Florida’s Legislature approved a congressional map Thursday pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over the strong objections of Black and Democratic lawmakers who say it will diminish the state’s Black representation in the U.S. House and benefit Republicans.
Democratic lawmakers chanted and shouted as the final vote tally was taken in the Florida House during a raucous end to a three-day special session. There was a brief delay in which Black lawmakers staged a sit-in on the chamber floor, prayed and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The measure passed 68-38 along party lines.
The protest began as debate on the bill was wrapping up. Rep. Angie Nixon marched down the center aisle of the chamber, shouting, “When Black votes are under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back.”
DeSantis took the unusual step of vetoing the map drawn by the Legislature earlier this year and proposing his own, calling lawmakers back into the special session to approve it. Democrats say the map strongly favors the GOP and dismantles two traditionally Black districts.
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“What we see today is an overreach, and it’s something we see as unacceptable,” Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, told reporters after the session adjourned. “Today was one thing we could not just take and stand. … We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Black Floridians currently hold five seats in the state’s 27-member U.S. House delegation, including one Republican from an overwhelmingly white and Republican district.
DeSantis argued that the previous map — which kept the districts of Black representatives largely intact — represented racial "gerrymandering.” He singled out one that spanned northern Florida, saying it violated standards requiring districts to be kept compact.
The governor’s office drew up a map it described as neutral on race and party affiliation, and which it said abided by both the state and federal constitutions. But even supporters have acknowledged that it is likely to draw legal challenges.
Republican Rep. Randy Fine defended the map. As for districts drawn to give Black voters an advantage in choosing a candidate, he said, “When we guaranteed that a group of people gets to select the candidate of their choice, what we’re saying is we’re guaranteeing those who aren’t part of that group get no say. Chew on that one."
He also dismissed accusations that the governor's involvement in the process was an overreach.
“The second thing that I find a little bit hateful, is the notion that we violate separation of powers, that we’re mindless automatons of the governor,” Fine said. “We’re not mindless automatons. We don’t do this because we’re bullied. We do this because we think it’s right."
The Florida congressional delegation now has 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats, and the state is poised to gain one U.S. House seat based on the results of the 2020 U.S. census. Many political observers have said the DeSantis map could give Republicans a 20-8 advantage, though Florida’s vast number of unaffiliated voters can swing elections. Such an advantage would help DeSantis, should he run for and win the White House in 2024.
Of Florida’s 14.3 million registered voters, about 36% are Republicans and 35% Democrats, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder have no party affiliation.
As Thursday’s debate was nearing an end, Nixon and Democratic Rep. Tray McCurdy opened up their suit jackets to display “Stop The Black Attack” T-shirts and McCurdy shouted the same phrase. They sat on the state seal in front of the House speaker’s rostrum and were soon joined by other supporters, including other Black Democrats.
The protest prompted the Republican-led chamber to call a brief recess during which all GOP lawmakers left the floor and the state Florida Channel temporarily stopped broadcasting.
“This is good trouble! Necessary trouble!” Nixon shouted, echoing a phrase used by the late civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis.
When Republican House Speaker Chris Sprowls resumed the session, Nixon and McCurdy continued to shout and refused to move.
“As is obvious, we have members who've decided to hijack our process today," Sprowls said. "It is my belief and your belief that no member of this chamber has the opportunity to shut down this process. We will be concluding our business today. It is my hope our colleagues would join us and not be disruptive.”
Republican Rep. Spencer Roach said the protest quashed debate on another bill that could strip Walt Disney World of its ability to self-govern. With the protest continuing, the House passed the congressional map bill then quickly passed the Disney bill with no debate.
“I have never heard of anything like this happening in the history of Florida,” Roach said. “It was a disruption and it prevented the people’s voice from being heard.”