Open Congressional Seat Stresses Service Academy Candidates

The unfilled seat dramatically shortens the amount of time the future officeholder will have to get military academy nominations in.

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Editor's Note: The TV version of this story inaccurately stated Rep. Wasserman Schultz nominated Torres as a junior in high school. He was nominated as a senior. 

When former Congressman Alcee Hastings passed away this spring, his district lost representation in Congress, backing up many routine services for his constituents.

A key Congressional function is nominating candidates to military academies.

Hastings represented Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which scoops up parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis set the special election to replace him for Jan. 11, 2022, nearly nine months after Hastings’ death. The democratic primary is in November.

The wait is making some teenagers hoping to serve their country sweat as it dramatically shortens the process to nominate candidates to the academies.

Members of Congress can nominate local students to four service academies: the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. 

Justin Torres is one of the aspiring candidates. He graduated from Cypress Bay High School this week. 

“It’s kind of surreal. It’s a lot to take in because the years really do fly by,” Torres told NBC 6. 

For the past few years, he’s been in the JROTC program, working on academics, physical fitness, and leadership so he can be nominated to the military academies.

“It’s what I believe to be the hardest college application process there is out there,” Torres said. 

His goal is to go to either the U.S. Naval Academy or the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. Afterward, he would be required to serve the United States for five years.

“It was kind of the sense of direction and fulfillment of being an officer and serving our country,” Torres said. 

This year, Torres was nominated by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz but was disqualified for an eye medical issue. He said he began daily eye therapy and wants another go at it. 

But his family moved down the road into a new congressional district, the unfilled seat previously held by Hastings. 

According to the military academies, the deadline for nominations is January 31, giving the new representative of District 20 under three weeks to do a process that normally takes months. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Naval Academy told NBC 6 members of Congress normally collect information and interview candidates by October or November in order to choose a candidate by the January deadline. 

“Myself and the other candidates out of this district are now in a more competitive playing pool for the same limited number of spots. So it could be much harder,” Torres said. 

Members of Congress can have up to five of their nominees attending each academy at one time. Each slot can have potentially ten nominations. Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio as well as Vice President Kamala Harris get the same amount of slots but candidates compete from a much larger pool, making it more difficult. 

Harris cannot nominate students to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

It's one example of the difficulties performing constituent services with an open seat in Congress.

“The fact that Gov. DeSantis didn’t care about the numerous challenges that he was creating by leaving the constituents of Florida’s 20th District unrepresented is mind-blowing,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. 

Wasserman Schultz is one of several local Democratic leaders and organizations upset at DeSantis’ date for setting the special election. 

She claimed politics are in play because without someone representing the district, the narrow Democratic majority in Congress is smaller. 

“He (Gov. DeSantis) had the ability to set the dates for the special election much sooner than next January,” Wasserman Schultz said.

NBC 6 reached out to Gov. DeSantis’ office about the criticism and the situation with the service academy candidates but has not yet heard back. 

When the governor announced the election date at a press conference, he said he wanted to give candidates seeking the seat time to prepare for a competitive race.

“I know as someone who ran for it before there’s a lot that goes into it,” DeSantis said. “So hopefully that gives them enough time to get on the ballot and do what they need to do to be competitive.”

The crowded Democratic primary is set for November. Democratic voters dominate Florida’s 20th Congressional District so the November election will likely decide who becomes the member of Congress. But the seat won’t be filled until the January 11 election.

Representatives for the U.S. Military in West Point and Naval Academy strongly recommend candidates from District 20 pursue nominations from other nominating sources: Florida Senators and the Vice President. 

NBC 6 reached out to the offices of Harris and Rubio and has not yet heard back. 

In a statement, Sen. Rick Scott’s office encouraged candidates to apply.

“Senator Rick Scott is honored to consider and nominate outstanding Florida students for appointment to four U.S. Military Academies. Any eligible Florida student is welcome to apply for nominations through Senator Scott’s office,” said his Press Secretary Clare Lattanze.

Lt. Colonel Rance Lee, Deputy Director of Admissions at the U.S. Military Academy, told NBC 6 they will work as fast as possible to try and get the nominations in from Florida’s 20th Congressional District after the special election. He added, in rare cases, the superintendent does have the power to nominate candidates past the deadline. 

Justin Torres told NBC 6 he is planning to apply to all his options. 

“If there’s any way that the Governor or anybody who works in this process could find a way for myself and the candidates in this district to have some type of nominating source, it would change the lives of myself and young candidates to achieve this dream that we’ve worked for years for,” Torres said.  

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy does not require a nomination.

NBC 6 reached out to Rep. Hastings’ office to find out if anyone is working to hand off this task to the new member and was directed to the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, which by law handles office issues during a seat vacancy. 

The Clerk’s office has not yet responded to our request. 

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