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North Florida Congressmen Reflect National Divide

Dunn campaign

Last year, north Florida voters sent two polar opposites, Republican Neal Dunn and Democrat Al Lawson, to represent them in Congress. The wide philosophical and partisan gulf separating the two men – and much of the nation -- was on full display during recent appearances in Tallahassee.

Dunn is a white, Army-trained urologist from Panama City with a booming surgical practice that boasts 45 physicians. He prefers the honorific “Doctor” to “Congressman,” but he also likes to stress that he’s a businessman.

Like Donald Trump, Dunn has no great love for the mainstream media.

“You know, it’s kind of a shame that the press isn’t telling you more about what’s actually going on in Washington so I thought maybe that’s my job, to come here and give you a little look behind the TV news, behind the newspapers and give you a perspective on what I see there. You know, it’s not all roses.”

Dunn gave his full-throated defense of the Trump agenda at a recent party luncheon. It’s important to note that Dunn spoke before a white nationalist rally in Virginia, and before Trump’s controversial remarks sparked a political firestorm.

Dunn likes to repeat a favorite Trump talking point that most outside the beltway find hard to believe.

“This Congress has actually managed to pass more bills than any Congress since Truman was president, and Trump has signed more into law than any president since Truman. You just don’t see that very often in the news.

The watchdog Politifact confirms that Trump’s 28 bills in 100 days hasn’t been beaten in 70 years. But Politifact also calls Trump’s bills insignificant, including two that name buildings and another designating a memorial.

Dunn couldn’t disagree more.

“Fifteen Congressional review acts, those are rolling back major regulations, 14 are signed into law already. The Reins Act, which forces all future rules and regulations that have more than a $100 million impact on the economy to come back to Congress for approval, so that’s going to stop all of these silly regulations that we’ve been getting out of the EPA.”

Dunn’s list includes the House health care reform package, although he fails to note that Trump eventually called it “mean.” Dunn says not all Republican triumphs required legislation.

He praises Trump’s withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and Trump’s rollback Obama-era environmental regulations.

“Illegal immigration is way down…Sanctuary cities, you’ve seen that in the news. Those are going away. We’re going to put that into law, so it’s not just a rule.”

Dunn is confident a major tax reform is on the horizon, although Trump’s critics doubt it’s possible after the Senate deadlocked on healthcare reform.

“The tax reform we’re looking at is bigger and bolder than Reagan’s. We’re talking about deeper cuts on the corporate and personal side. Simplifying the tax code. Literally having people filing it on a post card.”

Dunn agrees with conservative economists who say tax cuts would eventually raise federal revenue. That’s contrary to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, but Dunn says that why he wants to eliminate the CBO.

Credit WCTV
Democratic Congressman Al Lawson is a Tallahassee insurance executive who served in the Florida Legislature.

Next door to Dunn’s Second District is Democrat Al Lawson’s Fifth. But considering the political difference between the two Congressmen, it could be another planet.  Lawson is an African-American insurance executive and a veteran pol who likes to tell people about his first meeting in Washington.

“There was 189 of us in the room, so I held up my hand, and everybody turned around, and said this freshman wants to speak? And I said, ‘Yeah, I want you all to know that I came up here to fix the Affordable Care Act. And they turned around and said, did you all hear him?”

Lawson was touring the Bond Community Health Center shortly after the Virginia tragedy. Lawson called Trump’s initial refusal to denounce hate groups political pandering at its worst.

“The president should not indulge any of the hate groups. I don’t care if those are the ones that put him in office or not. He is the president of everybody in America, not any particular group.”

Lawson calls the struggle for acceptance and equality in the U.S. far from over in a statement on his Congressional website. Dunn’s webpage is silent on the issue.

Lawson calls the Republican health care plan passed by the House, “heartless and reckless.”

“There are some Republican members of the Freedom Caucus….They don’t want anything. But that’s not going to be the driving point…”

Lawson also blasts Governor Rick Scott and the Republican Legislature for refusing to expand Medicaid with federal dollars, money, Lawson argues, that went to competing states. 

“Before the Affordable Care Act, there was something like 4 million people in Florida that didn’t have access to health care. We are the third largest state, more than 19 million people, and all the resources we had, and we sent it to people in California. It doesn’t make sense.”

About the only issue the physician and insurance executive can agree on is the need for health care reform. What that will be is anyone’s guess.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.