PACE — Dr. Jennifer Zimmerman leaned over an exam table inside one of the rooms at her practice in Santa Rosa County and used a stethoscope to measure the heartbeat of one of her tiny patients.
“I’m just going to listen to your heart, OK? Don’t be scared,” she said in a soothing voice as she put the cold medical device over the young girl’s chest and counted each heartbeat before writing on a chart and stepping outside the room.
The 54-year-old pediatrician, commonly known as "Dr. Z," is busy most days with her patients, children who have been coming to her since she first opened a practice in Pace in 2001. But Zimmerman closed down that practice last week and moved next door to a medical group so she can have more time to pursue her next endeavor — running for Congress in Florida’s First Congressional District.
On Aug. 28, Zimmerman won the Democratic Primary here, besting opponent Phil Ehr by securing 60 percent of the vote. In doing so, Zimmerman became the first woman to win a Democratic congressional primary in District 1 and only the second woman to appear on a ballot in this district’s general election (the first was Barbara Ann Rodgers-Hendricks, who ran as a Green Party candidate in 1992). She’s also the first immigrant to appear on a District 1 ballot for Congress.
Zimmerman admits her candidacy is a long shot — “everyone said I’m not winnable” — but then again, so was her road to America. As the Filipino immigrant launches her full-fledged campaign for Congress against incumbent Matt Gaetz, Zimmerman reflects on her journey to U.S. citizenship, her experience as a physician and how she plans to pose a serious challenge to Gaetz in a heavily conservative district.
Coming to America — and staying
Zimmerman said she first came to America from the Philippines on a J-1 Visa in 1992, when she flew into the United States with $300 to her name and passed her entrance exam on the first try. She scored a pediatric residency at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, married her husband, Jay Zimmerman, and eventually found herself in Palatka with her first full-time pediatrician job.
“As a J-1 Visa holder, in order to convert to H1-B as a physician, I had to serve in an underserved area,” she said. “Out of 2,000 resumes that I must have littered every trash can in America with, Palatka offered me my first hope.”
After serving in Palatka, Zimmerman came to Crestview in 1999 and worked at North Okaloosa Medical Center for two years. She, her husband and son (she now has three children) then moved to Milton, where she established her Kids Care Pediatrics practice on Sept. 4, 2001. She continued to operate that practice until last week.
Zimmerman became a U.S. citizen in October 2004, just one month before the U.S. presidential election win which George W. Bush topped John Kerry. She didn’t become a citizen in time to register to vote, but was able to finally vote in 2008. Now, 10 years after casting her first U.S. vote, Zimmerman will be choosing her own name on a ballot.
“We have a long uphill battle ahead of us,” she said of her campaign. “But I’m used to that, and I know firsthand that it’s not impossible.”
Zimmerman said her experiences as an immigrant will lead her to focus on immigration reform if she’s elected.
“It took me 11 years and $25,000 in lawyer fees and application fees to become an American citizen. You name it, we paid it,” she said. “And I was a physician, married to an American and with American children. I want to streamline the process, because most people think you just cross the border and that’s it.
“People don’t realize that even if you’re here as an immigrant, you have no rights,” she added. “You pay the same taxes — they want your money — but you have no rights.”
As a doctor, Zimmerman said she will also advocate for better healthcare. She said her experiences as a doctor are what propelled her to throw her “lab coat in the race” in the first place.
“If you ask across the board — red, blue, conservative or liberals, whatever — what is the one thing you’re all afraid of? You don’t want to die just because you can’t afford to go to the doctor,” she said. “And that’s across the aisle … my dream is that one day, we can all stand up alongside all those other industrialized nations and provide the same kind of quality affordable healthcare to everyone.”
Zimmerman said it also will be a priority to keep Northwest Florida’s beaches open to the public, increase opportunities for students to enter into trade programs instead of going straight to college and empower women to make good decisions for their families.
As a Catholic mother of three, she said she’s neither pro-choice or pro-life; she doesn’t want any pregnancies to be terminated, but believes women should have a choice and that there needs to be better prenatal and postnatal care for women, better public education and equality in the workplace so that women have more economic opportunities.
“As a pediatrician, my job is to save lives. As a Catholic, I don’t want anyone to ever consider termination of pregnancy,” she said. “This is my radical thought: the way we can decrease the number of unborn babies who would be subjected to that kind of procedure is to make sure that we have good preventative healthcare for women, so that no woman ever has to think about it … what will prevent (abortion) is if women are empowered to make decisions for themselves.”
Challenging Matt Gaetz
Before Zimmerman can even hope to begin acting on any of her platform, she first has to actually make it to Congress.
She recognizes that will be an uphill battle, as she’s running in what’s been called the most conservative district in Florida, where the number of registered Republican voters is more than twice that of registered Democratic voters across each of the four counties in the district.
What’s more, Northwest Florida voters haven’t sent a Democrat to Congress since Earl Hutto in 1992. Joe Scarborough, a Republican, was elected to Congress in 1994 with nearly 62 percent of the vote, the start of a red wave that came over the region and has steadfastly secured conservative elected representatives in almost all public offices.
Incumbent Matt Gaetz has served Northwest Florida in various political capacities since he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2010. He was elected to his first congressional term two years ago with 69 percent of the vote, beating out veteran Democratic candidate Steven Specht for the seat.
He also has the full support of President Donald Trump, who the Panhandle helped carry to victory in the 2016 presidential election.
After winning this year’s primary and beating out two challengers with almost 65 percent of the vote, Gaetz doubled down on a sentiment he expressed in 2016: Democrats don’t stand a chance in District 1.
“I’m just as confident as I was in 2016 that Northwest Floridians want a conservative congressman,” he told the Daily News after his victory on Aug. 28.
But Zimmerman said she isn’t deterred. She’s one of a record 374 women who won their primaries across the U.S. and are facing off in the general election — part of a “wave of change,” she said, that proves voters want something different.
“Matt (Gaetz) represents the old guard of intimidation, political dynasty, sowing fear and hatred and just throwing money as if it didn’t matter and being beholden to their donors,” she said. “My mandate comes from the people of Northwest Florida. Sixty percent of them sent me a message (with their votes in the primary) — we trust you, Dr. Zimmerman, we trust you to do a better job.”
The general election is Nov. 6.