Standing with Democratic congressional candidate Mary Barzee Flores in front of a Miami medical center on a recent weekday, Montel Williams fought tears as he talked about his daughter's two bouts with cancer. "We're very blessed that she survived," the onetime talk-show host said. "But she only survived it because she was able to recover, by the Affordable Care Act, under my insurance. Had a normal family in this country suffered these kinds of catastrophic medical issues, they would be not just poor... but living on the streets."
Williams, whose show aired its last episode in 2008, is an unlikely ally for Flores, a former judge now challenging Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. For most of Williams' adult life, the 62-year-old military veteran was a registered Republican, and he still considers himself conservative on many issues.
But years ago, he became an independent, disillusioned by divisiveness in the Republican Party. And this year, voting early in Florida, the two-year Miami resident says he cast a straight Democratic ticket for the first time in his life. He says he was motivated in large part by the party's stance on health care because of his family's experiences with major medical issues.
In 2013, Williams' daughter Maressa was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She underwent chemotherapy and her cancer went into remission, but it returned several months later. Because she was 24 years old at the time, she was still on her dad's health-insurance plan thanks to a provision of the Affordable Care Act. Williams says the ordeal changed his perspective.
"It's that kind of catastrophic illness that makes people have to sell their homes to pay bills that otherwise would go unpaid," he says. "That's a burden to our entire society."
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If that scare weren't enough, earlier this year Williams was working out in a New York City hotel gym when he suffered a stroke. He spent 21 days in the hospital, followed by weeks of rehab. Again, he was reminded of the importance of affordable health care.
As the election drew closer, it became a deciding factor for him. When advocacy group
"We cannot, in 2018, in good conscience, claim to be the greatest country on the planet," he said, "and not be able to allow people the right to live."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed Barzee Flores' opponent. He is Mario Diaz-Balart.