Many voters in southern Hillsborough County have probably heard of Vern Buchanan. The Sarasota Republican has represented the area south of the county line for a decade.
But thanks to redistricting, Buchanan is now the incumbent option on the Nov. 8 ballot for about 120,000 registered voters in the swath of Hillsborough south of the Alafia River, extending from Tampa Bay to the Polk County line.
A conservative businessman who has generally stayed true to the party line during his five terms, Buchanan says his record — including votes that angered his Republican colleagues — reflects the values of his Republican-leaning District 16 and what's best for Florida.
"Any time we have a big Florida issue, whether it's health care for veterans or citrus greening, we bring everybody together, and we've got a very good working relationship," Buchanan said. "Unless we work both sides of the aisle, these are things we can't get done."
But Jan Schneider, a 69-year-old Sarasota attorney making her fifth bid for Congress, contends Buchanan's constituents should be concerned about his stand on the issues including what she calls a vague position on Social Security reform.
"While he talks a good game, I don't think Vern is doing what's in the best interest of his district," Schneider said.
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One of the wealthiest members of Congress, Buchanan moved to Florida in 1989 after selling a printing company he founded in Michigan, then made a fortune as a co-owner of car dealerships. He and his wife Sandy live in a $6.4-million home in Longboat Key.
Buchanan has been more moderate than many observers expected when he was first elected in 2006, especially compared to the tea party wave that came four years later, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida.
"He hasn't associated himself with the far-out proposals you sometimes see coming from the Republican party," Paulson said. "I think he's positioned himself for the kind of district he represents down there."
Paulson said Buchanan's spot on the political spectrum aligns well with the Hillsborough portion of District 16, which also takes in all of Manatee County and part of Sarasota County. It includes the gated retiree havens of Sun City Center and South Shore and working class neighborhoods in Gibsonton. It's largely white and voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012 and Rick Scott over Charlie Crist in 2014.
Buchanan has caught flak from his own side for some of his votes over the years, however.
He was slammed by conservative groups and local GOP officials for voting in 2013 to end the government shutdown and raise the nation's borrowing limit without changes to the Affordable Care Act. In the midst of a battle over President Obama's executive orders on immigration, Buchanan voted with Democrats in 2015 to support a clean funding bill for homeland security. He also broke with his party to support Obama's Zika relief plan.
"You do get a certain amount of pressure, but I just do what's best for my area," Buchanan said. "I believe if you do that, you're doing the right thing because that should be our primary focus."
On nearly every other issue, though, Buchanan has remained loyal to his party.
He said the Affordable Care Act should be scrapped so Congress can start over by focusing on tort reform, increasing competition and creating association health plans. He opposes a path to citizens for undocumented immigrants and maintains government should focus on border security and enforcing existing immigration laws.
He opposes bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines but cosponsored a measure requiring people on terrorist watch lists to wait 72 hours before they purchase a gun so law enforcement can investigate. He calls global warming "a genuine problem that deserves a serious response," and has supported cap-and-trade legislation but opposes a carbon tax.
As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and its Social Security subcommittee, Buchanan will have an influential voice in entitlement reform. He said he supports changes to Social Security but hasn't offered specifics, saying only that it should involve bipartisan negotiation.
Buchanan supported former Florida Gov. Jeb. Bush in the GOP presidential primary. In what he called a "binary choice" between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Buchanan has offered tepid support for the New York real estate tycoon.
"We've got to get this economy growing again, and I think a lot of people are not happy with the way things have played out in the last eight to 10 years and they're looking for change," he said. "And I want to be hopeful that if Trump wins, he can bring about that change."
Buchanan has condemned Trump for lewd comments about women on a 2005 Access Hollywood video but has not commented on allegations from several women who claimed Trump made unwanted sexual advances toward them.
As for achievements, Buchanan points to his Veterans ID Act, passed unanimously in Congress, that created an identification card for veterans providing proof of service without the need to carry around discharge papers. As co-chairman of the Congressional Citrus Caucus, he helped land $155 million in funding to research and fight citrus greening, an insect-borne bacterial disease that has devastated Florida's orange industry.
Buchanan has weathered some controversy over the years.
In 2008, the Tampa Bay Times reported on court records that chronicled a bitter fallout after he sold the Michigan-based franchise he co-founded, American Speedy Printing. The company landed in bankruptcy court in 1992, just after Buchanan severed ties. Franchise owners claimed he misled them about American Speedy's finances and made off with a $15.4 million loan from Merrill Lynch that had been meant to prop up the company. Buchanan said he was forthright with franchisees and had no obligation to repay the loan because he lost his stock in the company.
This summer, the House Ethics Committee ended a years-long probe into Buchanan, finding that three car dealerships he partly owned illegally reimbursed their employees for tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Buchanan's 2006 and 2008 House campaigns.
The committee found there wasn't enough evidence to conclude that he was aware of the straw donations when they were made, or had any role in directing or approving of them. At one point, a federal grand jury heard evidence in the case, but Buchanan never faced any criminal charges.
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Pointing out that District 16 has one of the highest numbers of Social Security recipients of any district in the country, Schneider said one of her top priorities is protecting entitlement programs.
She has accused Buchanan of voting to privatize Social Security, a strategy outlined in Rep. Paul Ryan's 2010 budget proposal.
"Why do you think Paul Ryan appointed him to the Social Security subcommittee? Because he disagrees with him?" Schneider said. "If we were to privatize Social Security, what would have happened in 2008, 2009 and 2010?"
Buchanan's office said he has made no such vote, has vowed not to privatize the entitlement program, and that members of the Ways and Committee, not Ryan, selected him for the Social Security subcommittee.
Schneider also opposes raising the raising the eligibility age and means testing. To reform the program, Schneider favors eliminating or raising the payroll tax cap. She also opposes converting Medicare to a voucher program and privatizing the Veterans Affairs health care system.
She contends the balanced budget amendment that Buchanan supports would "cripple" the federal government during a recession.
Schneider said the Affordable Act is flawed but should be reformed, not repealed. She supports raising the federal minimum wage, implementing a carbon tax, lifting the Cuban embargo, and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
She called Buchanan's continued support for Trump "despicable."
Schneider acknowledges her odds of victory are once again long. Of the district's roughly 503,000 registered voters, about 42 percent are registered Republicans and 32 percent are Democrats. But she said running gives her the chance to open a dialogue on progressive views and could inspire younger Democrats to get involved in politics.
"I'm not career building," she said. "I'm legacy building."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.