Florida state senator Annette Taddeo switched campaign gears to go after a critical U.S. House seat. (Credit: Annette Taddeo’s campaign)

[Note: The Story Exchange will be writing about women candidates running for office in 2022 throughout the year.]

Annette Taddeo knows how bruising a political campaign can be.

The Colombian-American launched her first one – for student government secretary – back in the 1990s while attending the University of Northern Alabama. But it turned ugly when her posters were defaced with hateful language that called for her deportation. 

“It was a pivotal moment in my life where I made a decision that I could be bitter and angry, or I could allow it to strengthen and inspire me,” Taddeo says.

Today, she’s a Florida state senator, having persevered through even more setbacks, from primary losses to targeting by Russian hackers  But she wants to make a bigger, broader impact – which is why she recently pivoted from seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of the Sunshine State, to running to represent Florida’s 27th district in the U.S. House.

It’s not just Floridians who took notice of the change. That district is viewed as one of the biggest pick-up opportunities by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – and the fundraising organization believes Taddeo will be the candidate to push that seat back to blue. 

The district – which includes the city of Miami  – is presently represented by Republican Maria Elvira Salazar. After redistricting, it became one that President Joe Biden would have lost by one point. Taddeo also has to win an Aug. 23 Democratic primary, in which she’ll face Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell and activist Angel Montalvo.

But current polls have her 36 points ahead of Russell, and further ahead still of Montalvo. (And polling on a prospective race between her and Salazar shows them to be virtually tied.) Either way, Taddeo has learned how to battle her way through a campaign.

She says she’s fired up for a fight following the recent spate of mass shootings, the enactment of controversial legislation in her state, and the reversal of Roe v. Wade. “I know we’re going in the wrong direction,” she says. “We’re banning saying ‘gay.’ We’re banning books. A woman’s right to choose is being threatened. All of these … are freedoms being taken away.”

She adds, “This is what you see in fascist countries and leaders.”

The Fights Worth Fighting

Taddeo credits her father, a former military pilot, for her “fighting spirit” when faced with bigotry or oppression. But plenty of that drive also comes from her own lived experiences, she adds. 

Taddeo, 55, was born with half of her mouth missing. She had 19 surgeries in all to amend the problem, and grappled significantly with bullying along the way. Her childhood hardships didn’t end there – when a terrorist group invaded her family’s farm in Colombia, they fled to the U.S., residing with friends in Alabama and learning English on the fly.

Not long after earning her Spanish degree, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, destroying her parents’ home in Miami. So Taddeo moved to help them rebuild, housing them in a shared motorhome until a new residence was ready. She also helped them battle with insurance companies and communicate with construction crews. Translating between parties inspired her to start her business, LanguageSpeak, which has survived for nearly 30 years. “That’s definitely been something I’m very proud of,” she says.

Business ownership was Taddeo’s gateway to local government. “Many of us small business owners can’t afford to hire lobbyists to help us in the bidding process for government projects and contracts,” she explains. So she became active in the Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s Coalition of Changers and WBENC’s national forum, as well as Women Impacting Public Policy.

Her return to the campaign trail dovetailed from that work. It began with a bid for the U.S. House in 2008 – she wasn’t victorious, but she wasn’t deterred. Taddeo ran in numerous other races after that, including one for Lt. Governor on Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial ticket in 2014. She stayed engaged in state-level Democratic politics throughout, becoming chair of her county’s Democratic Executive Committee.

She finally won her role representing the state’s 40th senate district in 2017 – becoming the first Latina Democrat ever elected to the body and flipping the seat from red to blue in the process. She was then reelected by seven points, in a district President Donald Trump carried by six. “That’s a big deal – it was a very pivotal race,” she says.

While in the state senate, Taddeo has served on numerous committees, including ones overseeing election ethics and criminal justice. She’s also co-sponsored bills on an array of issues – from stopping corporate exploitation of Florida’s water supply, to promoting financial literacy among high schoolers. She’s also used her platform to speak out against conservatives’ moves to curb constituents’ rights.

Now, she’s looking to effect change on a national level, emphasizing health care and climate change mitigation on top of gun control and abortion access in her campaign. In addition to the DCCC, she’s scored endorsements from elected officials and workers’ unions throughout Florida, as well as Emily’s List and several Hispanic and Latino groups

But if she stumbles in this year’s race, she knows what she needs to do. “Falling down is not the issue,” she says. “It’s how quickly you can get back up.”