E. Clay Shaw: A congressman who mattered

Jim Martin Chairman, 60 Plus Association
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The barber nearly lopped off the congressman’s ear, but it wouldn’t have been his fault if he had. For years, the tacit agreement that exists between every barber and customer to sit still as a statue when the clippers are humming was fiercely observed. But the barber said something that startled the normally reserved lawmaker to suddenly spin his head around mid-snip.

“Congressman,” the barber offered, “I’ve been voting for you a long time, but this year I’m making a donation to your campaign.” In a world of big campaign contributions, a modest offering of a few dollars is hardly noteworthy, unless you consider the source. Rep. Eugene Clay Shaw Jr’s hometown barber in Fort Lauderdale, FL was 68 years-old and closed his shop the last few months of the year. Far from rich and not particularly political, his pronouncement all but floored his long-time customer.

But this was a special occasion. Under Shaw’s leadership, Congress had just passed historic legislation, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, that removed a Depression-era law that cut Social Security benefits for seniors who earned more than $17,000 per year. Though little-regarded by some, this legislation had a huge impact on working seniors, and further struck a blow for American productivity and common-sense, bipartisan solutions to intractable government inertia.

With Shaw’s passing this month at the age of 74, the tributes honoring his 26-year career in Congress invariably focus on his welfare reform legislation, implementing a federal missing-child registry and various environmental protections, all of which were monumental in their own right. But seniors are forever grateful for the dogged determination Shaw displayed as chairman of the House Social Security Subcommittee when he took on a law long past its expiration date.

As chairman of a national seniors organization, and having grown up in the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood part of Rep. Shaw’s district, and having testified on his legislation, I was at the front lines cheering when this law passed, and recall that Shaw shared with me many of the reactions from working seniors. “People would think I was rich and off fishing somewhere,” Shaw’s barber told him at the time, “because my shop was closed the last months of the year. It just made no sense to stay open, as I was essentially working for free. This way, thanks to your legislation, I can continue to earn money which I can then happily spend at Christmas on gifts for our grandkids.”

Upon his return to Washington after a routine recess, Clay related to me not only his barber’s reaction, but also the response he received from a 66 year-old waitress who served him breakfast one morning. “Mr. Shaw, I had to tell my manager I couldn’t work the last months of the year, as I made no money. Fixing this law is a huge relief to me, my boss and my regular customers who often ask for me during my absence.”

While Congress is always an easy target at which to aim our nation’s considerable political frustrations, it’s important to remember and honor dedicated public servants like Clay Shaw who got up every day intending to use their clout to bridge the aisle to make life better for the people back home. Shaw was also congressman to my favorite senior, my mother.

His career harkens back to a day — just a few decades ago though it seems like ages — when institutional knowledge meant something, and political clout was more frequently a tool of bipartisan cooperation. Shaw is in the company of congressmen such as Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois and Democrat Dante Fascell of Miami, and many others now long gone who didn’t mind a good fight, but would never let their differences prevent them from banding together to do the right thing on behalf of the people back home.

America has 60 million senior-citizens with more than 10,000 joining our ranks every day. All of them, as well as those soon to join our ranks, owe a debt of gratitude and thanks to the gentleman from Broward County. He and his kind are sorely missed.

Jim Martin is founder and chairman of the 60 Plus Association representing 7.2 million elderly nation-wide.

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Jim Martin