Democrat David Shapiro is challenging incumbent Republican Vern Buchanan for Florida's 16th Congressional District seat, which stretches across parts of Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee counties. Shapiro, an attorney from Sarasota, is the underdog in the race, but he's polled better than the Republican-leaning district's demographics might indicate. He sat down with the Times' Kirby Wilson Wednesday for a wide-ranging interview. Their exchange is transcribed below, with minor edits for the sake of space and clarity.
Kirby Wilson: A lot of your districts challenges seem to be huge in scope and really complex: transportation, red tide, etc. How do you plan to rise above the Washington gridlock to deliver lasting solutions to challenges like that?
David Shapiro: I think we're at this point in our politics where the new Congress — and I think there's going to be a lot of new faces — are going to be more receptive to working with people across the aisle to actually get things done. I think we've pushed these divisions as far as we can go, and I think it's pretty universal, except for the very few people who retreat to their tribes, that there's a growing number of people who simply want to get things done. They recognize that there is a little cooperation that's required by both parties. You're also seeing greater numbers of independents, or no-party affiliated voters, which is telling us something right there.
People want to work together. The seeds have been planted already in Congress, you just don't hear about it because the ones who are retreating to their corners are making the most noise. But there are groups trying to put bipartisan bills and legislation together that, once the dust settles, we're going to move forward rapidly. So I feel good about it — not just that I'm going to get there, because no one man or woman can change Congress. But I think there's going to be a lot of new faces who are going to want to work together.
Wilson: During the Obama years, Democrats lost thousands of seats of elected seats all across the country in state, local and federal office. What is one lesson that Democrats can learn from that time to try to get back some of what they lost during those years?
Shapiro: Communication, perhaps. Obama was great in many respects, but in terms of actually positively communicating the benefits of his programs and letting the other side grab the narrative — you see that in the ACA. That was used to flip the whole House of Representatives, and now, it's very much liked. It's cherished in many respects. If people knew about the ACA then what they know now, I think that would have been the difference.
And that's not unusual historically. Even Medicare, which is obviously a very popular program, had some serious opposition from the other side. It was used as a political weapon for a time. And then eventually, people recognized that it was, in fact, a good program. I think the Democrats have to communicate better in terms of what these programs mean to the working families so they understand it, and so we don't have to keep going through this situation where we're told not to like it, we learn that's false, then we all like it and now it's maybe going to disappear. We've got to get past that, so I would say that we've got to communicate better. We can't make any assumptions that people will just figure it out, because sometimes the benefits take some time and during that time there's just too much negativity and a false narrative.
Wilson: It's funny you mention narrative. Your opponent in an ad accused you of supporting Medicare for all. You said in a radio interview a few months ago that you'd support first reforming the Affordable Care Act before Medicare for all, but "in the event that it may be impossible, we'll have to rethink it." So just to be clear, what did you mean by that? Under what circumstances do you support Medicare for all, if any?
Shapiro: I do not support Medicare for all. But like anything else, you just don't stop until you have a successful program. I'm not saying that Medicare for all would be that successful program. I'm a lawyer and I have worked with insurance issues before. I understand the concept. I know how it works. I believe there is a health insurance product that can be affordable and accessible to virtually every single American if it's implemented correctly. Whether it's the Affordable Care Act or some better version of it, that's where I think we should go. And I also believe we're so close to it.
Wilson: Do you think a public option could stabilize some of the market places?
Shapiro: I don't know. I think we're better off at this point just implementing the system that we have, trying to get wide participation and increase the risk pool, which will drive the costs down. Get folks like you, younger people, to sign up. That will help cover the cost of the more elder people or people with pre-existing conditions.
Wilson: What grade would you give President Donald Trump?
Shapiro: I just disagree with some of his programs. Where do we start? I don't think we should separate children from their parents. I don't think we should alienate our allies and embrace our enemies. I don't care for his bullying and the way he treats people. I have three children. I've taught them just the opposite. He's the opposite of what my father has taught me. And I think the president should be someone who people look up to, and their behavior and their character is important.
Wilson: Do you think Congressional District 16 agrees with you that he's failing?
Shapiro: Don't know. Everyone is going to have to make that decision for themselves. My opponent is Vern Buchanan. And what I want them to do is to draw a distinction between he and I. And what I really want them to do is to look at his record. Not what he says, but actually look at his record in terms of health care, in terms of Medicare and social security, in terms of the environment. These are the issues that I believe I can address as the next U.S. Representative, and what he's had an opportunity to do for the last 12 years. It's like anything else. If you're going to buy a stock, you want to see how they performed over the last ten or 12 years. Everyone should take that much time to look back and say, "What has he done to help my life? Has he represented us, or has he represented himself?"
Really that's the only issue. People have an opinion about other politicians. It's going to be baked in. But that I can't control. What I can control is who will be the next Congressman for FL-16 in January after the election in November.
Wilson: Independent of policy or partisanship, what qualities would you want in a Congressional representative?
Shapiro: Open-mindedness. Integrity. Someone who's able to listen to both sides and treat the other side with respect. I'm a board-certified mediator, and I'm also a lawyer, so our job is to get to yes. And generally speaking, it's not alienating or insulting the other side. You have to listen to what they have to say, you have to incorporate, to the extent that you can, the good ideas. Because no one party has a monopoly on every single good idea. And I truly believe that, which is why I also believe I'm perfectly suited for FL-16.
Wilson: What are some of those Republican ideas you wish Democrats would take more seriously?
Shapiro: I would flip that. I wish some of the Republicans would take more seriously the Democratic ideas. Because what we're proposing, at least from what I can tell, when we're talking about affordable health care, why would a Republican, a Democrat and an independent not want that? Why would Republican, Democrat, independent seniors not want to have protection for Medicare and social security? Why wouldn't they want a clean environment that doesn't cost us jobs? That's how I would phrase that question. I would challenge anyone — I don't even want to know what their party positions are. I want to know what is your opposition to it, as if we were neutral. Because then I can at least address the issue, as opposed to everyone, as I said, moving to their corners.
Wilson: Do you support bringing back Congressional earmarks?
Shapiro: No. I think that's trouble. Overall, I think that would be a problem.
Wilson: So you think you could deliver for the district without the use of a practice like that?
Shapiro: Yes I do. In fact, we've seen it a little bit already. Some of our (representatives) have delivered funds from the federal government when the community needs it. Because typically the impact is far greater than one community in any event. This red tide, for example. It's impacting this area, southwest Florida, but it's also impacting all of Florida. Property values, businesses. So I think there's an effective way to get money to important matters without re-instituting that.
Wilson: Is red tide the issue you hear the most about on the campaign trail?
Shapiro: I don't know that it would be the most, but certainly it's in the top two or three. Maybe even one on occasion. When it was at its worst, it certainly was number one, because it affects so many parts of our economy. For example, I was just at an event and there were a bunch of realtors there and they were concerned because they see that the home sales are dropping. It affects banking because (it affects) loans and mortgages. It affects insurance because some carriers don't want to insure homes that are very close to the coastal community…it just has large consequences.
Wilson: How do you think Andrew Gillum's presence on the ticket this November is going to impact your race? Specifically, he ran a very progressive campaign, calling for Trump's impeachment and the abolition of ICE. What do you hear when you hear someone higher on the ticket saying, "we need to abolish ICE?"
Shapiro: What do I hear? I hear what you hear. Do I agree? Not necessarily. I don't think it's a good idea. And I can't agree with everything that Mayor Gillum is advocating. I personally don't think it would work. Certainly, he has his positions and he's going to speak them and that's fine. I don't know really what impact it will have on FL-16, quite honestly. I really don't know. I think it's going to come down to a choice — or at least I want it to come down to a choice — between Vern Buchanan and I.
Wilson: If you could tell voters one thing about you, what would you have them know?
Shapiro: I'm on their side. I really want to represent the people of FL-16. That is the only reason I want to do this. I have no other agenda whatsoever.
Wilson: Thank you for your time, Mr. Shapiro.
Shapiro: Thank you.