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Five Questions for George Sheldon

October 22, 2013 - 6:00pm

After stepping down last week as an assistant secretary in the Obama administrations Department of Health and Human Services, George Sheldon returned to Florida and announced that he'll challenge Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2014.

Sheldon has been around Florida politics for decades, including serving stints in the state House, as a deputy attorney general under four-term Attorney General Bob Butterworth and as secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. When Butterworth stepped down in 2002, Sheldon ran for attorney general, but lost to Buddy Dyer in the Democratic primary.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for George Sheldon:

Q: You just can't stay out of the arena, can you?

SHELDON: Buddy MacKay said, "We all have one race left in us.

"I think there's really no more noble calling than public service. As a young kid, I was going to be a Methodist preacher -- until I heard John Kennedy's inaugural address. So I think public service is the way we give back, the way we have self-fulfillment.

Q: Why did you leave the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services?

SHELDON: This is my home. I've given a lot to Florida. And also we've got to -- as a country, but also in Florida -- we've got to start bringing people together, as opposed to the current vitriolic politics that goes on. And I looked at my home state and really saw it moving in the wrong direction because of an ideological bent, turning down every amount of federal money. Federal money that Florida taxpayers paid into the federal government.

It's one thing to demagogue the Affordable Care Act -- and I understand there's some philosophical differences on it -- but it's another thing to say, "We're going to refuse to fund, with federal money, home visiting for kids." I think home visiting is one of the most innovative programs. And so I saw us saying, "Even though it's 90 percent federal money, we're not going to guarantee people who are trying to work their way into the middle class an expansion of Medicaid when we could actually help people improve their medical condition."

The Scott-Bondi fixation on the Affordable Care Act and spending an excessive amount of money attacking the validity of the statute here is a piece of legislation that was passed by the Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court, we fought an election over it, and it has sustained over 40 attempts on the part of the U.S. House to repeal it. There's a point in time where you say, "Let's move on."

Are there some glitches? Clearly there's some glitches. But let's recognize that we could deal with those in a bipartisan way and make the thing work.

If you look at the elements of the Affordable Care Act, there are things the American people need. Like not being denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Having no lifetime limits on the use of a policy. Allowing your children up to the age of 26 to be on your policy. Including routine screenings and mammograms. Those are things that will actually improve people's health and lower the cost of health care. If you look at this year, this is the lowest annual increase in premium dollars, in health care dollars, in probably 50 years. And it's because we're making massive reform.

Q: Why did you take on a formidable target like Bondi? You're likely to be outspent by huge sums.

SHELDON: Well, first of all, I'm not sure how formidable she is.

I'm not so nae as to believe you could do this without being competitive from a dollar standpoint. But this isn't about buying public office. This ought to be about who are the best individuals to move forward. And I think we'll be competitive, dollar-wise.

But I don't think (Bondi) or Gov. Scott represent where the majority of Floridians are. And the extreme right, the tea party, does not really represent the people of Florida. Frankly, my dad -- I grew up a Republican, and my dad would not recognize this party today. This is not the party of Ronald Reagan. I'm not sure Ronald Reagan could win a primary on the Republican side today. And I've talked to a lot of Republicans -- I have a lot of Republican moderate friends -- who basically don't know what's happened to their party.

I mean, this is the party that was on the forefront of the environmental movement. This is the party that was on the forefront of the civil-rights movement. But now it's as if the tea party believes that any governmental involvement is morally wrong. I happen to believe that government ought to be used as a force for good and a way for people to collectively pool their resources to do things for everyone that they can't do for themselves.

It was interesting during the shutdown -- which is probably one of the most poorly-thought-out responses -- that people would say, "Oh, I didn't realize that was part of government. You mean government does the park system? Government does medical research?" So you had the tea party basically saying, "Well, we'll fund that part of the government" every time somebody came up and said, "This is an issue."

You know, (during the shutdown) I sat in on early meetings at the (U.S.) Department (of Health and Human Services) where the Centers for Disease Control were saying, "We can shut down for a period of time, but if this goes past a few days and we have an outbreak, we've got a problem." And we did. We had the salmonella outbreak. Now, luckily under the shutdown guidelines, if there's a threat to life and property, you can bring people back. So the CDC were able to bring people back. But what about the inspections that should have been taking place by the Food and Drug Administration to make sure that never happened?

It's one of those things where people want to pick and choose. They're against that part of government they don't use. Can we make government more efficient? There's no doubt about it. Can we streamline government? We need to put our heart into prioritizing, particularly in today's times. But we need to do that in a bipartisan, collaborative fashion, as opposed to this whole meat-ax approach.

Q: If elected, what would you change at the attorney general's office?

SHELDON: I think the office of attorney general is about going after predatory lenders, I think it's about going after sexual predators, I think it's about going after white-collar criminals and those who violate civil rights. I don't think it's about delaying an execution for a month because it conflicts with a political fundraiser you're having.

I think the attorney general's office ought to be the moral conscience of the state. I think it ought to be above the political fray.

Q: Here's a scenario: You lose to Bondi, but Charlie Crist is elected governor and once again taps you as secretary of the Department of Children and Families. In what direction would you lead DCF?

SHELDON: First of all, I don't intend to lose.

I care very deeply about DCF, and I think we made some progress when I was there and when Bob was there -- to the point that when I left the agency, even Rick Scott's transition committee referred to it as the best-managed agency in state government at the time. What's happened since then is frustrating to me.

Whoever goes in there is going to have to rebuild the agency, really, from the ground up. A lot of people have left in frustration. A lot of people were asked to leave. But the rank-and-file folks at DCF do their job every day, care about what they're doing, and I know they're frustrated.

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