October 18, 2017 Media

Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Buchanan draws prominent Democratic opponent

Siesta Key attorney David Shapiro will challenge U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan in 2018, giving Democrats a well-connected candidate who once came within 750 votes of winning a solidly Republican state House seat.

Shapiro, 58, could present Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, with his toughest re-election test in years. A civil litigation attorney who focuses on personal injury law, Shapiro has decades of trial law experience and community involvement.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has long had an interest in Shapiro and encouraged him to run for Buchanan’s seat. He recently was in Washington, D.C., for candidate training and has hired a campaign manager.

Leading Democrats believe Shapiro will be a strong candidate.

“He’s known and respected in the legal profession,” said former Sarasota County Democratic Party Chairwoman Christine Jennings. “He’s known and respected in many organizations where he’s had some involvement.”

Jennings added that Shapiro should have good name recognition in the district because his firm — Shapiro, Goldman, Babboni, Fernandez & Walsh — has advertised on television for years. He also has past political experience, having narrowly lost a state House race in 2006.

Shapiro took 49.4 percent of the vote in a House district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nearly two to one. It took years, but “the sting of that tight loss finally wore off” Shapiro said Tuesday, adding he feels the time is right to run for office again.

“It’s just a frustration I felt,” Shapiro said. “And what I’ve noticed more recently now is so many people share that view. And I’m not just talking about Democrats. It seems almost universal that people feel the government is not working for them.”

Shapiro said he hopes to bring a more respectful tone to often contentious policy debates.

“I believe that we are at the darkest right before the dawn,” he said. “I think there are going to be some great changes because there has to be. There’s no way we can sustain this level of animosity in Washington.”

Among the issues Shapiro said are motivating him to run: Improving the health care system, addressing climate change and boosting job training programs.

Noting that Buchanan voted many times to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement, Shapiro said the debate around the ACA has been about scoring political points, not providing solutions.

“That’s wrong. Lives were at stake. It’s not something you want to politicize,” he said, adding that: “I see because of the political infighting in Washington it’s just not working but it could work. It’s an excellent system. It has its roots in the Republican Party.”

On the issue of climate change, Shapiro said there is no time to lose. “We’re at a critical mass and we can’t survive another few administrations failing to recognize the problem,” he said.

Buchanan opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, but Shapiro said it was “too little too late” and that Florida lawmakers should be leading on the issue, not reacting, because the state is especially vulnerable to sea level rise.

Shapiro attended high school at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and law degree from Florida State. He has a $1.2 million waterfront home on Siesta Key and has lived on the key for 28 years. During that time he served on the board of Children First, the Sarasota Film Festival and Temple Emanu-El.

First elected in 2006, Buchanan has faced only token opposition the last two election cycles. If he is able to raise significant funds, Shapiro could be the strongest opponent Buchanan has faced since the congressman defeated former Democratic state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald in 2012.

Buchanan already has more than $2 million in cash on hand for his re-election campaign in Florida’s 16th congressional district, which covers northern Sarasota County, Manatee and part of Hillsborough. One of the richest members of Congress, Buchanan also can rely on his own personal wealth and should receive strong support from his party.

But Shapiro said he’s not worried about being at a disadvantage financially. “I believe we’ll be able to raise enough money to get my message out,” he said.

District 16 leans Republican and went for Trump by 11 percentage points last year. Democrats are hoping Trump’s support has dropped off and that the midterm election will be a favorable one for the party.

“I think 2018 is going to be a very good year for Democrats,” Jennings said. “Because of Trump and also because right now it appears that Republicans in the House and Senate can’t govern. It’s now been nine full months and nothing is happening.”

Shapiro will first have to get past two other Democrats before he has the chance to take on Buchanan.

Former circus performer Calen Cristiani has filed to run as a Democrat but has raised little money. And attorney Jan Schneider, a well-known local Democrat who has run against Buchanan multiple times, recently filed to run for the District 16 seat in 2018.

Schneider was the Democratic nominee against Buchanan in 2016. She raised $43,994 and collected 40.2 percent of the vote. She did not return a phone call Tuesday. Schneider also ran for Congress in 2002, ’04, ’06 and ’08.

Asked about Shapiro entering the race, Buchanan spokesman Max Goodman said Tuesday that “there will be plenty of time for campaigning after Democrats settle on a nominee next year.”