GOP Congressmember Vern Buchanan Flip Flops on Courthouse Naming

GOP Congressmember Vern Buchanan—“I Don’t Know Why I Voted Against a Measure that I Had Co-Sponsored” April 19, 2022


Congress deals with many controversial and complex legislative issues. The laws that eventually make it through both chambers of Capitol Hill, a very small minority of the many bills initially submitted, often take months or even years to reach final passage. However, Congress does deal with some simple mundane tasks. The naming of federal buildings usually falls into this category. In the Senate, such bills often go through that chamber without debate or even a recorded vote. In the House, such naming matters are typically considered under a fast-track process reserved for non-controversial issues. In such cases, House debate is limited and requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Additionally, the entire state’s House delegation must sign off for a naming bill to be considered (nytimes.com, Karni, A., 4/12/22).


In 12/2021, the Senate passed a bill to honor Justice Joseph W. Hatchett by naming a federal courthouse after him in Tallahassee, Florida. Judge Hatchett was the first African-American to sit on the FL Supreme Court and the first Black State Supreme Court justice to serve south of the Mason-Dixon line. He died at age 88 in 2021. Hatchett was a U.S. Army veteran and a legal legend in his state. Hatchett overcame Jim Crow segregation. In 1959, Hatchett could not stay in the hotel where the FL bar exam he had to take to become an attorney was being given. When President Carter nominated Hatchett to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, Hatchett became the first Black man to serve on a circuit that covered the Deep South (Karni, nytimes.com, 4/12/22). FL’s two U.S. GOP Senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, sponsored naming this courthouse for Hatchett. Rubio stated that Hatchett “lived an inspiring life of service.” Scott said that Judge Hatchett “broke barriers that have inspired countless others in the legal profession (Karni, nytimes.com).” This measure went to the House in 3/2022, where all of FL’s 27 Congressmembers unanimously backed it (nytimes.com). It, therefore, looked like naming the Tallahassee federal courthouse for Hatchett would be a rare measure that would sail through our polarized Congress without a battle. However, bi-partisanship, once again, “crashed and burned.” Division, polarization, and, yes, racism flared up in the lower chamber, courtesy of the GOP.


At the last minute, extreme-right wing freshman GOP Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) decided to make a political ruckus. Shortly before the House vote on this courthouse naming, Cong. Clyde dragged out a 23-year-old news clipping. This 1999 article stated that Appeals Court Judge Hatchett had then written a decision that struck down a public- school policy allowing student-approved prayers at FL graduation ceremonies. Hatchett’s decision overruled a lower court and held that the saying of such prayers violated the constitutional protections of freedom of religion. In his ruling, Judge Hatchett was only doing what an appellate judge is supposed to do—not make new law, but follow the rulings enacted by SCOTUS ,the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1992, in the “Lee v. Weisman” case, SCOTUS ruled that invocations and benedictions at public schools were violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause (Hall & Ely, JR., U.S. Supreme Court Decisions, 2nd Edition). After reading this news clipping, Cong. Clyde went ballistic. He falsely claimed that Hatchett voted against school prayer in Duval County, FL. He stated he, “just wanted to let the Republicans know that information on the House floor (nytimes.com, Karni, 4/12/22).” One should not be surprised at Rep. Clyde’s antics. Clyde is a fellow who compared the deadly 1/06/21 attempted D.C. Capitol coup to a “normal tourist visit.” He voted against giving the Congressional Gold Medal to police officers who fought the rioters on that day. He opposed the long-overdue Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act which made lynching a federal hate crime. Cong. Clyde voted against recognizing Junteenth, 6/19, a federal holiday. That date was the day the last group of Blacks in TX were told they were free by the Union Army (See nytimes.com, Karni). It’s, therefore, no big problem for Clyde to “rack” up a perfect anti-civil rights score by coming out against naming a courthouse for a Black judge.


What is more disturbing is the reaction of Cong. Clyde’s overwhelming fellow GOPers, who had originally sponsored naming the FL courthouse after Judge Hatchett. In the “Red” House camp, the Hatchett courthouse issue suddenly became a conservative/culture war litmus test for the majority of House GOPers. They quickly flip-flopped on their original sponsorship. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, (R-CA) voted “NO.” He gave no reason for his opposition. In the end, the Hatchett naming bill failed by a vote of 238-187, falling short of the required two-thirds threshold. Eighty-nine percent of the GOPers voted “NAY.” Some GOPers cited the ridiculous school prayer argument to play to their party’s evangelical base. Other GOPers initially pleaded ignorance against why they had changed their minds over naming the courthouse for Hatchett. One of those Republicans was Cong. Vern Buchanan, part of the FL delegation. When asked what made him vote against this measure that he originally had co-sponsored, Cong. Buchanan briefly and bluntly replied, “I don’t know (nytimes.com, Karni, 4/12/22).” Who is Mr. “I don’t know” Cong. Buchanan?


Eighth-term GOP Congressman Vern Buchanan (70) currently represents FL’s 16th Congressional District (CD). The present FL 16th CD is part of FL’s Central Gulf Coast. This district includes all of Manatee County and Northern Sarasota County. The Sunshine State 16th takes in the city of Bradenton in Manatee County. The pricey Longboat Key and Lido Key as well as the more casual Siesta Key are part of the FL 16th. The 16th swings north along the east coast of Tampa Bay to include the southern edge of Hillsborough County. The 16th CD was home to the Ringling Brothers Circus until it closed in 5/2017. This sparsely settled area grew from 64,000 people in 1950 to 837,000 in 2019. The balmy Gulf Coast attracted new settlers, many of them affluent educated GOPers from northern upper-crust suburbs. High rises are part of this area and the district has a $1 million waterfront in the Quay district with a performing arts center (Cohen & Cook 2022 Political Almanac). Although there are a few colleges and some technology firms, the 16th’s economy is sustained by tourists and well-off retirees. People over 65 constitute 37% of the population in Sarasota and 28% in Manatee. Bradenton has a rowing facility that was a model for the Tokyo Olympic Games. For many years, the FL 16th was heavily GOP, though now the voting results have grown closer. Still, in 2020 Trump won 58% of the vote in Manatee and 55% of the vote in Sarasota, about the same as his 2016 performance. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary in the entire 16th CD by 10 points, while in 2020 Biden lost there by an 8% margin. The most recent Cook PVI, Partisan Voting Index gives the FL 16th an R+7 score. Still, Democrats have run heavily and well-financed contested congressional races in this district against Congressmember Buchanan (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Detroit, Michigan native Vern Buchanan grew up in Inkster, MI, a small town outside Detroit. The eldest of six children, he was the son of a factory foreman (heraldtribune.com, Mayk, 8/28/18, Cohen & Cook 2022). He joined the MI Air National Guard where he served from 1970-1976. He worked his way through college as a tae kwon do instructor. He obtained a 1975 business degree at Cleary University and a 1986 MBA at the University of Detroit. Buchanan founded American Speedy Printing Centers and made a fortune by selling 700 quick-printing franchises before turning forty. However, Buchanan ended up in litigation and American Speedy Printing went bankrupt. Buchanan was sued by the IRS in a dispute that stretched through the 1990’s for violating the Michigan Corporation Act. Buchanan ended up paying $1.5 million (Mayk, L. heraldtribune.com, 10/06/2006). In 1990, Buchanan and his family moved to FL. In FL, Buchanan found new economic success as an automobile dealer by acquiring franchises throughout the Southeast (Cohen & Cook 2022). He also owns two reinsurance companies in the Turks and Caicos, a part of a Bermuda reinsurance company that offer extended warranty policies to car buyers. Buchanan invests some of the proceeds from his reinsurance companies into real estate developments in the Bahamas (Bragda, heraldtribune.com, 10/31/2006). Buchanan is among one of the wealthiest members of Congress. In 2018, his estimated net worth was $157 million, the largest amount of House members at that time who won re-election in 2020 (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Buchanan became active in FL GOP politics. He served as a top fundraiser for GOP Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican U.S. Senator Mel Martinez. In 2002, he wanted to run for a House seat, but stepped aside when GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris ran. Harris was the controversial GOPer involved in the Bush v. Gore 2000 FL vote recount. In 2006, when Harris unsuccessfully ran for the Senate, Buchanan won 32% of the vote in the five-way GOP House primary. Buchanan spent more than $2 million of his own money to win the five-way House GOP primary. In the 11/2006 general election, national Democrats tore at Buchanan for his controversial business dealings when he ran against Democratic opponent Christine Jennings, a bank owner. This race was the most expensive House contest in 2006. Buchanan spent more than $8 million, including $5.5 million of his own money. In a super-nail biter, Buchanan won by 369 votes (Cohen & Cook 2022).


Although he has taken a few moderate stances in the House, Cong. Buchanan was a hard-liner on immigration and terrorism. Former car-dealer Buchanan also voted against bailing out Detroit automakers in 2008 (Cohen & Cook 2022). In the 117th Congress, (2021-2022), Buchanan and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, (R-CA), the fellow obsessed with becoming the GOP’s next Speaker, have agreed with each other on 96% of the votes(projects.propublica.org).

In 2011, the Herald-Tribune reported that during 2010, Rep. Buchanan had spent almost $1 million in campaign contributions on himself, companies he owned, or family members. Most of the money reportedly was used to repay campaign checks he wrote to himself in in 2006. Cong. Buchanan strongly denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) had exonerated him. However, the Herald-Tribune unearthed FEC documents that found Cong. Buchanan to be “less than forthright and at times unbelievable.” In the 2012 election, Buchanan’s Democratic opponent Keith Fitzgerald made ethics the focus of his campaign. Buchanan was never charged by the Justice Department or Congress and beat Fitzgerald by 8 points, 54%-46% (Cohen & Cook 2022). Buchanan received another dose of bad publicity when it was disclosed that on the day he voted for Trump’s top 1% tax cut in 2017, he had purchased a yacht (Cohen & Cook 2022). Buchanan, despite the strong Democratic opposition thrown against him, still won election in 2018 with 55% of the vote and in 2020 with 56% of the vote. In 2010, 2014, and 2016, Cong. Buchanan also won re-election with 69%, 62%, and 60% of the vote respectively (Cohen & Cook 2022).


In view of the way Cong. Buchanan has played wheeler /dealer with his many business transactions, it boggles the mind that he did not know why he “suddenly” decided to revoke his sponsorship of naming the federal courthouse for Judge Hatchett. Members of Congress are now working on steps to bring this renaming legislation back to the floor (nytimes.com Karni, 4/12/22). Democrats must continue to attack ethically-challenged Buchanan. More importantly, they must ignore stories stating that they are discouraged and won’t vote in the 2022 midterm election. The only way to keep Buchanan and his group in the minority is to vote in droves plus for “Team Blue.” Our democracy depends on it.