Overcoming a life-threatening illness, Democrat Janelle Perez sets her sights on Tallahassee

Janelle Perez knew she wanted to run for office at some point in her life. Beating cancer made her see that the time is now. 

“Cancer puts things into perspective for you and nothing is guaranteed in life,” said Perez. “So why wait?”

Born and raised in Miami, Perez returned to her hometown after working on the Hill in Washington, D.C., for two years. As a candidate for Florida state Senate, she hopes for the opportunity to do work that will connect with Miamians.  

“Somebody who sits in traffic with you, who understands that things are flooding, understands those huge wait lines when they go to the hospital,” said Perez. “That’s what I want to be, and that’s what I hope I can represent for us in Tallahassee.” 

Perez, 35, a wife and mother of two, started working in healthcare in high school, helping her dad and uncle with their family-owned HMO. In 2019, her family started a second HMO and she’s now one of the owners, along with her parents and uncle. 

Being a co-owner of Doctors Healthcare Plans, Inc., and personally seeing the effects of inaccessible healthcare made her passionate about securing good care for others.

“My biggest ‘why’ for running in politics was healthcare,” said Perez. “I’ve been the cancer survivor, and I’m also a healthcare business owner. I’m going to bring a really unique perspective to Tallahassee to fight this fight for us.”

She’s running to represent state Senate District 38 against Republican and fellow FIU alumna Alexis Calatayud. Both are first-time candidates. 

Yesterday’s primaries for the seat were canceled because she and Calatayud were the only candidates running for their respective parties.

The seat is open because Jason Pizzo, who had held it, will represent the newly redrawn 37th state Senate district after facing no opposition in both the Democratic primary and general election. 

The new boundaries of District 38, which was also redrawn, begin just south of Miami Beach and reach to about Homestead, with the western border around Redland. The new lines increased Hispanic representation in the 38th. 

Perez, who lives with her wife, Monica, and two daughters in Pinecrest, has prioritized issues like accessible healthcare and education, and business opportunities, along with fighting for causes such as LGBTQ rights and women’s reproductive freedom.

Calatayud also has focused her campaign on pro-business policies and education. With two candidates hitting on similar issues and with similar backgrounds as Miami natives, Perez said her advantage is her experience.

“I’m actually the only business owner in this race: I employ 200 people” in Miami-Dade County, said Perez. “She can talk about all of these issues…but it’s a completely different story when you actually live it.” 

Calatayud’s campaign didn’t return calls for comment. 

After working in Washington as a legislative aide and healthcare, Perez’s  lymphoma diagnosis at the age of 28 brought her back home to Miami.

“I had stage 4 follicular lymphoma and large B cell lymphoma, and, if I would have been 65 and over, my doctor would have sent me home to die,” said Perez in an interview.

In Tallahassee, she hopes that she can improve healthcare by pushing to expand Medicaid eligibility standards under the Affordable Care Act. Florida is one of a dozen states that has not done so. 

“There’s 800,000 people in the state of Florida that should qualify for Medicaid if we come up to those standards,” said Perez. “It’s something that we all already paid for in our federal taxes…we are rejecting that money. Every year, it’s going back to D.C. instead of going back to the state and it should make taxpayers in Florida mad as hell.” 

A former Republican turned Democrat, Perez is politically aligned a little like how she describes Miami.

“Miami is a sweet spot right in the middle, where we tend to lean socially more progressive, fiscally more conservative,” said Perez.

Perez said she switched parties because she saw the GOP growing more  extreme. 

“I would agree with some things that Democrats would do and some that the Republicans would do,” said Perez. “But the Tea Party gave me a poor taste in my mouth. I didn’t like the rhetoric at all. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when the Republicans chose Donald Trump as their leader.” 

At FIU, where Perez earned her bachelor’s in political science, a constitutional law professor, Jose Vilanova, suggested she take her passion for politics to Washington to intern for then-Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“She is a Republican, but she is all about LGBTQ rights,” said Perez, who became Ros-Lehtinen’s intern in 2009. “I was like, she seems like somebody who fits the mold of Miami.”

Ros-Lehtinen saw that Perez was interested in foreign affairs and national security and offered her a job on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I moved up by getting her attention,” said Perez. “I used to make her Cuban coffee to get her attention every morning when we would start talking.”

Perez worked in several positions on the committee from 2010 to 2012, first as an intern and then as a hearing coordinator and director of travel and scheduling. Later, she earned her master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University.

In 2014, Perez had finished her master’s degree and was gearing up to earn her MBA overseas at IE University in Madrid. She flew home to Miami to see family and three days before she was to head abroad went for a regular doctor’s appointment.

The appointment led to the cancer diagnosis.

“It’s dormant in my body, and my doctors always told me it’s not if it’s going to come back, it’s when it’s going to come back,” said Perez.

She’s cancer-free now and that has helped her realize that she didn’t have to wait to run for office.

“Not just that – I became a mom after cancer,” said Perez.

Perez and her wife had two daughters (five years old and five months old) through IVF.

“Having kids really shakes up your world because there’s something that you love more than anything in the world,” Perez said. “I never pictured myself being openly gay and having kids in Miami. So when it comes to running, this is so much bigger than anything I can be.”

Having kids also helped Perez realize she wanted to stay close to home, opting to campaign for state Senate instead of the U.S. Congress.

“What happens at the state level impacts you every single day, so much more than what happens in Washington, D.C.,” Perez said.

Perez said she believes that what happens in Tallahassee is more important than ever, especially as she sees LGBTQ and reproductive rights under attack.

“If there is ever a time where we need to step up and vote like our lives depend on it, it’s right now because in Florida, it does,” said Perez. “Being the mom of two girls, you know they’re already growing up in Florida that gives them less rights than the Florida I grew up in. I’m going to fight like hell for them to have rights and freedom.”

Elise Gregg is a junior majoring in journalism with a minor in criminal justice. Upon graduation, she would like to pursue a career covering international crime, particularly human rights violations and religious oppression around the world.