March 10, 2022

FLORIDA LEGISLATURE SHOULD NOT DIVIDE COMMUNITIES OF INTEREST

The first African American elected to Congress from Florida was not allowed to take his seat. In 1870, Josiah T. Walls, a former slave from Virginia who relocated to Florida after the Civil War, was elected to Florida’s at-large congressional district, but members of the U.S. House of Representatives refused to seat him. It wasn’t until two years later that he was allowed to assume his position in Congress. His tenure was short lived as members expelled him in two subsequent occasions following his electoral victories. Walls was later removed from office in 1876 despite his electoral success and never returned to Congress.

It took more than 116 years for Florida to elect its next Black representative to Congress. In 1993, three African American members and two Cuban American members were sworn into office. Not 1893, but 1993. This is recent history.

I was born in Gadsden County, the only majority African American county in the state of Florida. For most of my life, our community was largely ignored, never electing a Black member to represent us in office. After my 18th birthday when I reached voting age, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws enabled many of us who felt silenced to have a voice and allowed Americans to realize our founding vision of a nation where all men and women are created equal.

In 2010, Florida voters approved the Fair Districts Amendment, which amended the state Constitution to require nonpartisan congressional and legislative districts that also enabled minority communities, whether they be African American, Hispanic, or other, to elect the representative of their choosing. The Florida Supreme Court approved the current congressional map that created the district I now represent.

This past January, the Florida Legislature appeared poised to adopt a congressional map that followed federal law and the state constitution, keeping these North Florida communities of interest largely intact. The Florida Senate passed such a map and waited for the House to act. Then, Governor Ron DeSantis got involved.

On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Ron DeSantis released his own congressional map that cut the number of African American seats in half and eliminated a Cuban American held seat in South Florida. After a brief setback by the Florida Supreme Court, Ron DeSantis continues to push a congressional map that divides communities of interest and reduces minority-held seats to make partisan gains for his political party.

On Friday, the Florida Legislature adopted a plan that includes not one, but two congressional maps. The argument made on the floor is that they wish to give Ron DeSantis the right to sue and get court authorization to remove minority access seats; however, if this scheme is deemed unconstitutional, then a second, constitutional map will take effect.

This two-map proposal has never been done in the history of Florida. The state Legislatures of yesteryear introduced maps they believed to be constitutional. They did not pass an unconstitutional map so the issue could later be resolved by a different branch of government.

Congressional District 5 runs along North Florida from Gadsden County and Tallahassee to Jacksonville. The district is compact in that it is geometrically defined, but it is horizontally long because of the sparsely populated communities it includes. Congressional districts are required to include a specific number of people. Furthermore, the district includes important communities of interest that vitally need to have a voice in government.

Following the Civil War, Black people in America suddenly found their chains of bondage broken and had individual freedom. Due to the geographic location of their former plantations, many of these freed slaves made North Florida along the I-10 corridor their home. Today, many of the descendants of those slaves continue to call these communities their home. These are communities of interest due to their unique backgrounds that make their needs distinct from other groups.

Congressional districts should not be about any one person but must put the needs of the people first. No one is surprised that Ron DeSantis put politics ahead of the people. It is sad that the Florida Legislature caved and did his bidding. The people of Florida deserved better.