Florida attorney general candidate George Sheldon talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about why he’s running for public office, what he sees as the most critical issues facing the state and, if elected, what his first order of business will be.
During his 40-year career in politics and public service, George Sheldon has confronted challenges and fought for causes at both the state and national levels. As a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982, he established a nearly decade-long record of focusing on the state’s environment and children. While serving as secretary of the Florida Dept. of Children and Families (DCF), he co-chaired the state’s Task Force on Human Trafficking and the Federal Victim Services Strategic Planning Committee.
Before announcing his candidacy for attorney general for the state of Florida, Sheldon served as acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families under the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, where he championed the cause of early childhood development among low-income families, worked to improve the foster care system and led the department’s efforts in the fight against human trafficking with a focus on the enhancement of survivor services.
A practicing attorney for 12 years, Sheldon also served as deputy attorney general for Central Florida under Bob Butterworth and was associate dean for student and alumni services at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami.
In August, Sheldon defeated state Rep. Perry Thurston in the Democratic primary for attorney general and will now challenge Republican incumbent Pam Bondi and Libertarian candidate Bill Wohlsifer on the November ballot. If elected, he says his first order of business will be to “restore the role of attorney general to its traditional role as the people’s lawyer rather than the governor’s or the legislature’s lawyer.”
Opportunist: You bring some unique experiences to this campaign. What was the driving force behind your career in public service?
George Sheldon: I was the youngest of six children and the first to go to college. My mother worked at the school lunchroom until age 70 so I could finish my education. That upbringing laid the foundation for my career. And my first boss was [the late] Reubin Askew, one of the best governors Florida has ever elected. I remember him telling me ‘George, just remember the right thing to do is also the politically right thing to do.’ I’ve tried to have his words guide my career.
Opportunist: Why did you decide to run for attorney general?
George Sheldon: Well, having been deputy attorney general, I know what the office can do. It must be a strong advocate for the consumer. Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth used the office to go after the tobacco industry and Microsoft. That’s what the office should be, and I think it needs to be restored.
Opportunist: You have asked Republican incumbent Pam Bondi to join you in multiple debates in the weeks leading up to the election. What sets the two of you apart and, more importantly, why should voters choose you?
George Sheldon: It’s important to hear from candidates in more than 30-second spots and understand the depth of what they have to say.
The incumbent and I disagree on many things. One is the role of attorney general. Every Florida attorney general dating back to the 1960s has intervened in utility rate increases. The incumbent is the first attorney general who hasn’t. Every other attorney general has put a priority on Medicaid fraud and yet this attorney general has deemphasized that area of the office. To a large extent, the incumbent has focused on an agenda of a vocal minority in her party by intervening in cases like the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort nearly 1,000 miles away, filing an amicus brief in Hobby Lobby advocating that women be denied certain contraceptives, and intervening in virtually every marriage equality case. She has done a lot of these hot-button issues instead of what I think the attorney general really ought to be doing: advocating for the consumer.
Opportunist: As you campaign around the state, what are you finding to be the key issues facing Florida?
George Sheldon: I was in Marianna the night before last, St. Augustine yesterday, then Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa today, and I will be back in Palm Beach this evening. Universally, from the Panhandle to the Keys, the people of Florida want government to work again. People are tired of the partisanship and the bickering. The attorney general’s office should be above the partisan fray, and I think the people want that.
I cannot understand why this administration has refused to accept federal help with Medicaid. The working poor make too much money for Medicaid and too little to afford to buy health insurance, but it’s critical to their survival. To not take federal money—let me clarify that—it’s actually not federal money; it’s money the taxpayers of Florida paid into the federal government and they ought to be getting it back. When I was in D.C., even though the governors of Arizona and Ohio didn’t like the Affordable Care Act, they expanded Medicaid. This administration needs to rise above that partisanship and I think the people of Florida want and expect that.
Opportunist: If elected, what will you seek to achieve?
George Sheldon: I will shore up the offices of Medicaid fraud and white collar crime. Those are two that have been deemphasized. Florida is probably the third highest in terms of Medicaid fraud in the country. Billions of dollars are defrauded by unscrupulous proprietors each year, and it’s clearly ripe for reform.
Opportunist: Where is the Medicaid fraud coming from?
George Sheldon: Primarily from people who are billing for medical services they don’t provide. When I was deputy attorney general we went after a taxicab company in Palm Beach County that was billing almost $1 million in fares to take people to their doctor’s appointments. You not only can’t rack up that much taxi service, but we also found out they only had one cab. Regrettably, there are too many folks out there. Some of it is organized crime, where perpetrators get a post office box, apply for a Medicaid provider number and start billing. There was a dental clinic in South Florida going out to poor neighborhoods in a van and getting children’s Medicaid numbers and billing them for weekly dental cleanings. I guarantee they weren’t cleaning those children’s teeth every week. It racks up into the billions of dollars. Under the previous attorney general it was an aggressive effort. I can’t question the incumbent’s motives, but why would a governor who previously ran a company that had to pay almost $2 billion in fines for defrauding Medicaid veto increased oversight? I will let the voters of Florida make that decision.
From a cabinet standpoint, with a new governor and a new attorney general, another action the two of us will take will be a return to automatic rights for felons. That is an issue that Gov. Rick Scott and Pam Bondi repealed shortly into their first term.
Opportunist: Why do you feel restoration of felons’ rights is an important issue?
George Sheldon: It’s the smart thing to do. If you’ve paid your debt and served your time, you should be restored to the rights that you had. When I say that, I believe that if inmates are returning to life in the community and cannot get a job or vocational training or reconnect effectively with their families it becomes a vicious cycle.
Opportunist: If you end up working with a governor from the opposite side of the political aisle, how do you anticipate handling the situation?
George Sheldon: I think you’ve got to reach across the aisle. Having been secretary of the Florida Dept. of Children and Families and working with a Republican legislature, and having served as acting assistant secretary within the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and being involved in passing two significant pieces of legislation in the area of child welfare, I’ve learned that you have to reach across the aisle. But others have to be willing to reach back. There are many Republicans who want to build bridges and work together. We have to build those coalitions. I do not think Gov. Scott will win reelection, so I look forward to working with Gov. Crist.
Opportunist: In light of the Trayvon Martin and Wesley Chapel movie theater shootings, do you believe Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law should be abolished?
George Sheldon: ‘Stand Your Ground,’ at minimum, should not be used as part of standard jury instructions. It was not a defense and should not be argued as a defense, but the jury was instructed to consider it. I don’t think juries really understand ‘Stand Your Ground.’ Ever since Florida expanded the castle doctrine it has been interpreted wrongly so as to allow you to stand your ground anyplace you have a reasonable right to be—from the shopping center to the movie theater and everywhere in between. The problem I have with that interpretation is the person who winds up using the defense is the person who survives the confrontation. My intention as attorney general is to immediately convene a working group of attorneys, law enforcement and members of the judicial system to devise an appropriate interpretation of ‘Stand Your Ground’ if the legislature fails to take action on its own.
Opportunist: What is your stance on protection of public lands?
George Sheldon: First, I support Amendment 1 [the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative]. I don’t think this legislature is willing to do what is necessary to adequately purchase lands that need to be preserved for future generations. Public lands are just what I articulated—they are public—but it’s not only about preserving land and protecting endangered species. We have a delicate environmental balance and a very fragile ecosystem, and it’s important to keep that ecosystem balanced in such a way that it performs the functions God intended. The Everglades is the primary source of drinking water for South Florida, so if we continue to degrade it and allow the encroachment of development we will endanger that water supply. The same thing holds true with the springs in North Florida or water coming in from Alabama and Georgia. Water is critical to our state. Tourism is our No. 1 economic engine, but our environment and natural resources are also critical to maintaining a stronger economy.
Opportunist: Do you support offshore drilling?
George Sheldon: I shared in the BP oil spill claims process for Florida, and I think for the same reason I articulated about our environment being critical to the economic engine that runs this state it’s not very smart to gamble that on what we now know are strong probabilities of a spill. In the Florida Keys, for instance, we saw that tourism was down about 60 percent after the BP oil spill. There was no oil there but there was this negative national perception and that hurt the economy.
I have criticized the Interior Dept. for considering a rule to authorize seismic testing from Cape Canaveral north to New Jersey because it’s basically the gateway drug to oil drilling. According to [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s] estimates, hundreds of thousands of fish and marine mammals would die in the kind of seismic testing they’re talking about. Seismic testing itself is negative to the seafood industry and the precursor of offshore drilling and I see no reason for that to be done off the coast of Northeast Florida.
We’ve also got to start spending our time on energy conservation. I was really taken aback when power companies asked to lower their energy conservation standards and I called on the Public Service Commission to reject all the power companies that requested a reduction. I had a role in putting that program in place as chairman of the House Regulatory Reform Committee in 1980. Power companies don’t make money by conserving energy; they make money by building plants. But what state is better equipped to do solar energy than Florida? That could be an economic boon to this state and also lead an energy conservation revolution here.
Opportunist: Do you believe Florida should legalize marijuana?
George Sheldon: I definitely support Amendment 2 [The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative] which allows doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to people with debilitating conditions. I’ve traveled the state and met many individuals with cancer or those who have loved ones who suffer or children who experience seizures, and I believe we need to start listening to doctors and scientists because there is much more research out there about the legitimate medical benefits of marijuana. We just have to establish the regulatory component. I do not support across-the-board legalization of marijuana and I don’t believe we should rush headlong into that. Let’s see the results of what’s happening in Washington and Colorado first.
Opportunist: What are your views on marriage equality?
George Sheldon: Philosophically, the government should not be telling people whom they can love nor be interfering into decisions that should be made between a woman and her doctor. Those kinds of interferences are not an appropriate role of government.
Opportunist: According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Florida’s middle class ranks among the weakest in the nation and the typical household earns less than it did 25 years ago. What can be done to strengthen the state’s middle class?
George Sheldon: The middle class has been squeezed. The unemployment rate has improved, and I give a lot of credit to the stimulus package as well as the Fed’s actions of pumping money into the economy. That prevented an even greater crash. But, regrettably, there are still too many people without a job or who are underemployed or having to work two jobs just to eke out a living. I think that, ultimately, attracting new technology jobs and the solar industry to Florida will be part of the long-term solution. It’s also about retraining and education. We’ve got to start training American workers for the jobs of the 21st century. We can do it, but it’s going to take an investment in K-12 education, higher education and vocational training.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
[Editor’s note: The views expressed in this interview are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily represent those of Opportunist magazine.]
George Sheldon for Attorney General - http://georgesheldon2014.com/