TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Black Democratic lawmakers on Monday described new congressional lines proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as "aggressively partisan" and a "racist tactic," as the plan could boost Republican representation at the expense of minority candidates in North and Central Florida.
And with a special legislative session on the redistricting proposal beginning Tuesday, more protests are planned. Activists from areas such as Orlando and Jacksonville are set to rally Tuesday morning outside the Capitol to oppose the plan, after Republican legislative leaders ceded direction of the congressional redistricting process to the governor.
But other than asking a lengthy series of questions during committee meetings and floor sessions during the next couple of days, Democrats do not have enough clout to stop the plan. Democrats and other opponents are expected to urge courts to block the map, even while anticipating the legal wrangling likely won’t be completed until long after the 2022 elections and the seating of the next Congress.
"Anything that is said will probably be used in a court case," Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Black Democrat from Ocoee, told reporters Monday in Orlando. "So, you’ll probably see members ask as many questions as possible so that there is as much information on the record as possible. But in the end, the Senate, the House have signaled they’re going to go with the governor at this point."
In a separate news conference in Miami, where DeSantis was compared to former segregationist governors George Wallace of Alabama, Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Ross Barnett of Mississippi, state Sen. Shervin Jones, D-West Park, called DeSantis’ redistricting proposal "a racist tactic" that will be fought in courts that have become more conservative.
"The governor knows what he’s doing. He wants this to go all the way to the Supreme Court. So, he’s testing the courts," Jones, who is Black, said, also alluding to a new state law that prevents abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. "And it’s just not with the maps. It’s with the abortion ban. You name it. He’s doing all of this to push it to the courts, because the courts are stacked."
Bracy, who described the governor’s map as "aggressively partisan," said he believes the decision of legislative leaders to defer to DeSantis on redistricting is due, in part, to the governor signaling he is willing to endorse primary opponents against lawmakers who go against his map and other priorities.
DeSantis has described the proposal produced by his office as "race-neutral." He called the special session after vetoing a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Legislature last month. DeSantis contended the Legislature’s plan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, in part because of a sprawling North Florida congressional district that has elected a Black Democrat.
On Monday, DeSantis rejected objections to his proposal.
"What we proposed, and the Legislature will probably do something similar, we’re confident that that will hold up in court," DeSantis said during an appearance at UF Health Jacksonville. "I’m not confident the other way would have held up in court."
DeSantis has pushed for the North Florida district, which now runs from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee, to be redrawn as a more-compact district in the Jacksonville area. The seat is currently held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.
Under DeSantis’ overall proposal, the number of Republican-held congressional seats would be expected to grow from the current 16 to 20, based on 2020 voting patterns.
In an interview last week with The News Service of Florida, Lawson said his concern about the governor’s proposed districts and the Legislature’s deference to DeSantis is broader than his own re-election.
Lawson pointed out that DeSantis’ plan would largely keep intact a district held by Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart that stretches from Miami-Dade County across the Everglades to Naples on Florida’s Southwest coast.
"So, it’s OK to gerrymander for Hispanic seats and keep an incumbent Republican in office but not OK to do when it’s an African-American in North Florida," Lawson said.
DeSantis also would make significant changes in a Central Florida district that has been held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate. Bracy is among the candidates who have planned to run for the seat.
In a news conference Monday with Jones and other Democratic lawmakers at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami, state Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said the governor’s proposal is part of a "full frontal attack on voting rights."
"He’ll try to tell you about color-blind and desegregation and whatever, we do not fall prey to gaslighting," Joseph, who is Black, said. "We see what it is. We see it clearly and it needs to stop."
Joseph noted a lawsuit about congressional redistricting has already been filed in federal court, and more challenges are in the works about the congressional map that emerges from the special session and already-redrawn legislative districts.
But appearing on WPLG television’s "This Week in South Florida," Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, estimated it will likely take two election cycles, 2022 and 2024, "before we hear back from the courts."
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who appeared on the same show, defended the governor’s proposal.
"I think the governor has put forth maps, at least our committee staff is telling us they’re constitutional. The chairman of the (Senate Reapportionment) committee believes they’re constitutional," Brandes said. "So, going forward with only one map to vote on, that we hear is constitutional, we have to kind of take them at their word that they believe they are constitutional."