When former Fort Lauderdale mayor and Republican congressman E. Clay Shaw spoke of “My-am-uh,” he recalled a more genteel time in South Florida politics. His ability to work across party lines defined it.
Shaw, a 26-year congressman who drafted a landmark welfare reform law, died Tuesday night after a long bout with lung cancer. He was 74.
"We have lost a great statesman for South Florida," said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents part of Shaw's former district along the Broward and Palm Beach county coast. "I will always fondly remember Clay Shaw from my time as mayor of West Palm Beach as someone whom you could work with in a bipartisan manner and as a true gentleman."
Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush recalled Shaw as a friend and an ally on Everglades restoration. "Politics doesn't have to be about elbows and knees and mean-spiritedness,'' Bush said. "Clay Shaw didn't have a mean bone in his body."
Born in Miami in 1939 and a resident of Fort Lauderdale since the late 1960s, Shaw reflected the Main Street conservative political establishment that once prevailed along South Florida's affluent "Gold Coast." He retained a previous era's pronunciation of the Magic City: "My-am-uh."
Shaw moderated his political stance as the region swelled with retirees from the Northeast and became increasingly Democratic. After surviving close elections and shifts in district boundaries, he suffered a bitter defeat to Democrat Ron Klein in 2006.
Four years later, Shaw relished Allen West's victory over Klein, which briefly returned the district to Republican hands before Frankel won it last year.
For many years in Congress, Shaw quietly served his constituents behind the scenes and avoided controversy. But as he gained seniority, he became a force on the House Ways and Means Committee and grabbed national attention in 1996 by chairing a subcommittee that drafted a sweeping welfare reform law.
The law imposed stringent work requirements for many recipients while providing funding for child care and job training.
Backed by Republican leaders and then-President Bill Clinton, the law greatly reduced the welfare caseload, helped enormously by a burst of new jobs and labor shortages. Much of that progress was reversed during the Great Recession, when jobs disappeared and many middle-class Americans resorted to welfare.
Shaw came to Congress when members of all stripes frequently socialized and made deals to serve interests across party lines. By the time he left, the parties were polarized, deal-making had given way to gridlock and political attacks were more personal.
"We liked each other," Shaw said in an interview last month. "I've traveled with [former Democratic House Speaker] Jim Wright. He said nice things about me in his book. I played golf with [former Democratic House Speaker Thomas P.] 'Tip' O'Neill. He and I were buddies. We could have fun together. We could fight in the daytime and have fun at night. We were adults."
Shaw took another prominent role in the national debate over Social Security in 2005. His face and laid-back demeanor suddenly showed up regularly on TV talk shows, touting an alternative to then-President George W. Bush's plan to create an investment option for recipients.
Shaw's plan would have given workers an income tax credit to put into individual investment accounts — an additional benefit, leaving the traditional system intact. Congress, however, could not agree on any reform plan.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, said Shaw was "likeable, sociable, affable,'' and the two enjoyed harkening back to their early relationship, when Hastings the attorney appeared before Shaw the municipal judge.
"Clay was one of my good friends in Congress, and in my considered opinion, we've lost a great American and a dynamic congressperson who provided exemplary service to the people of South Florida and this nation,'' Hastings said.
Shaw got an undergraduate and law degree from Stetson University and in 1968 became an assistant city attorney in Fort Lauderdale. He served as the chief city prosecutor, an associate municipal judge and a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner before becoming the city's mayor in 1975. The expanded 17th Street Causeway bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, opened in 2002, is named after him because of the the federal money he brought home to rebuild it.
He was elected to Congress in 1980 during the conservative, anti-Jimmy Carter wave that helped propel President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush to office. A long friendship with Bush ensued.
When Bush was president, Shaw and his wife, Emilie, sometimes went to the private residential quarters at the White House to share takeout Chinese food with the first couple. Other times it was movies. And Emilie Shaw occasionally played tennis at the White House with First Lady Barbara Bush.
He returned to Florida feeling bitter after the 2006 election. "I just hate to lose," Shaw frequently said. "I'm not used to it."
Though out of office, he kept a close watch on current events. His former chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, visited him at Holy Cross Hospital last Friday.
"We talked Syria, we talked the pending government shutdown. He was into all the latest events,'' said Eikenberg, a former intern who became his chief of staff.
Shaw remained optimistic about the nation's future, saying in the interview last month, "We'll be able to bounce back. … We need to be able to figure out together what do to, and then live to fight another day."
In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children and more than a dozen grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending. He will be buried in Cuba, Ala., where his parents are buried.
Wgibson@Tribune.com or 202-824-8256Copyright © 2015, CT Now