Former Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. rode into Congress on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Republican wave and gained clout after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 GOP uprising, but he maintained good relations with Democrats and was remembered Wednesday for embodying a less partisan, more civil era in politics.
Shaw, who represented a South Florida House district from 1981 to 2007, died from lung cancer Tuesday night at 74.
The Fort Lauderdale Republican was an architect of landmark welfare reform and Everglades restoration legislation and a leading voice in the GOP on Social Security and Medicare issues. He compiled a conservative voting record while winning elections for most of his career in districts where Democrats outnumbered Republicans.
“I consider that we’ve lost a great American and a real dynamic congressperson who I would describe as a cross-aisle politician,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar.
“We have lost a great statesman for South Florida. I will always fondly remember Clay Shaw from my time as mayor of West Palm Beach as someone who you could work with in a bipartisan manner and as a true gentleman,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, whose district includes many of Shaw’s former constituents.
Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush called Shaw “a dedicated public servant with a big heart who loved family, country and his beloved state of Florida. He leaves behind a legacy of service that is an example to many.”
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who represented a Palm Beach-Broward state Senate district that overlapped Shaw’s congressional district, said he admired Shaw’s “genuineness.”
“You could trust him and you knew that his effort was about the greater good and never about himself,” Atwater said.
Eugene Clay Shaw Jr. was born in Miami and got undergraduate and law degrees from Stetson University and a master’s in business administration from the University of Alabama. He practiced as a lawyer and certified public accountant in Fort Lauderdale before becoming a municipal judge in 1969.
He was elected to the Fort Lauderdale city commission in 1971 and was mayor from 1975 to 1980, when he ran for Congress in what was then a Broward County district. Much of Palm Beach County was added to Shaw’s district after 1992, and it became a predominantly Palm Beach County seat after the 2002 redistricting.
When the 1994 midterm elections put Republicans in control of the House for the first time 40 years, Shaw was appointed chairman of a Ways and Means subcommittee that oversaw welfare. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” included a welfare-reform provision, and Shaw took the lead in drafting historic legislation that made assistance to the poor temporary and added work requirements.
Democratic President Bill Clinton, after vetoing two earlier versions, eventually signed the legislation in 1996. Rep. Shaw interrupted his 30th anniversary celebration with wife Emilie to attend the bill-signing ceremony and was the only Republican present.
Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who had pushed for welfare reform since the 1980s, tried to make the legislation more conservative and clashed with Shaw at times while the bill was being drafted. But Rector said he ended up admiring the way Shaw steered the legislation to passage.
“He was a real trooper and a very effective legislator…. He was really a key in keeping the whole initiative together. I had some controversy with him but in the end I thought he really made an effort to make that into a very good bill,” Rector said Wednesday.
Shaw was also the lead House sponsor of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, which called for the state and federal governments to share more than $8 billion in costs over 30 years to restore the ecosystem.
The chief executive officer of the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, Erik Eikenberg, worked in Shaw’s office as an intern in the 1990s and was Shaw’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2007. Eikenberg said one reason Shaw was able to win re-election 12 times, usually from Democrat-leaning districts, was the attention he paid to helping constituents who had issues with Social Security or veteran’s benefits or other dealings with the federal government.
“He instilled in his staff that constituent service was the most important aspect of his public service. He exemplified it,” Eikenberg said.
Republican Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who was mayor of Boca Raton during much of Shaw’s congressional career, praised Shaw’s attention to beach renourishment and other local, nonpartisan issues.
“He started out as a local elected official…. Local politics is pothole politics,” Abrams said. “He was a conservative Republican but he tended to his district.”
After Shaw squeaked to re-election in 2000 in a district where Democrats held a 4-point registration advantage, Florida’s GOP-led legislature redrew boundaries in 2002 to give the district a slight GOP edge. But Shaw’s redrawn district still voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. And in 2006, as Democrats capitalized nationally on the unpopularity of the Iraq war and Republican President George W. Bush, Shaw lost his bid for a 14th term to Democrat Ron Klein.
In addition to his wife, Emilie, Shaw is survived by four children and 15 grandchildren. Shaw is to be buried at a family grave site in Cuba, Ala. The family plans to hold a memorial service in Fort Lauderdale, but has not set a date.