U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan is headed back to Congress for a fourth term and what shapes up as his best chance to be a national player, without clouds of controversy hanging over him.
“I am honored by your trust in me,” Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, said at a victory party at the Sarasota Hyatt on Tuesday night.
Buchanan, who campaigned as a jobs creator with 35 years in business, easily defeated Democrat Keith Fitzgerald in both Sarasota County and Manatee counties — which together make up the 16th Congressional District.
“We need to focus on jobs,” Buchanan said in his victory speech. “We’ve got 23 million people out of work.”
To win, Buchanan had to overcome the stigma of two years of federal investigations into his previous campaign financing that Fitzgerald, a college professor, used aggressively against him.
Now, with growing seniority, a seat on a powerful House committee and a more secure seat, Buchanan predicted he will have a larger role on prominent issues, such as the federal debt, job creation and entitlement reform.
“I’m getting more seniority and I think I can have a bigger impact for the country going forward,” Buchanan said in a recent interview.
Seniority is critical in Washington, where time served is the main currency for deciding committee assignments and leadership posts. Buchanan has been in Congress for just six years, but he has climbed the ranks quickly because of substantial turnover recently in Congress. Already Buchanan outranks almost half of the 435 members of Congress. In Florida’s 27-member delegation, only six Republicans have been in office longer.
Already that has helped Buchanan win a position as the delegation co-chairman for 2013 — a role in which he will coordinate the state’s 27 House members on key votes for Florida.
But Buchanan also has gained notice by serving as the fundraising chairman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. In that role Buchanan helped raise money for GOP candidates across the nation.
“No doubt he’s made a lot of friends in leadership by doing that,” said former U.S. Rep. Dan Miller, a Bradenton Republican who served from 1992 to 2002.
The increased seniority and goodwill will likely show in Buchanan’s role on the House Ways and Means Committee — a key committee with say over Medicare, Social Security and all tax policy.
Buchanan also is carving out a key role on U.S. trade policy, another key area over which the panel has jurisdiction. Buchanan said U.S. goods need a better shot at reaching Asian markets, to help create U.S. jobs.
Buchanan said his business background gives him a unique perspective in Congress. “I think I’ve gained a lot of credibility over the last six years,” he said.
Buchanan built a 700-store printing company, then a car dealership empire that once was one of the nation’s 50 largest.
His re-election came despite investigations that had loomed over him since early 2010. The Justice Department and Federal Election Commission investigated Buchanan as part of probes into illegal donation schemes that helped his past campaigns.
Buchanan was never charged with a crime, but the FEC fined his former businesses and business partners almost $100,000 for illegally reimbursing employees who gave to Buchanan’s campaigns. Two other Buchanan donors in Tampa face potential prison time after pleading guilty to a similar scheme to reimburse employees at other companies who gave to Buchanan’s campaigns.
Buchanan said he never let the legal issues distract him. He said despite efforts by Fitzgerald and others, the public saw the issues as mostly partisan.
“I think people know me and they realize this was just part of a smear campaign,” Buchanan said.