Sean Shaw follows his father’s path in attorney general race
The struggles of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw Jr. propel his son to aim for statewide office.
By William March
Published Oct. 8, 2018
Sean Shaw has big shoes to fill and he’s in a hurry to fill them.
The 40-year-old is a first-term member of the Florida House from Tampa, a consumer insurance lawyer and a former state insurance consumer advocate. Now he wants to become one of the most powerful elected officials in the state, Florida Attorney General.
If elected, the Democrat would become the state’s top law enforcement officer, and the first African-American to do so.
He would also take one giant step closer to filling the shoes of his late father, legal legend Leander Shaw Jr.
His father was a pioneering lawyer at a time when Florida had only a handful of African-American lawyers. He would eventually rise to become the first African-American chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Leander Shaw died in 2015. He was 85.
“When I was growing up, he was just my dad,” Sean Shaw said. “We went fishing and tinkered around in the shed. The older I got, the more I realized how big a deal he was.
“Every little boy wants to be like his dad,” he added. “But I had one who was a little larger than life.”
‘If you’re doing wrong, you ought to be afraid’
Shaw said he has a finely-honed sensitivity to injustice inspired by his father’s struggles. As attorney general, he promises to go after corporate and political malfeasance, with an emphasis on protecting consumers and workers.
He has also promised to investigate President Donald Trump’s business practices in Florida, wary of his Russian business ties.
If elected, Shaw vowed to seek to overturn the state’s laws banning local governments from regulating firearms. He says he’ll push for repeal of the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law and consider criminal action against drug-makers because of the opioid epidemic.
Under him, the Attorney General’s Office may end up clashing with the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature. Shaw said he would direct the state’s most powerful legal office to look at how legislators fund public education; implemented voter-approved referendums to legalize medical marijuana and purchase land for conservation; and the state’s gun laws.
That kind of legal action would mirror how Shaw has run his campaign. He sued to have his opponent in the Democratic primary, Ryan Torrens, thrown off the ballot.
Shaw accused Torrens of using an illegal, excessive contribution to pay his filing fee. A judge ruled in Shaw’s favor but Torrens is appealing. Still, the matter was rendered moot when Shaw won 74 percent of the vote in the Aug. 28 primary.
“I’m going to be a very aggressive attorney general and go after anyone in Florida,” he said. “If you’re doing wrong, you ought to be afraid I’m going to sue you.”
The Republican Attorney General’s Association, a powerful GOP surrogate that raises money for state AGs from business interests, said Shaw would be an “activist attorney general” who would scare off businesses from relocating to Florida.
Shaw’s not bothered by that accusation: “My goal is to hold everyone accountable, no matter who you are — and that’s something the people of Florida haven’t seen.”
‘I was a high achiever’
Shaw was born in Jacksonville, the only child of Leander and Vidya Shaw, who was from Guyana. He has three half-sisters from his father’s previous marriage, and a half-brother who has passed.
The story of Leander Shaw starts with a middle-class upbringing in Virginia. He was an artillery officer in the Korean War, and the racism he experienced in the military inspired him to get his law degree from Howard University. When he took the bar exam in Miami in 1960 it was at a whites-only hotel. Shaw wasn’t allowed to stay the night.
He taught law at Florida A&M University, practiced law in Jacksonville and worked as public defender and an assistant state attorney. His obituary in the Tallahassee Democrat noted that he was the first African-American official in Duval County since Reconstruction.
Gov. Bob Graham appointed him to the state District Court of Appeals in 1979 and the state Supreme Court in 1983. He served as chief justice from 1990-92 before retiring.
Sean Shaw grew up in Tallahassee, rubbing elbows with important lawyers and judges. At 6-foot-5, he played power forward on the Leon High School basketball team.
“It’s no surprise I wanted to be a lawyer,” Shaw said. “After basketball practice, I’d hang out in the halls of the Supreme Court building, with Auntie Rosemary and Uncle Gerry” — also known as Justices Rosemary Barkett and Gerald Kogan.
“Half the court would be in the gym watching me play basketball,” Shaw said.
He was inspired by his father’s struggles as a young African-American lawyer in Florida.
“I was a high achiever, but a lot of it was because I was driven because my dad didn’t have the same opportunities I had,” Shaw said. “Howard was the only place he could go to law school.”
He went to Princeton University, where he served as president of a fraternity, a black men’s awareness group and a political debating society, then graduated from the University of Florida’s law school in 2003.
His first job was at the politically-connected Tallahassee firm of Akerman LLP. In 2006, the state’s newly elected Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink hired Shaw as state insurance consumer advocate.
Sink, a former banker and prominent Democratic fundraiser, became a key mentor and political booster.
‘It was a very humbling experience’
Shaw didn’t wait long before taking his first shot at electoral politics — and missed badly.
In 2008, he ran for a state House seat in a minority Tallahassee district against Alan Williams, a well-known civic activist, Florida A&M University alum and mayoral assistant. It was a 7-way race: Williams won with 41 percent and Shaw got 10 percent.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Shaw said.
Then he went to Tampa to work on Sink’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for governor and stayed to work for Merlin Law Group.
In 2014 he ran for the Florida House again, challenging local AT&T executive Ed Narain in a Democratic primary in Tampa’s heavily minority District 61. No Republican ran.
It was a high-spending, highly-negative race, turning into a proxy battle between the state trial lawyers backing Shaw and the Florida Chamber of Commerce backing Narain.
Shaw got much of the blame for the negativity. His campaign fliers called Narain “a Rick Scott Republican.” Narain’s backers called Shaw a carpetbagger.
Shaw “has been brought here to run and is a trial lawyers’ puppet,” while Narain “lives here and wants to serve his community,” Narain backer and prominent lawyer Delano Stewart told the Times during the race.
“Both of us had a hand in it,” Shaw said of the negativity. “I’ve apologized to Ed and to other people in the district.”
Narain won comfortably but left the seat to run for the state Senate in 2016. Shaw ran again, against another lifelong community activist, Dianne Hart, and won by 101 votes, or less than 1 percent.
That race also resulted in hard feelings. Shaw recently endorsed Hart’s opponent in the primary to replace him, breaking the common political rule that a candidate shouldn’t take sides in someone else’s race. Hart won.
‘The right race at the right time for the right person’
At first, Shaw ruled out running for attorney general in the summer of 2017, expecting a bigger-name Democrat to run. When none did, he made the rounds of Democratic fundraisers statewide, seeking their approval.
Sink said she didn’t encourage him to run until the other Democratic candidates failed to materialize.
“I don’t have any hesitation that he’s prepared to do the job,” she said, citing his work for her office. “You can’t discount growing up in a household with a man who became chief justice in helping prepare him.”
Becoming attorney general “has been a dream of his ever since I’ve known him, his ultimate aspiration,” Sink said. “But in politics, you have to pick the right race at the right time for the right person.”
Another motivation to run is the election of President Donald Trump.
“The president is not only inept, he’s prejudiced, he’s a narcissist, he’s angry, he’s not fit to be president,” Shaw said. “State attorney generals are a line of defense.”
He also criticized current Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is term-limited. If he wins office Shaw said he would pull Florida out of a lawsuit filed by GOP attorney generals to overturn the Affordable Care Act. His opponent, Republican Ashley Moody, supports the lawsuit and frequently praises Bondi.
Shaw says Moody would mean “another eight years of Pam Bondi,” which the state doesn’t need. Between the two, he said, “The people of Florida will have a stark choice.”
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
Where does Sean Shaw stand on …
▪The Affordable Care Act: Shaw has promised to withdraw Florida from a lawsuit filed by Republican-led states — including current Attorney General Pam Bondi — to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
▪Gun laws: Shaw has said he will work to repeal the “stand your ground” self-defense law and sue to overturn Florida’s “pre-emption” law that forbids local governments from passing any kind of gun safety ordinances or regulations on gun sales. He also favors a ban on selling semi-automatic rifles. He also opposed the new state law that allows teachers to arm themselves.
▪Abortion: Shaw says he is strongly pro-choice, and that Roe v Wade “did away with back-alley abortions and infringing on a woman’s most personal decisions.” He promises to defend reproductive rights and women’s access to reproductive health care through Planned Parenthood clinics.
▪Restoring felon voting rights: Shaw supports Amendment 4, which if passed by more than 60 percent of voters on Nov. 6, would automatically restore the voting rights for those convicted of felonies except for murder and sex crimes.
▪Donald Trump: Shaw believes the president is unfit to hold office. If elected, Shaw said he will investigate Trump’s business practices in Florida for possible ties to Russian money laundering, focusing on sales of Trump’s South Florida condos to Russian interests and will join a lawsuit filed by officials in Maryland and the District of Columbia that accuses the presidents of violating the constitutional provision against a president receiving “foreign emoluments.”
Political: Democrat, won first Florida House seat in 2016 after two unsuccessful runs for the legislature.
Professional: After law school, Shaw worked for the Akerman LLP law firm in Tallahassee, then as a state insurance consumer advocate. He moved to Tampa and now works for the Merlin Law Group, which represents policyholders against insurance companies.
Education: Shaw graduated from Tallahassee’s Leon High School, Princeton University and the University of Florida’s law school.
Family: Son of Leander Shaw, the state’s first black Supreme Court chief justice. Sean Shaw was born in Jacksonville and grew up in Tallahassee. He is divorced with no children.