Fil-Am doctor eyes congressional seat in Florida

Filipina-American Jennifer Zimmerman is the Democratic candidate for Florida’s 1st congressional district. She faces incumbent Rep. Matt Gaetz this November 6.

FLORIDA’S 1st Congressional District — which encompasses its western Panhandle — has long been considered the most Republican district in the state.

However, Jennifer Mijares Zimmerman, a Filipina-American pediatrician, is out to flip that seat this coming November 6 when she goes up against the incumbent Rep. Matt Gaetz.

“District 1 has always been ignored because no one wants to try here because it’s so Republican. But a lot of people have [asked] me, ‘Why even run?’” Zimmerman told the Asian Journal in a recent interview ahead of Election Day. “I can’t sit back and enjoy my comfortable life knowing my patients are uncomfortable and dying — dying in poverty, dying in uncertainty. You don’t literally have to lose your life.”

She had her sights set on retirement and perhaps even authoring motivational books, but witnessing firsthand how her patients and )district residents could barely obtain health insurance, in addition to rhetoric stoking a fear of “others”, propelled her to run for Congress.

Zimmerman, a pediatrician for over 20 years, is the first female Democratic nominee for Florida’s 1st congressional district.

“The political climate has become so toxic that I believe that decent human beings like myself and others who have run, we sorely need this kind of change,” she said.

As of 2017, 52.8 percent of the district were registered Republican, while 25.7 percent were Democratic. Though the district is over 70 percent White, there is a considerable Filipino-American community, Zimmerman noted, because of the military presence and of course, health care industry.

The Fil-Am Democrat entered the primary race after some hesitation, and with only $8,000 in funding compared to the six figures her opponents had raised, but ended up receiving 60 percent of the vote, putting her on the ballot for the November midterm.

“This is the first time ever that we have a female, immigrant, mother, physician, and actually someone who has stayed in the community for two decades, who is in the general election. We’ve broken a few barriers already,” Zimmerman added. “There’s something about my message that’s resonating with the district.”

Born in the Philippines, Zimmerman went to medical school at the University of the East College of Medicine and migrated to the United States on a J-1 Visa, which is typically given to non-immigrants receiving medical or business training. She finished her residency in general pediatrics at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and eventually met her husband to start a family with three children.

Since 1997, Zimmerman has been practicing as a pediatrician in the Sunshine State, with 19 years in Santa Rosa County, which is part of the 1st District.

Zimmerman with Gina Ortiz Jones (left), who is also running for Congress in Texas, at an event for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA).

“I have served this district faithfully. You might want to call me a public servant for District 1 because I serve the underserved children. I was one of the few who really accepted children who are on Medicaid and I still continue to do that. In fact, my practice is probably 80-90 percent Medicaid, underserved, or no insurance. I wanted to give back to the community, the America that welcomed me 25 years ago,” she noted.

She remarked, “My father was prisoner of war in the Pacific during World War II. My husband’s father served in Europe. I would be doing both of them an injustice if I don’t speak up when I could. They sacrificed so much and here I am— am I going to just going to watch this country go down the drain? I don’t think so.”

Being an immigrant herself and going through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, Zimmerman hopes the government can continue to provide that pathway to those who want to live in the country for better opportunities.

But, she notes that calling for immigration reform doesn’t necessarily equate to wanting completely open borders and lack of security.

“It took me 11 years and over $25,000 to become…an American citizen. I feel strongly for those people who are trying to just get a better life for themselves and their families and don’t have my resources. I am not for completely open borders where you just run in and out as your please, which is what I hate when they say that because you can be for border security and you can be for law and pathways to be established. But we don’t have to be inhumane about it,” she said. “These are our fellow brothers and sisters in the eyes of God and these borders are temporarily set by men. While that is important to maintain for safety and due process, we have to implement these laws in a humane manner.”

With a few days left until November 6, Zimmerman and Gaetz faced off in a final debate and reiterated their respective views on issues from immigration to gun control.

Aside from the issues, Zimmerman says that a candidate who will be present in the district is one important consideration voters should look at.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had Hurricane Michael hit the area. Thankfully, our district did not incur as much damage as what happened to the east of us. And where was our incumbent? He flew to D.C. and I once again stayed in the area to make sure my staff and volunteers were okay,” she said, adding that she made training videos on first aid safety and emergency planning.

She continued, “Immediately after the hurricane, we mobilized and were able to the next day use my old clinic to collect items and distribute them to the nursing homes…I went out of the district and even though it wasn’t my area, as a fellow human being, you need to care. Our incumbent only cares when there’s a camera and a photo-op.”

As she continues to talk to constituents in the final moments, she said she hopes that “my message is hope, and not fear, is actually out there. I stand for trust and respect, not lies and deceit.”

One of the ways, she believes, American can be less divisive is for eligible voters to actually cast their ballots in the upcoming election.

“One person, one vote. In that polling place, rich or poor, right or left…you have a say on who represents you…The ballot box doesn’t care if you’re white or black or brown— it is one of the greatest equalizing factors…We need to change the face of Congress and Senate. It’s one way we can bring sanity back. It’s one way we will stop and enable a dictatorship to flourish,” she said.

In addition to Zimmerman, other Fil-Ams are vying for congressional seats across the country, including Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas, and TJ Cox, Cristina Osmeña, and Kenneth Mejia in California.

Beyond her impact on District 1, being a Filipina in Congress will be a historic feat for representation.

“There is a lot of responsibility weighing on my shoulders but I would proudly barge into Congress. I don’t hide the fact that I’m Filipina and an immigrant…because I want to empower not only my fellow Filipino Americans, but I want this to reach all the way to the Philippines where there might be a little girl thinking, ‘if she can do it, maybe I can too,’” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you came from.” 

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is an award-winning editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles with experience in content, strategy and branding for media ecosystems, inclusive fintech startups, small businesses and direct-to-consumer products.

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