When student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida came to Florida State Rep. Sean Shaw’s office early this year demanding action on gun control, Shaw readily agreed with them and said he supported their cause. “But I knew that politics was going to get in the way,” Shaw, a Democrat, tells me in an interview for Elite Daily. “It always does, and it did here.” Sure enough, with students watching the vote from the gallery overhead, the Republican-majority of the Florida House voted against a ban on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines.
“Young people asked us for two things — don’t arm teachers, and ban assault rifles — and the Legislature messed both of those up,” Shaw says. "It was a purely partisan vote, and you could hear someone let out a scream."
As Democrats in the Republican-majority Florida state Legislature, Shaw and his colleagues have seen more than enough futile votes. “Oftentimes we sit in the back and press ‘No’ and yell and scream, and that’s the only thing we can do. That gets frustrating pretty fast,” he explains. It’s that frustration that led Shaw to run for state attorney general (AG). “The allure of an office where you can actually do something, and you can do it quickly and without having to ask permission of anyone is awesome.”
Shaw’s chances of being able to do something in that office appear to be increasingly likely. As the likely Democratic nominee, he’ll be facing off against the winner of an intense race for the Republican nomination, which will be decided in an Aug. 28 primary. With the two Republicans candidates — Ashley Moody and Frank White — fighting against each other, Shaw has been leading in overall polls. Should he win the attorney general office come the general election in November, he’ll be Florida’s first Democratic AG in decades and its first black AG ever. That victory would make him part of Democrats’ hope for a “blue wave” to overturn the majority in Congress and at more local state levels.
“Florida is the definition of a swing state, but in this cycle, we’ve talked about some things that are really moving the pendulum in our favor. It’s guns, immigration, young people, the engagement of the Puerto Rican community, people of color — a lot of things [are] going on that are making Florida ripe for change in these off-year elections,” Shaw says.
“I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I would do everything I could to fight any kind of unconstitutional infringement on that right to choose.”
When it comes to those issues, Shaw is ready to pounce as an “activist”-like attorney general, painting himself as the polar opposite of Florida’s outgoing attorney general, Pam Bondi, a strict Republican. As AG, Shaw would join up with other attorneys general to tackle laws that infringe on people’s rights, like the “zero tolerance” immigration policy that led to the separation of over 2,000 children from their families this year and the so-called Muslim travel ban.
And, yes, if it wasn’t clear, Shaw is enticed by the promise of an office from which he could actively fight President Donald Trump’s rule.
“It appears that Congress isn’t willing to do it; it appears that we’ve got this situation in D.C. where there’s just not an ability to rise up and fight [the Trump administration's policies], but attorneys general, because of the lack of bureaucracy involved, can immediately start attacking some of these policies that are unconstitutional and go after them,” he says.
To try to turn this into a binary choice between, 'either you support the Second Amendment or you don’t' — that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about kids who can’t go to school because they’re afraid of getting shot up by assault rifles.
This attention to federal rule is especially important, he says, when it comes to Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which many people believe would be a threat to Roe v. Wade and the declared national constitutionality of the right to abortion.
“If [Florida lawmakers] could outlaw abortion in any form or fashion, they would, if they believe they can get away with it. When you have a Supreme Court who may be willing to tinker with Roe v. Wade and allow the states to decide, a state like Florida is going to decide to do whatever it can to restrict a woman’s right to choose,” Shaw says, noting that who the state AG is should that happen will be “really important.” “I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I would do everything I could to fight any kind of unconstitutional infringement on that right to choose.”
But while he’s keeping an eye on the White House, Shaw says he is committed to tackling issues that impact residents of Florida specifically as well, including opioids, funding for public education, medical marijuana, environmental protections, and, of course, gun control.
“To try to turn this into a binary choice between, 'either you support the Second Amendment or you don’t' — that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about kids who can’t go to school because they’re afraid of getting shot up by assault rifles. I mean, that’s what we need to stop,” Shaw says. “It’s just turning into this political thing, as inevitably it will, but we need to address it in a meaningful way, and I think those young people are going to make us do it, and they're going to make us do it because these midterm elections are going to sweep into power people that want to do something.”
As attorney general, Shaw says although he couldn’t make laws, he would advocate for common sense gun reform, including expanded background checks. He is also considering moving the handling of concealed carry permits, which is currently drawing criticism for reports of mismanagement by the Department of Agriculture, to law enforcement. Additionally, in Florida, there are preemption laws that leave local lawmakers subject to fines and removal from office for passing gun ordinances (i.e. a mayor can’t pass a gun control law for the town without those risks).
“I think that law is constitutionally suspect, and when I am attorney general, I’ll find out,” Shaw says gamely.
Should he be elected, Shaw would also have to face a legal challenge from the NRA, who sued the state of gun control laws in March, which he’s itching to tackle.
Although a victory would be historic, Shaw’s not thinking of those implications — he’s just thinking about how quickly he could get to work.
“Really, what I think about most of my day is that it’s so important to win this race for the future of Florida, and how we approach these issues that are near and dear to Floridians, and how we stop politicizing this office and return it to the independent watchdog it’s supposed to be,” he says.
After years of frustration on the Legislature, Shaw is more than ready to get going on some of the biggest issues impacting Floridians' lives. This is one politician who is not content to simply shout in the face of today's partisan roadblocks; Shaw wants to take real action.