Annette Taddeo’s leap of faith

The South Florida Democrat and Colombia native is mounting her third bid for Congress

Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator in Miami who is now running for Congress, still vividly remembers the moment she began to express doubts about her Catholic faith as a 12-year-old girl growing up in Colombia. “There were a lot of contradictions between one part of the Bible and another part of the Bible,” she recalled. “My dad said to me, ‘Well, go see the priest and ask him those questions.’” 

His suggestion, however, proved less productive than Taddeo had hoped. “The priest says, ‘Oh, honey, you’re not supposed to read the Bible. That’s for us to read and for us to tell you what it means.’” Her father’s response, by contrast, was far more encouraging. “He just said, ‘You keep reading whatever you want to read and you keep asking questions of whatever you want to ask. Don’t pay attention to the priest,’” Taddeo explained. “That helped in my continuation of being inquisitive and questioning everything.”

So began a yearslong process of religious discovery that would culminate in Taddeo’s conversion to Judaism about a decade later. “It was all women in the class, but I was the only woman without a fiancé,” Taddeo said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, chuckling proudly at the memory. “The more I learned, the more I realized that this is who I was, this is where I felt at home and this is what I truly believed.”

As she makes her bid for a hotly contested South Florida House seat, Taddeo, 55, now claims she is poised to become the first Hispanic Jew elected to Congress — at least, she adds with characteristic agnosticism, as far as she is aware. “We haven’t found anyone,” Taddeo said, leaving no doubt as to whether she and her team had already investigated. “We have been asking, believe me.”

No matter the precedent, Taddeo remains convinced that she is uniquely capable of defeating her Republican rival, freshman Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), in Florida’s newly drawn 27th Congressional District, which covers a sizable portion of Miami-Dade County. Even as the updated House map gives Republicans an edge in November, Taddeo argues that her personal story and no-nonsense demeanor — not to mention a recent track record of performing well in red-leaning territory — will help fuel an upset.

“I’m known for being very straightforward, no BS and trustworthy,” Taddeo said, emphasizing that she has never hesitated to buck party lines while in office. Last year, she harshly criticized the Biden administration’s decision to remove the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia from a State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations — an issue of deep personal concern for Taddeo, who, at 17, was forced to flee Colombia when the now-demobilized rebel group known as FARC had kidnapped her father. “I’m very aware of who I represent and who I speak for,” she told JI. “I’m not going to sit there and just stay quiet.”

Salazar, by contrast, has been a “demagogue” and a “disappointment,” Taddeo said bluntly, citing recent party-line votes against legislation that would bolster government resources to combat domestic terrorism as well a House bill to codify abortion rights at the federal level, among other things. The first-term congresswoman, a Cuban-American former TV journalist, has otherwise stirred broader controversy for incendiary statements such as calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and claiming that all socialists are “anti-Jew.”

Still, such comments appeared to have resonated with voters in the majority-Hispanic district last cycle, even if the seat is also home to a large Jewish population. Salazar, 60, was relentless in accusing the former Democratic incumbent, one-term Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), of harboring socialist sympathies. 

Shalala did herself no favors when she described herself as a “pragmatic socialist” in an interview with a local NBC station. While she later claimed to have misspoken, Salazar seized on the blunder, declaring victory in her second consecutive bid for the seat by three points. 

Taddeo maintains that she is better positioned to repel allegations of socialism that are certain to reemerge, not least because the charges failed to stick when, in a 2017 special election, she flipped her current legislative district to become the first Latina Democrat in the Florida Senate. “They called me not just a socialist but a communist and a terrorist sympathizer,” she told JI. “It didn’t work because I fought back straight to camera.”

“I’ve had a business for 30 years,” said Taddeo, the founder and CEO of a translation company called LanguageSpeak. “I meet a payroll to this day, every two weeks. I don’t just have to say who I am. I live it every single day. It just makes it very, very tough for them to stick me with any of that.”

Taddeo expressed confidence that voters have grown eager for a more balanced style of representation than she believes Salazar has demonstrated in her tenure. “I’m very proud of the fact that I am highly respected across the aisle,” Taddeo said. “I’m obviously a proud Democrat, but I think you can debate without having to be so nasty. The nastiness and the ugliness I do not like, and I think I can tell you, from the Hispanic point of view, we don’t like that either.”

“This seat in particular has historically been represented by what I would call giants,” Taddeo told JI, largely alluding to former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who held the seat for 30 years before her retirement in 2019. “What I mean by giants are people who are respected, who our community can be proud with, whether they’re Democrat or Republican.”

Both Ros-Lehtinen as well as Shalala, who briefly succeeded her, established reputations as pro-Israel stalwarts who were consistently outspoken on Middle East policy issues in Congress. Taddeo, who has long been active in pro-Israel advocacy, hopes to continue that legacy if she is elected. “It is really being that voice and that leader that we need and that we deserve and we also pretty much require from the experience of who’s been elected to the seat,” she said. 

Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo, left, speaks alongside Sen. Shevrin Jones, right, against congressional maps, Monday, April 18, 2022, at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Meanwhile, Taddeo alleged that Salazar has yet to live up to that standard, even as the congresswoman has cast herself as a strong supporter of Israel. “I know that she is pro-Israel, so I want to be very clear,” Taddeo clarified. “That is not what I’m saying. I think what I’m saying is the leadership, the voice — the champion, is the right word — that I believe this area requires, she is not.”

Taddeo’s critique is not entirely without merit. During her last campaign, Salazar seemed unfamiliar with some basic details about the Middle East, suggesting in an interview with JI at the time that the Trump administration had brokered a diplomatic agreement between Israel and Qatar as part of the Abraham Accords, which had not occurred. She also struggled to come up with the popular abbreviation for the United Arab Emirates, which she described as the “QEA” before correcting herself. “Ah, UAE, yes, I got confused with the letters,” she said. “UAE. The UAE.”

Shalala, for her part, dismissed her former opponent as out of her depth on Middle East policy and other issues of relevance to Jewish voters. “[Salazar] knows nothing except Cuba, as far as I can tell, and maybe Venezuela,” Shalala said in a recent interview with JI, adding that Taddeo offers “a different level of representation” with regard to such topics. “It’s the level of sophistication about Middle Eastern issues that I think is important for us.”

But Salazar has proven to be something of a quick study during her time in Congress, where she now serves as a member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and global counterterrorism. The freshman Republican “is a leader in Congress for Israel,” Allie Rodríguez, a spokesperson for Salazar’s campaign, said in a statement to JI. “She strongly opposes antisemitism,” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “and has been one of the loudest voices in Congress defending the safety and security of Israelis everytime Israel is attacked.”

“Annette Taddeo,” she added, “is severely uninformed.”

Rodriguez provided a detailed list of Salazar’s achievements, such as introducing a House resolution commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the 1992 terrorist attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and co-sponsoring the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, among other things. “Salazar has publicly criticized her colleagues in the House of Representatives for antisemitic language and statements,” Rodriguez said. 

The congresswoman was among only 11 Republican House members who voted in favor of a Democratic-led motion that stripped Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) of her committee assignments over past comments in which the Georgia legislator had endorsed violence against her political opponents and propagated antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Salazar, who visited Israel on a congressional delegation in March, has been endorsed by a political action committee affiliated with the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC in addition to the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“In her first term, Congresswoman Salazar has been a reliable ally to the Jewish community, a vocal defender of the U.S.-Israel alliance on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has stood resolutely against antisemitism,” Noah Silverman, congressional affairs director for the RJC, said in a statement to JI. “We had high expectations for her first term, but she has exceeded them and we have no doubt her constituents will reward her for her leadership by reelecting her in November.”

Locally, Salazar has also made inroads with Jewish constituents who believe she has proven sensitive to their needs. “She’s been a stalwart supporter of Israel since she’s been in Congress,” said Daniel Hadar, a rabbi at Temple Moses, an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach that includes Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews from Cuba. “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t continue to support her at this point.”

Eliot H. Pearlson, a rabbi who leads a heavily Cuban-Jewish congregation at Temple Menorah, another Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach, agreed. “I give tremendous high marks to Salazar,” said Pearlson, who is a registered Democrat but supports the incumbent as he did last cycle. “She’s maintained a significant communication with the Jewish community. I know my colleagues and I are very satisfied by her commitment to Jewish values and her commitment to the state of Israel.”

But Taddeo’s supporters believe she will bring a more measured approach to Middle East policy, even if she has never addressed such issues at the federal level. “Annette is the kind of person you can talk about these kinds of things with,” said Mark Winer, a rabbi who serves as president of the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus. “I am not suggesting that Salazar is going to be bad on Israel issues, but I am concerned because of her right-wing positions on Ukraine that she might. Is she going to carry over that militant attitude? I’m worried about that.”

Joseph Geller, a Democratic state representative from Aventura, echoed that sentiment. “People think it’s pro-Israel to support belligerent policies around the world and in the Middle East, but it’s not,” he told JI. “In the long run, Israel needs security but it also needs peace.”

“Annette is a very strong voice in support for Israel, and I have no doubt that if she’s elected to Congress she will continue to be a strong advocate,” Geller said, noting that she has been an “active voice in helping to craft policy positions” on a range of Jewish issues as a state senator, including rising antisemitism. “She’s served with distinction.”

A spokesperson for Democratic Majority for Israel, which hasn’t made an endorsement in the race, said the group was “delighted to work with” Taddeo “to advocate for a strong pro-Israel national Democratic Party platform” in 2020. “Her commitment and leadership on this issue helped ensure its success.”

Taddeo, who worked closely with the Israeli consulate in Miami before she was elected to the state Senate, supports continued security assistance to Israel — which she describes as “non-negotiable” — opposes the BDS movement and, unlike Salazar, backs the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran. 

She first visited Israel in 2013. “It just confirmed for me that my decision to become Jewish was the right one and to raise my daughter Jewish was the right one,” said Taddeo, who, with her husband, Eric Goldstein, is a member of Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Pinecrest. “It was just very personal, on top of everything else that you learn, that you see with your own eyes, that you’re able to experience. It was just the emotional and spiritual aspect of it that really took me away because I was not expecting it to be that way, but it was.”

Taddeo said she does “not profess to be an expert” on Middle East affairs “by any means,” but nevertheless hopes to serve as a bulwark against some Democrats in the House who have grown more critical of Israel in recent years. 

“I do see, as part of my responsibility, not allowing our party to go too far, like the Republican Party has gone on so many issues that are completely unacceptable,” she told JI. “I do believe that part of my role there is going to be making sure that we have that voice and have someone that understands the needs of our community and the desire for our community to support Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself against.”

The Jewish Democratic Council of America seems to appreciate Taddeo’s approach. Its political arm will announce on Wednesday that it is endorsing her House campaign, the group confirmed to JI. “Annette is known as a fighter,” said Ron Klein, a former Florida congressman who chairs the JDCA. “She’s a Jewish Latina woman who, I think, can follow in Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s footsteps.”

Taddeo has also notched endorsements from a range of national Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Lois Frankel (D-FL). “I just think Annette Taddeo, for many reasons, would be a better representative,” Frankel told JI. “It’s a bonus that she’s obviously a strong supporter of Israel.”

Taddeo first entered politics in 2008, when she mounted an unsuccessful bid to unseat Ros-Lehtinen. She ran alongside Charlie Crist during his 2014 gubernatorial bid and campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in Florida’s 26th Congressional District two years later. Taddeo entered office in 2017 after winning election in a conservative state senate district. She had been running for governor this cycle before pivoting to the House race in June to mount her third bid for federal office. Taddeo claimed victory in the Aug. 23 primary with more than two-thirds of the vote.

Former Florida Governor and now Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist hugs Annette Taddeo, his Democratic lieutenant governor candidate as they make a campaign stop at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall on November 3, 2014, in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Justin Day, a Democratic strategist in Florida, described Taddeo as a “moderate, pro-business Democrat” whose main challenge will be raising enough money to convey her message to voters in a particularly challenging election cycle for Democrats. “It’s going to be competitive and a close race,” he told JI. “She can raise the resources. The bigger question is, are Democrats going to be excited enough this cycle to step up and write checks?”

Taddeo had raised just over $680,000 as of early August, while Salazar has pulled in close to $4 million. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Taddeo to its “red to blue” roster shortly after she entered the race, and it has since run two five-figure digital ads, in both English and Spanish, targeting voters in the district. 

“Few people know how to flip a seat from red to blue in Florida better than Sen. Taddeo,” Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesperson for the DCCC, said in a statement to JI. “She is a proven champion for hardworking Floridians, and unlike her opponent, will work in Congress to lower costs for South Floridians and protect people from the GOP’s life-threatening attacks on reproductive freedoms.”

There is no publicly available independent polling on the race, but an internal poll commissioned by the Taddeo campaign and released in July suggested that the race could be closer than some experts suspect. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, meanwhile, has rated the district “likely Republican,” though Taddeo believes her candidacy will appeal to Republican women as well as non-party affiliated voters in the redrawn House district.

Despite a tough environment, Taddeo claims she has never sought the path of least resistance, even as a young girl in Colombia confronting her priest over Biblical contradictions. “I’ve only known tough races,” she said. “I don’t know how to do easy ones.”

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