Welfare Reform Act Champion Clay Shaw Dies

Posted September 11, 2013 at 10:50am

Former Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Republican who represented South Florida on Capitol Hill for 26 years, died Tuesday after a long battle with lung cancer.

“It is with heavy hearts and profound sadness that our family announces the passing of our loving husband, father, grandfather, congressman and mayor, E. Clay Shaw, Jr.,” his family announced in a statement late Tuesday. The 74-year-old was surrounded by family at a Fort Lauderdale hospital.

A former mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Shaw was elected to Congress in 1980, and is remembered for his pragmatism in helping guide the GOP through the historic Welfare Reform Act of 1996 as chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources.

“Clay cherished his time in the U.S. Congress representing the people of South Florida. He was a devoted family man setting a fine example for our 15 grandchildren. They will always be proud of Clay’s love of country,” said Emilie Shaw, his wife of 53 years.

Eric Eikenberg, who began serving as Shaw’s chief of staff in 2002, described his former boss as a true gentleman.

“Everybody shows up with a party label next to their name, but when you come to Washington, it’s your job to work together. … He took that to heart,” Eikenberg said.

Passage of the welfare reform bill was “honestly his proudest moment,” he continued. “He was delighted that millions were able to come off welfare and start working.”

During Eikenberg’s tenure, he worked with Shaw on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade to craft the Dominican Republic-Central American Free-Trade Agreement. Shaw was “a staunch free trader who believed in open markets for U.S. goods and services,” he said.

Gail Gitcho, a former spokeswoman for Shaw, had very fond words for the departed congressman. “On a personal note, I consider my time flacking for Mr. Shaw to be the greatest professional honor and privilege. I speak on behalf of the leagues of staffers who worked for him over three decades years when I say, simply, that we will miss him tremendously, but his legacy will remain,” Gitcho said in a statement that also relayed the Shaw family’s announcement.

Fellow Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Shaw’s congressional colleague from her special election in 1989 to his defeat in 2006, tweeted: “Sad 2 hear that our pal, former Fl Cong E Clay Shaw, passed away 2night. Condolences 2 Emily. They were always 2gether.”

During the welfare overhaul debate, Shaw called for a cooperative, bipartisan effort to mold President Bill Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Guided by his 12 years of experience in municipal government, Shaw fought to make sure local and state governments had more authority over welfare policy.

He also pushed back on some of the GOP’s proposals in the “Contract With America.” According to a 1995 profile in CQ’s Politics in America, Shaw scoffed at the suggestion that unwed mothers younger than 18 should be denied cash benefits and have their children placed in orphanages. “I would rather rehabilitate human beings,” Shaw said in an interview with CQ. “I think the party that prides itself in family values will not support warehousing kids in orphanages.”

After the 1998 elections, Shaw took on Social Security. Representing a district with a high proportion of residents age 65 or older, he led the effort to eliminate the Social Security earnings penalty on working seniors.

Shaw was operated on for lung cancer in January 2003, but the procedure did not slow him down much, according to CQ’s Politics in America profile of the congressman. He spent his time lobbying to have the government cover a $20 million anthrax cleanup at a Boca Raton tabloid newspaper company that was the target of a 2001 attack.

As elder statesman of the Florida congressional delegation, he also forged a partnership between the state and federal government to restore and protect the Everglades.

Shaw made it through close elections during his 13 terms until he was defeated in 2006 by Democrat Ron Klein.

Among other highlights of his legislative career: the 1982 Missing Children’s Act, the Holocaust Restitution Tax Fairness Act of 2002 and the Congo Basin Forest Partnership Act of 2004.

Shaw will be buried at a family plot in Cuba, Ala. A memorial service will take place in Fort Lauderdale at a later date.