Some kids grow up wanting to be an astronaut or a firefighter, but as Sean Shaw grew up in Tallahassee, his vision of the future was shaped by his after-school hang out spot: the Florida Supreme Court.
After integrating the Jacksonville bar association, Leander Shaw, Sean’s father, spent 20 years on Florida’s Supreme Court, becoming the first black Chief Justice in the court’s history in 1990. Sean says it would be “impossible” to say he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to his father’s legacy. Having been elected to Florida’s House of Representatives in 2016, Shaw is now running to be Florida’s Attorney General. He didn’t see himself jumping into the race until he saw the changing political landscape in the wake of the 2016 national election. Shaw wants to bring back decency to politics.
On this episode, Shaw discusses his reputation as a consumer advocate, following his father’s footsteps, and his campaign’s focus on common sense gun laws, medical marijuana, immigration, and protecting the Affordable Care Act.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast, featuring The Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate, and in this episode created by Salter Mitchell PR, I talk to former Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate and current State Representative Sean Shaw. In our our conversation, we talk about Sean’s father, Leander Shaw, Jr., the first black Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and the influence that he had on Sean. We also talk about Sean’s path to public service, his current campaign to be Florida’s next attorney general, and what issues he will prioritize if elected. And you can hear it all right now.
Representative Shaw, thanks so much for being on this show. I like to start these interviews by learning about how our guests became a Florida leader. In your case, you were raised by a Florida leader, your father, Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw. Can you describe the influence that he had on your life?
Sean Shaw: Sure. It was immense, obviously, right? I grew up literally in the halls of the Florida Supreme Court. When I was a little boy, I would go to work with him on the weekends, and I’d watch cartoons in the conference room of the Florida Supreme Court. After basketball practice at Leon High School, I would go to the Florida Supreme Court, hang out there until he took me home. So I spent a lot of time in and around that building, and you know when I was younger, you don’t really get kind of what the big deal is professionally. He was just my dad. So we’d go fishing, and play chess, and do things that fathers and sons do. And the older I got, the more I understand that he was a Supreme Court Justice, and what that meant, and where his place in history was, and that he was a lot of firsts in the legal profession here in Florida.
Clearly, shouldn’t be a surprise that I went into the legal profession. Some people would ask why I didn’t become a judge. And quite frankly, I wasn’t interested in the judicial branch. I wanted to kind of have more hands-on experience with the law and as a legislator, have the ability to craft it and not just simply interpret it as you do in the judicial branch. Growing up around the law, around the Supreme Court, I have a reverence for the rule of law that is something that’s been kind of a guiding principle in my life all these years.
Chris Cate: When I think of what it might like to be to grow up with the judge as a father, I think it might be a little bit more strict. He might be able to recognize those white lies you might try to get away with as a kid.
Sean Shaw: Well, you’re exactly right. There wasn’t much lying going on, and it was pretty clear he was pretty able to tell when a 12-year-old teenage boy is lying about where he was for the last 3 hours. So there wasn’t a lot of fooling dad because he was able to get to the bottom of things. But, certainly, I was expected to do really well in school. I was expected to do well in athletics and do well in everything that I put my mind to. I was just held to a standard that was high, and I’m very thankful for that here later on in life. But I wasn’t too thankful for it when I was in middle school and had to rewrite a paper literally 15 times because he kept finding something wrong with it. But here, as a 40-year-old adult, it’s great because it’s led to some success here later on in life. But when you’re a young person, you’re wondering, “Why am I revising this 15 times when I know my classmates aren’t having to do this.” But, kind of, it worked out.
Chris Cate: Your first job in the public eye was your appointment to be Insurance Consumer Advocate of Florida. You mentioned the different types of laws you can get into. Was that a job, in particular, that you pursued?
Sean Shaw: No. I was kind of out of the blue contacted to see if I’d be interested in that position. And to be quite candid, I didn’t know much about insurance. My very first job ever, I worked as a courier, runner, for the Rogers, Atkins, Gunter Insurance Agency, at the time, in Tallahassee. That was about all the insurance interaction I had had. But I got a call out of the blue. Would I be interested in talking about the position. It was a really cool position. I mean, you’re protecting consumers throughout Florida. I mean, what better job could you have? And so I was very interested in it, got the job, and I thought we did a great job protecting consumers for the years that we were there.
Chris Cate: Are there any lessons you learned from being in a cabinet office then that can help you as an attorney general?
Sean Shaw: Yes. You need to listen to both sides of any issue no matter what it is. Right? And so you cannot come to things with a pre-judged, with your mind made up. You have to listen to all sides. These are hugely complicated and important issues that you’re dealing with as attorney general and as a cabinet official. So you’ve got to make sure that you know everything, that politics isn’t getting in the way of your judgment, and that you’re making a judgment that is based on all the facts on both sides, and that it’s the best way forward for the people of the state of Florida. Can’t be playing politics up at these cabinet offices. It is just a lot of big, complicated issues that mean a lot to everyday Floridians, and they expect you to go up there and make the best decision.
I mean, when I was working for Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. I mean, we had a lot of massive issues about insurance, about how to best regulate the insurance market, strike a balance between protecting consumers and how much insurance companies could charge, and how claims were paid, and all these types of things that really affected the lives of Floridians. And you’ve got to have the information on both sides. One side’s going to come and try to convince you of their side. The other side is going to come and try to convince you of their side. You listen to both sides, you do your own research, and then you act accordingly. But you have got to take the time to make sure you’re well-educated on all issues. That is something that I will certainly carry with me to the attorney general’s office.
Chris Cate: When did you first start considering a run for attorney general might be possible?
Sean Shaw: Well, I mean, I started considering a run for attorney general when I was a little boy running around Florida Supreme Court. I mean, it was the job that I always wanted. Even back then, I thought it was the best job in Florida. But to your specific question, when did I think it was possible? A little bit more recent. I mean, I got elected to the Florida House in 2016. I certainly didn’t think I’d be running for attorney general in 2018. Some people came to me and asked me was I interested in it. I said no several times, not because I didn’t think it was a great job. But because I didn’t think the democrats could win these down ballot races this cycle. But the President and how he conducts himself, and not only how mad it makes you when you think about what he’s doing to the rule of law, but also what he’s doing to the political landscape, you just got to be realistic about it. He’s changing it.
So democrats and independents and NPAs and even some disaffected republicans do not like what’s going on in Washington D.C. They do not like what’s been going on in this state for the last 15, 20 years under one party rule. So, certainly, these special elections around the state, Margaret Good in Sarasota and Annette Taddeo down in Miami-Dade, and we won those two, and that’s really when I kind of seriously began to think that this is possible and I started to investigate. Kind of my own decision-making started there as to whether I thought I could win. I came to the conclusion I thought I could, and so we got in.
Chris Cate: Was it a hard decision for you to leave the Florida House after only one term?
Sean Shaw: No. It was not a hard decision. The hardest decision was whether I thought I could win and raise the [inaudible 00: 07: 46] was really leaving the House. And as a democrat in the Florida House of Representatives, you sit in the back and you press the red button a lot. And I wanted to be at a place where I thought I could actually make some decisions, affect change, stick up for people, protect consumers, and go after people that are doing wrong in Florida, and hold everyone accountable under the law. This is a job where you can do those things. You don’t have to ask permission. You don’t have to run things by the senate president or the speaker of the house, or the governor. You can actually do things yourself as attorney general, and that was really an attractive part of this job. So it was an honor to be a member of the Florida House of Representatives. I love District 61. I’ll never forget that those were the people that elected me to represent them. But we’re going to do so much more for not only District 1, but the people of the entire state of Florida, as attorney general.
Chris Cate: If elected, what issues do you intend to prioritize right from day one in office?
Sean Shaw: Well, certainly, the lawsuit that Pam Bondi has joined to end the Affordable Care Act is one that I will leave as soon as we’re elected. Two, I believe that the legislature has overstepped its bounds in several instances, whether that is the amendment on public education, on the environment, and on medicinal marijuana. I think the legislature has not implemented those constitutional amendments in the way the voters intended. There are certain lawsuits going on around those subjects. I will join or institute lawsuits myself to hold the legislature accountable and make sure they implement those. Certainly the opioid crisis is one that we will address. Pam Bondi did file a lawsuit joining with other attorney generals going after big pharma. I wish she would have done that a long time ago when she first got elected. But I will continue that lawsuit, certainly, and go after big pharma for all the things they have done to contribute to the opioid crisis.
And certainly, we’re going to do anything to hold anyone doing wrong to Floridians, whether that is scammers, whether that is people committing fraud, whether that is anyone going after our senior population. We’re going to make sure that human trafficking, all of those people are held accountable. And, lastly, we’re going to conduct some investigations. Quite frankly, I think it is a travesty that there’s been no investigation about the bridge collapse down in South Florida at FIU. There’s been no investigation about the nursing home deaths that happened during Irma. These are major incidents that deserve the attorney general’s attention, and they’ll certainly get it when I’m elected.
Chris Cate: Has meeting with Floridians across the state and talking to them about what’s most important to them changed how you think about any particular issue or, perhaps, changed the order of your priorities?
Sean Shaw: That’s a really good question. Certainly, when I first got into this race, I was keenly aware that the legislature, I thought had overstepped their bounds on these constitutional amendments. And we were certainly going to make sure that anyone was doing wrong throughout Florida was held accountable under the law. Those were kind of some very important core parts of my platform. But as session unfolded, you’ll remember, Parkland happened. And this immigration detention center thing started flaring up all around the country. Those are things that just came out of nowhere.
So guns became an issue that certainly is one that has been an issue that we talk about a lot on the campaign trail. My opponent, Ashley Moody, who literally wants to be an extension of the Pam Bondi legacy and myself, couldn’t’ be more diametrically opposed on the issue of guns. I believe that we ought to have common sense gun safety measures, particularly the ones that were passed by the legislature in response to Parkland. My opponent does not. So the NRA lawsuit against the state of Florida, how the next attorney general intends to deal with that lawsuit is very important about guns.
Medicinal marijuana and how the state is not implementing what the will of the people is and essentially how the implementation of the bill that the legislature passed has been slow-walked and dragged out. Department of Health isn’t engaged in the rule making and is dragging their feet. I mean, that started going on as well. And that issue flared up during session and after. And immigration was an issue that flared up after we got in the race. So certainly those three issues are some that get a lot more attention when I’m out talking to Floridians than when I first got in the race because they hadn’t happened yet.
But people are not liking the healthcare issue as well. This flared up pretty recently, how the attorney general in Texas and other republican attorneys general around the country have tried to end the Affordable Care Act. Floridians, at least the ones I’m talking to, don’t want their healthcare taken away and don’t like the fact that Florida’s a part of this lawsuit. So certainly those four issues have reared up after we got into the race. And those are issues that we talk about a lot on the trail because people are really focused on those issues, and they impact of the attorney general’s office so closely.
Chris Cate: You mentioned the opioid epidemic, which is, obviously, a problem, and Attorney General Bondi has also made a priority of hers. What will you do, though, that she hasn’t been doing or maybe she could be doing more of?
Sean Shaw: Well, like I said, I wish we would have been a little bit more aggressive earlier on about filing the lawsuit and going after big pharma with regard to the opioid crisis. So I’ll certainly, like I said, continue the lawsuit she’s done and aggressively pursue big pharma to make them pay for what they’ve done to devastate the communities here in Florida. Hopefully anything that we are able to obtain in terms of recovery, we’ll be able to put towards addressing this problem, addressing substance abuse, addressing the victims of the opioid crisis. So we’ll certainly continue the lawsuit and be extremely aggressive about going after big pharma and making sure the victims are compensated.
Chris Cate: During the primary, you sued to have your opponent removed from the ballot. I don’t want to get into the specifics of that case, but I did want to ask you about something you said after that case. You said that this is what being a proactive attorney general looks like. Can you elaborate on what a proactive attorney general looks like?
Sean Shaw: Sure. Look, I am making the case to Floridians that I intend to be the most aggressive attorney general in the country, that I intend to be an active, proactive attorney general who’s going to go after anyone who’s doing wrong to Floridians, no matter who they are, no matter what party they are, no matter where they are. How can I make that pledge if I’ve got an opponent in the primary who is not abiding by the finance laws of the state of Florida? And so when we figured out and realized what was going on and that he was not complying with finance laws, we filed suit about it. And that’s what attorney generals do. They go after people that are doing wrong. It was uncomfortable. Certain democrats didn’t like it. It led to some awkward exchanges. But look, if I’m not willing to do that, how are you going to hold me at my word that I’m going to go after the legislature, or I’m going to go after the President, or I’m going to go after big corporate bad-doers, if I’m not going to go after my own primary opponent because I don’t want it to be awkward?
So it wasn’t for political purposes. It wasn’t for any purpose other than he was not abiding by campaign finance law, so we decided to file suit. That’s what attorney generals do. You’re doing wrong, attorney general’s coming after you no matter who you are, no matter what you are, no matter where you are.
Chris Cate: When voters go to the poles and they see your name on the ballot, what do you hope is the first thing that comes to their mind?
Sean Shaw: Sean Shaw’s going to be the one that’s going to fight for me in Tallahassee more than anyone else. Fighter. I think that’s the word I want people to understand. I am going to be an aggressive advocate on behalf of the people of the state of Florida no matter who is on the other side.
Chris Cate: What’s it been like for your family going through this campaign process, and you being on the road, and being so busy right now?
Sean Shaw: Well, I am single with no kids myself. So it’s been a little easier than it could be, I guess, if I had kids or a wife. But, certainly, my sisters and mother, I mean, I don’t get to see them much. I’m on the road here. We got another 47 days to go. But once we get past this, we’ll be able to kind of make up some of that. But my family has known how I feel about the office of attorney general, I mean, all my life. Everyone knows that that’s the job I think is the best job in Florida. That’s the job that is a dream job for me concerning my background and consumer advocacy, as a lawyer, and given my father and growing up around that. I mean, this is the job of a lifetime. I think it’s the greatest job to help protect Floridians that exists.
So they’ve know that I was going to do this. I don’t think … It was even a surprise to me that we decided to do it this early. But they’re kind of excited. I mean, listen, they’re excited like I could win. This is a winnable seat, and I think we are going to win. And there’s a lot of energy around my campaign, and around the campaign of the other cabinet officers, and around Andrew Gillum’s campaign, and around democrats in general. I mean, people are excited, included my own family, but including the Democratic Party here in Florida. Everyone’s excited about all our chances up and down the ballot. And so that certainly helps to keep you on the road during these long times that keep you away from your family. But it’ll be good when it’s over, no matter what.
Chris Cate: I want to transition now to the final four questions that I ask every guest. The first one being who is a Florida leader that you admire? And it can be someone from the past or the present?
Sean Shaw: I mean, that’s an easy one. That’s my father.
Chris Cate: Yep.
Sean Shaw: My father integrated the Jacksonville Bar Association. He was the first African American Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. He represented the NAACP in Jacksonville. He represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in that capacity. He was on the Florida Supreme Court for 20-some years and was very instrumental and wrote some very important opinions about the right to privacy in Florida, about the death penalty in Florida. He was just someone that is always going to be remembered in the history books for the type of legal mind he was, the type of public servant he was. And he’s an easy answer to that question.
Chris Cate: Have you felt any extra pressure to live to kind of the bar that he set for the Shaw name?
Sean Shaw: I mean, certainly. I mean, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that the answer to that is yes. But I’ve tried to make it a good thing. That’s what kind of drives me on to do this. Politics is not easy. And it’s not fun sometimes. But I have a certain drive to be a public servant and to continue the legacy of my family and how they treated public service. I’ve always known I was going to come back to my state and do that. So even though I went to Princeton in New Jersey, I came back to Florida for law school and have been here ever since. I knew that I wanted to use my talent on behalf of my fellow Floridians. But certainly, man, I’ve got to live up to that name, but I think it’s a good thing. It’s what has driven me to kind of be where we are today. It keeps me driving to where we’re going.
Chris Cate: What is something in Florida that deserves more attention than what it’s getting?
Sean Shaw: I would tell you the concept of criminal justice reform. I don’t think it’s getting enough attention. It’s getting some, but I don’t think it’s getting enough. It’s even … but this ought to be a bipartisan situation. I mean, I’ve spoken to even republican legislators who understand that the way we do mandatory minimums, direct filing of juveniles, the bail system, a lot of these issues, how our prisons are teaming with people who are only in there for possession and who ought to be in treatment rather than jail, these are not radical ideas. These are ideas that even right-wing think tanks agree with. And so we ought to be able to make some progress on these. But for some reason, we can’t even get criminal justice bills agendaed, at least in the house. In the senate, they went a little further.
Sean Shaw: We have got to make sure that our elected officials in Tallahassee are reflecting where Floridians are on this issue. So we got to get some progress on this. I thought it was a shame that we passed, really, no substantive criminal justice legislation last year, even though we did all these bipartisan press conferences about how we all believe in criminal justice reform. Well, nothing passed. So, evidently, we really don’t believe in it. I thought that was something that was a travesty. And we really got to focus more attention on making sure that Florida gets to modern times in how we do criminal justice.
Chris Cate: Yeah. No, I absolutely agree. I want to move no into a less serious question. Where is a favorite Florida place for you to visit in Florida?
Sean Shaw: I think it’s Tallahassee, man. I grew up in Tallahassee. And when I’m in Tallahassee, I live in the house I grew up in, which is on a lake. And so I get to put some fishing poles in the water, which is one of my favorite things to do. So, certainly, getting to fish in Tallahassee is one of my favorite things.
Chris Cate: Finally, what is your favorite Florida sports team?
Sean Shaw: Oh, the Florida Gators. I’m a Florida Gator fan and a Jacksonville Jaguar fan.
Chris Cate: Wow. Even after growing up in Tallahassee?
Sean Shaw: Even … I was always a Gator fan, initially, because I loved Steve Spurrier. And I loved the fun and gun offense. And then I ended up going to law school there, and certainly continued. But I was always a Gator fan, even in Tallahassee.
Chris Cate: Good. Well, Representative Shaw, I really thank you for taking the time today and being on our show.
Sean Shaw: No, I appreciate you having me, man. Thank you.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter with additional support provided Heidi Otway and the team at Salter Mitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian Podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.