pastor’s group when the pandemic hit. “I definitely would love to visit and want to visit,” she told JI. “We’re heavily Christian in my family, me and my husband, so we were going to do that anyhow.”

As a first-generation Haitian-American, Cherfilus-McCormick — who was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and moved to South Florida at the age of 13 to attend high school — claims a connection with Israel that she says is deepened by her personal background.

“Perhaps it is the example of the Duvalier father and son Haitian strongmen, who so brutalized the people and left an indelible mark on my family, that I deeply understand the phrase ‘Never again,’” she wrote in a lengthy Israel position paper provided to JI by her campaign. “More than 35 years ago, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then as a religious leader, delivered a sermon proclaiming that only the ‘path of righteousness and love’ can counter the repression and violence of those who would have us live in fear.”

“A secure and prosperous U.S.-Israeli friendship,” she added, “depends on a commitment to resolving conflicts that arise from ignorance and fear-inspired xenophobia before they mushroom into clouds overhead.”

Cherfilus-McCormick supports U.S. involvement in brokering a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, she wrote, “must include the security of Israel’s borders,” as well as “the protection of a Jewish, democratic state and a commitment to improving the quality of life for both the Jewish and Palestinian people.”

But she argues that Hamas “must not be included” in any negotiations, characterizing the militant extremist group now in control of the Gaza Strip as “a terrorist organization that aims to destroy the Israeli people.”

“The U.S. has served as an arbiter in resolving every major conflict or incident in the region,” Cherfilus-McCormick wrote. “I believe our critical role continues today to achieve democratic gains and attain a lasting peace. To support this goal, we must continue to provide support to the region and increase aid to the Palestinian people to achieve an outcome like that of the rebuilding of postwar Europe.”

Cherilus-McCormick also supports the Biden administration in its ongoing effort to renegotiate a nuclear deal with the Iranians that will include “ending Iran’s support for terrorist organizations,” she wrote. “If Iran wishes to further this dangerous behavior, longer and tougher economic sanctions must be in place.”

While there is no up-to-date polling on the race, elections experts argue that Cherfilus-McCormick has a decent shot at prevailing in the Nov. 2 primary, for which early voting begins on Saturday. The winner is expected to win the Jan. 11 general election because the district leans heavily Democratic.

Cherfilus-McCormick, the CEO of Trinity Home Healthcare — who received a law degree from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens — has poured $2.5 million of her own money into the race, according to a campaign spokesperson, outspending every candidate as she has blanketed the airwaves in the final weeks of the election. 

By contrast, Holness, who has raised the most in outside contributions, is relying on a campaign war chest of $575,000, a spokesperson told JI.

“One candidate who’s spending more than the rest of the field combined could win the race with less than 25% of the vote,” Dave Wasserman, a House elections forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who has written about the race, told JI. “Cherfilus-McCormick has won that share of the vote in this district twice against Alcee Hastings.”

The three-time candidate first ran to unseat Hastings in 2018, pulling in just over 26% of the vote but losing by a nearly 50-point margin. On her second attempt, Cherfilus-McCormick performed somewhat better with 31% as Hastings’s support slipped below the 70% threshold.

Now, in a wide-open race where the threshold for victory is expected to be low, Cherfilus-McCormick may be strongly positioned to pull off the sort of upset she has long sought. “She doesn’t need that much of the vote to win this race,” said Wasserman. “And considering how split the rest of the field is, there’s a real path to victory for her even though she was a gadfly candidate in ‘18 and ‘20.”

“With my background in law and in healthcare, it positions me specifically for this time,” Cherfilus-McCormick told JI. “The reconciliation bill really deals with what I believe to be urgent needs, which are health care, child care, education, just really helping us live better lives every day,” she said, referring to legislation, currently stalled in the Senate, that would vastly expand the American social safety net. “That’s why I ran the first time.”

Whether she will earn support from the Jewish community in the district, which is largely situated in Kings Point, a local sprawling condominium complex, remains to be seen. But Cherfilus-McCormick has been competing for that share of the vote since she first ran for Congress, according to Jeffrey Romeu, a spokesperson for her campaign.

“Her main campaign office is close to Kings Point because she knows how important the voters of Kings Point are in this election,” Romeu told JI. “Sheila is a faith-based candidate who has bonded with those in the Jewish community not only in Kings Point but throughout the district in both Palm Beach and Broward Counties.”

Last week, Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) — one of three Jewish Democratic House members in Florida — endorsed Sharief, citing her support for strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship in a statement to JI. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) is not planning to make an endorsement in the race, his office told JI on Tuesday, and a spokesperson for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) did not respond to requests for comment about whether she would be weighing in.

Either way, Cherfilus-McCormick believes that voters are ready for new leadership as a number of longtime elected officials jockey for the seat. “I think that Alcee was great for his time, and the issues that we’re facing presently, even some of the issues that we started facing toward the end of his career, were issues that he’s never seen before and never experienced,” she said. “That’s why I think that whoever comes into this seat has to really be able to push our district forward and not be someone who’s timid.”

But on one matter, at least, Cherfilus-McCormick said she looks to Hastings as a model. “When it comes to the relationships that Alcee had with different communities such as the Jewish community,” she told JI, “we have to continue that in a robust way.”

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