SARASOTA — In his one shot to convince a television audience he should replace a popular six-term Republican, Democrat David Shapiro broke out the verbal nunchucks right away in his lone debate against U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan on Tuesday night.
Buchanan “recently wrote himself a $2.1 million tax break while working families and seniors are struggling,” the Sarasota attorney said in his introductory remarks during the half-hour debate in the Sarasota studio of WWSB-TV.
Shapiro was speaking of Buchanan’s support for the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which, among other things, reduced the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. It is one of a number of decisions in Congress, like Buchanan’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that have animated Democratic opposition nationwide.
Shapiro’s big hope is to ride that tide of discontent.
Buchanan, the Longboat Key Republican who represents a district that covers Manatee County and parts of Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, has made millions as owner of several car dealerships and famously bought an expensive yacht on the day he voted for the tax law.
Shapiro wasted no time portraying the incumbent as someone who “doesn’t really care” about health care, or protecting Medicare, Social Security or the environment.
The early attack incensed Buchanan, 67, who played up his working class background, reminding the audience that he was the oldest of six children raised in Detroit by parents who worked in a factory.
“He should be ashamed of himself attacking me,” Buchanan said as Shapiro shrugged. “He is a personal injury lawyer that sues seniors and everybody else in this community. A lot of my business friends. And he’s made millions of dollars doing it.”
Pointing to a recent New York Times story noting that people still struggle economically in the midst of a growing economy and the lowest unemployment in 49 years, debate moderator Alan Cohn — WWSB-TV anchor — asked the candidates how they would deal with this disconnect.
Buchanan said President Donald Trump, who championed a tax cut, “does get some credit” for the growth.
“As you know I chaired the tax policy committee. I still do. I think tax reform has made a huge difference. That, and deregulation, is why we are exploding, getting everybody back to work today.”
Shapiro took the opportunity to rail against the tax cut, saying many families he sees as an attorney “don’t have stock portfolios. It’s not really helping them in any way, shape or form.”
Asked if he would promise not to cut Medicare or Social Security, or raise the retirement age, Buchanan avoided a straight answer, instead saying that as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee he’s in “a very good position to have a big impact on” protecting senior citizens.
Shapiro said he pledges “not do anything that would cut Medicare and or Social Security.”
The two also differed on whether so-called assault weapons and large capacity magazines should be banned.
“I haven’t said this much,” said Buchanan, “I was teenager and had gun put to my head and didn’t think I would see the next day.”
But he said he supports, instead, adopting some version of the recently enacted Florida law allowing authorities to temporarily confiscate weapons if an individual shows signs of harm to self or others.
Shapiro said he “does not see a reason to have assault weapons in the civilian population” and, like Buchanan, called for 100 percent background checks.
The two men sparred on whether a caravan of migrants traveling north from Honduras calls for a military response as suggested by Trump.
Shapiro said no, while Buchanan replied, “If we need to.”
Their last question dealt with the red tide and green algae blooms that have devastated waterfront areas of the state, and, in turn, the Florida economy.
Buchanan scoffed at Cohn’s question about whether he should return campaign contributions from the sugar industry, which Shapiro blamed for aggravating the algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee.
Buchanan noted that he was a trustee at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium a decade before seeking office, the $8 million he helped place in the federal budget for research on the environmental problems, and his support for bipartisan legislation to add another $100 million over five years for more research and for mitigation.
Shapiro took the chance to blame so-called Big Sugar.
“Let’s first start with stopping what is causing it,” he said, “and then start doing some research into how to mitigate the problem.”