University Politics department alumnus Sean Shaw ’00 served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2016 to 2018, before running for attorney general of the state. Earlier this year, Shaw publicly endorsed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 Presidential bid, arguably becoming Buttigieg’s highest-profile African American supporter. The Daily Princetonian spoke to Shaw about his career in politics, his 2018 nomination for Attorney General of Florida, and why he believes in Buttigieg.
The Daily Princetonian: Your father served on the Florida Supreme Court for 20 years, serving as Chief Justice for two. In what ways did your upbringing influence your career path?
Sean Shaw: Well, I mean, certainly, I was going to be someone that was focused on the law, being a lawyer, but it also opened up my eyes to how much good you could do by being a public servant. Right? … How much you could do for your community, your state, your country by being a public servant. So even though I went away to Princeton from Florida, I always knew I was going to go back to my hometown and home state and somehow get into public service to give back.
But those, those are two things that certainly rubbed off on me. I wanted to be a lawyer since the time I can remember, anyone asked me what I wanted to do. And then I wanted to be some sort of, kind of, public servant when I got older.
DP: And how did your time at Princeton prepare you for politics and public service?
SS: I'll tell you what. Certainly when you're in college, you're going from kind of being a teenager, to being a young adult, and to being an adult. I mean, it's a really formative age… You're learning social skills, you're gaining friends, it's crystallizing in your mind. Like, you know, when you're in high school, “hey, I've always wanted to be x,” and then you get to college, and you're kind of a little bit more mature and you understand what it might take to get to be x… more grad school and, and all that kind of stuff.
And so I was certainly just maturing, not only personally but socially… I joined the fraternity that I'm in now: Omega Psi Phi. I joined that while I was in college. I was a member of TI [the Tiger Inn] when I was at Princeton, and so certainly, I was involved in campus activities… I was the president of the black mental awareness group, I want to say my junior year, and so some of those things certainly gave me a sense of maybe being a leader and being involved, and some of the things I do now.
DP: In 2018, you were the Florida Democratic Party’s first African-American nominee for Attorney General. And the first African-American nominee for governor of Florida from a major party, Andrew Gillum, who spoke with the ‘Prince’ the other week, was also on that ballot. What do you think having both your names on that ballot in 2018 meant for Florida politics?
SS: I think it shows that we've come a long way. I think the fact that it didn’t happen until 2018 tells you we've got a long way to go as well… The night that I won the primary, I didn't really think about it until someone had actually mentioned it to me, and I kind of thought about it, about my father, and thought about the history there. But I think it shows where Florida has come from… I think it also shows you we got a long way to go. I was unsuccessful. Andrew was unsuccessful. You know, our Democratic US Senator, who was an incumbent, lost. So if you're a Democrat in Florida, I think it shows some progress, but I think it also shows we've got a long way to go to win some of these races, but it certainly shows progress in a good way.
DP: Though you were unopposed in the general election for District 16 State Representative in 2016, you narrowly defeated Walter Smith in the primary. What was that race like, and how did it compare to your failed primary bid in 2014?
SS: My race in 2016 was much more, I’ll say, community, grassroots based. In 2014, that race was just a really ugly, nasty primary, and it was very expensive. I hadn’t lived in Tampa for four years at that point, so my ties to the community were a little bit tenuous, and so I didn't end up being successful… But by the time the next race had come, I kind of established myself in the community, particularly in the grassroots community, and they were much more accepting the second time around… I stayed involved in the community, even though I lost in 2014.
I didn't expect to run in 2016. I didn't expect that seat to be open, but the incumbent who beat me ran for something else, so it was an open seat, and I ran for it. And I think people respected the fact that I remained involved in the community even though I had lost, and so they honored me with that position in 2016. But … it was a much, I'll say, nicer race in 2016. Much less negativity, but it was still very hard fought — I barely won — but I had a much stronger connection to community the second time around.
DP: You’ve endorsed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for President. So out of the crowded 2020 field, why is he your candidate?
SS: You know, it’s real easy. Mayor Pete’s the one that makes me feel the best about this country. When I heard him speak, he's the one that gave me goosebumps, and I learned more about him, and I realized that that was the kind of person that I wanted to be president…
He’s about the opposite of President Trump in almost every imaginable way, whether that is, you know, intelligence, whether that is service and the armed forces, whether that is just having a wonderful moral compass. And Mayor Pete is someone who I think also represents generational change, not just you know who the next President of the United States is going to be. Mayor Pete, the youngest of the front-runners by far, I think he represents certainly turning over up the torch in a certain sense. One of his sayings is to “the win the era,” and I totally believe that, so I endorsed him a while ago.
I have, you know, done some surrogate things around the country for him. I plan on continuing to do that because I believe in him.
DP: Buttigieg is polling well in Iowa, leading the pack in multiple statewide polls, but his numbers in the South, specifically South Carolina, and even more specifically among black voters in South Carolina are particularly low… As someone who has been to South Carolina on Mayor Pete’s behalf, why do you think that is?
SS: I believe it is a function of name ID at this point. At least when I was in South Carolina, it was a function of no one knew who he was… He's running against a former Vice President and two [six] United States Senators. I mean, he's a mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is not as well known as these other people, so that's going to be something that he's going to work on and get better as we go… But listen. I'm here to tell you every candidate that's not named Joe Biden, I think, has a long way to go in trying to garner their share of the African American vote. So I would look at everybody's numbers through the lens of “they all got to do better”… You know?
Mayor Pete is certainly speaking to issues that are important not only to African Americans, but important to people that understand climate change is an issue, people that understand that we need to protect our unions, people who understand the middle class is getting squeezed. He’s speaking to all these sectors.
And the plans — the “Douglass Plan” — that I’ve seen to specifically address the long, long racial wealth inequities that have hurt the African American community in this country. It’s the most expansive plan I've ever seen to address some of those historical inequities, not just the symptoms but the causes. So you know, he needs to get that plan out and make sure people know about it, make sure we get his name ID up, and fight like heck. This is gonna be hard. It’s much different when you're the front runner, so as soon as he became the front runner in Iowa, and is doing well in New Hampshire, I think the knives are out. And this is a primary, so that’s going to happen, so we just gotta keep working at it.
DP: In June, a 54-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white South Bend police officer with his body camera turned off. And in the aftermath, Buttigieg said the South Bend P.D. remains disproportionately white because he “couldn’t get it done.” How do you think Mayor Pete handled the aftermath of that situation, and why do you think he’ll be able to “get it done” as President?
SS: One, I want to make sure we understand that he made that admission on the stage during a presidential debate. And he made it knowing that he was going to get whacked about it, knowing that he was going to open himself up to people taking shots at him. I'm a politician; I know, that's a hard thing to do to say, “I didn't get it done. My bad,” and so I give a major props for doing that. But obviously, if you didn't get the job done, then there's some doing that needs to be done with regards to doing better in the department, making sure the department is more diverse and, you know, you've got to work at that. He's got ... to make sure he's working at that.
All of the candidates have blemishes, and, this is not, we're not running for who we're going to worship on Sunday. People are running to be the President of the United States, and so we have to look at everyone's record and who fits us best, who makes us feel the best, who we think we can beat Donald Trump — there's a lot, a lot of things that go into that. But I remain convinced, and the more time that goes by remain even more convinced, that Mayor Pete is the right person to follow the travesty that we have in there now.
DP: And you mentioned sort of thinking about who can beat Donald Trump. Many voters have said “electability” and ability to beat Trump will be one of the biggest factors in their decision-making come primary season. Do you think Buttigieg is electable, and what makes him more electable than some of the other top contenders?
SS: I certainly think he’s electable. And he’s electable, I think, because he is someone that appeals to, in my opinion, the broadest range of voters, whether [or not] that is in the Democratic primary — I think it may also appeal to disaffected Republicans, who may be willing to admit in the booth that maybe they made a little mistake when they voted for the person that's in there now. So I think he appeals to the widest range of voters, and you've just got to prove that… When I was going around and talking to people, it's hard to find someone who just doesn't like Mayor Pete. You can find people that don't know him. You can find people that may have policy disagreements, that may like other candidates more, but it's hard to find someone that has a very negative feeling about Mayor Pete. And I think that's, one, because he appeals to the broadest range of voters.
But I think second, and it's one of the reasons I liked him so much, he includes optimism, and he exudes positivity, and that's what people want right now. You turn on your TV now, and all you see and all you hear is negativity, not just from one side, but from both sides. And I get it. But he certainly, the reason I was drawn to him, [he] was so positive, and was so moving, and was so touching as to how he might be able to put this country on a better path. That's why I went with him, and I kind of think that's what's gonna appeal to a broad range of voters as we go forward.
DP: When you say that you think Mayor Pete appeals to such a broad range of voters, what about him specifically allows him to bring in voters from that broad range?
SS: Well, I'll use this healthcare plan for one. You know, it's ‘Medicare for those who want it.’ That is not as far as some of the other people have proposed, and it's not as expensive as the price tag that's been put on some other health care plans. And when you're talking trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars, that is a problem for some people. It’s a problem for me … It's things like that. It’s his solutions to even the college debt. You know, forgiving debt for everyone is one thing, and that's hugely expensive. Are we forgiving debt for those that needed to be forgiven for them? Because everyone doesn't need their debt forgiven. Some people are okay paying it; some people are not.
And so I think Mayor Pete's plans are pragmatic and don't go down the road that some of these other plans would go. And while some other plans may sound good, when you start attaching price tags to some of these plans, you're getting into deep water really fast. And so I think Mayor Pete is going to be able to make the case that he has the most pragmatic plans to get done what most Democrats want to get done in a realistic manner that may even be attractive to some of our people on the other side.
DP: In February, you launched a progressive advocacy organization called “People Over Profits.” So what has this group done thus far?
SS: Well, the group is really an extension of the theme that is sort of propelled my entire political career … I've been someone that's always been for the people and not big corporations. I've always stood up for the little guy and the little gal against big bullies, corporate bullies, and I do that as a lawyer and I do that as a politician as well.
And so we have certainly helped with the Amendment 4 implementation here in Florida. And Amendment 4 is the constitutional amendment that was passed to automatically restore the rights of returning citizens here in Florida … Under most felonies, you will now have your rights automatically restored to vote here in Florida, which is a really big deal. So we've gotten involved and tried to organize some lawyers around that to make sure people are aware and they could follow the right paperwork to get the rights restored. We've been involved recently here with ... an effort to deregulate the energy market here in Florida. That's something I think is not a good idea for consumers. It’ll raise rates and hurt the average consumer. And so we've been involved in efforts to stand up against that and beat that thing down, too.
We've also been involved in some healthcare issues where insurance companies are engaged in billing practices that hurt the average consumer. And so we've been involved in trying to raise awareness around that. As you can see, the common theme is, I'm a guy that stands up for consumers, really, in any kind of relationship. Whether it's energy, whether it's insurance, whether it's medical, I'm always someone that's been on the side of consumers versus the big people.
DP: Do you have anything else you’d want to add, whether about your endorsement of Mayor Pete, your own political career, or your time here at Princeton?
SS: Well, I’m coming to reunions … This will be my 20th — I graduated in 2000 — so I will be at Reunions for my 20th year and have a great time I’m sure.
And, as for my political career … I’m helping Mayor Pete right now. And when this cycle is over, we’ll see, but right now that’s the main thing I’m doing.