A 200-mile stretch along Florida’s northern border is dotted with small towns like Quincy on its western edge, where black residents have historically made up a third or more of the population. But in the 145 years since Reconstruction was completed, it’s only been in the past five years that Quincy and most of North Florida have been represented in Congress by a black politician, Rep. Al Lawson (D).
Now, a bitter and unprecedented battle between the Republican-led Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over the decade-long political map reshuffle could wipe out Lawson District and put Gadsden County, where Quincy is located, and seven other counties with large black returning populations in congressional districts represented by white Republicans.
“This governor is trying to turn back time. It does not move us forward. He sets us back,” said Ben Frazier, an activist from Jacksonville on the eastern end of the district, who compared DeSantis to segregationist governors in the South who fought the civil rights movement. “He does the same as Orval Faubus in Arkansas and George Wallace in Alabama. He just does it in a new costume.
The battle over district lines began in January, just as the Florida State Senate was scheduled to vote on its map, which left Lawson’s 5th congressional district intact. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vacation, DeSantis complicated what had been a bipartisan process by presenting its own, decidedly more partisan map that increased Republican seats and obliterated the 5th District.
The current seat of the Chamber was created in 2015 after the end of a protracted legal battle over redistricting with the state Supreme Court which drew a congressional map that created a new district running east to west along the northern border that would provide an advantage to black voters.
Earlier this month, State House Republicans bowed to DeSantis’ will and passed two possible congressional maps — one already approved by the state Senate that kept Lawson’s seat intact and one another that reduced the district to a small area around Jacksonville that would be 35 percent Black, moving all other North Florida black communities into the districts won by Donald Trump in 2020. The Senate quickly adopted this second map and the legislature sent both options to DeSantis.
DeSantis has sworn to veto both cards, saying all versions except his contain “unconstitutional gerrymanders”. As the House voted on its cards on March 4, DeSantis said on Twitter that they were “DOA”.
According to DeSantis’ map, most of the current 5th District seat would be absorbed by GOP Rep. Neal Dunn’s district, moving it from a district that Trump won in 2020 by 34% of the vote to one where Trump would have won by 11%. Dunn’s office did not respond to request for comment.
“We’ve had a lot of lawmakers calling our office saying, well, that’s a bluff. I’m not bluffing,” DeSantis said at a press conference after sending the tweet. “So let’s get together and try to find a compromise on some of these issues.”
In a letter to the state Supreme Court in February seeking an opinion on its map, DeSantis said the district did not conform to “usual political or geographic boundaries.” The court denied DeSantis’ request for an advisory opinion.
On Friday, a group of voters represented by Democratic suffrage lawyer Marc Elias filed a lawsuit asking the court to draw a new map. The lawsuit, filed in Leon County Court in Tallahassee, says “there is no reasonable prospect of Florida’s political branches reaching a consensus.”
DeSantis’ effort to purge the district has been encouraged by former senior Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who called on supporters of his radio show to flood the governor’s office with demands that he stand down. opposes any card that does not significantly increase the number of Republicans. seats in the state delegation to the United States House. Democrats say DeSantis, who is running for re-election and is considered a potential presidential candidate, could look past this year’s redistricting by picking a fight that helps the Republican Party’s goal of taking control of Congress.
“The governor keeps saying he thinks the district is unconstitutional, but this map was drawn by the Florida Supreme Court to comply with voting rights law,” the rep said. State Fentrice Driskell, Democrat on the Florida House Redistricting Committee. “I think he is trying to challenge the suffrage law, and if he succeeds, it will be very bad for the country.”
Democratic governors and state Supreme Court justices have thwarted some efforts by Republican-led legislatures to draw maps that downplay the voting strength of minority voters, but there remains an imbalance between the rapid growth of these communities and the number of districts where they can elect a candidate of their choice. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) this week vetoed a map drawn by the GOP because there was only one out of six majority black districts in a state where the black population has risen to a third of the population.
Quincy, which lies 25 miles west of Tallahassee, was once one of the most prosperous towns in a vast cotton and tobacco-growing region that stretched east to Jacksonville. White “pioneer entrepreneurs,” as one official Florida account describes them, left Georgia and other southern states before the Civil War and built plantations in the region using slave labor. Many homes and mansions from the 1840s and 1850s still stand, and many of them were built for men who turned against the country in the Civil War and served in the Confederate army.
The area was called Middle Florida, and at that time 44% of its population was black.
Lawson, who was born in Midway, said the legislature’s new map would leave “all black voters west of Jacksonville unrepresented.” The governor’s map would erase this representation entirely.
“Never in our state’s history has the Florida Legislature submitted two maps for consideration — one that is clearly unconstitutional and a second map ‘in case we get caught,'” Lawson said in a statement after the House adopted the second map.
Lawson, 74, like his father and grandfather, worked in the tobacco fields of Gadsden County when he was young, and like them he faced the racism of the Jim Crow South. Once, he recalls, the “colored” public water fountain had a fly in it, so he drank from the “whites only” fountain.
“A guy came out and pulled out a gun and said, ‘Boy, you can’t drink with that,'” Lawson recalled. “To be able to remember all of those things, and to be able to come back and represent that same person who pulled out a gun, who would come to me for help and help, and I would give them help and help.”
In Quincy, Smith said most of his elected officials, from mayor to state house, are black. She said it made a difference.
“I feel like the doors are open when I walk into an office and talk to someone who looks like me,” Smith said. “The best representation is someone who knows what it’s like to be a black person in America, and it will be another black person.”
Londe Mondelus, a sophomore at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a historically black university, worries that her school and the black communities around it will be neglected if they are no longer represented by a black person.
“I love my HBCU and Al Lawson has done a lot to secure funds for my institution,” said Mondelus, 19, who is also a student government senator. “And that’s good, because we’re underfunded compared to FSU [Florida State University], which is just across the tracks. Al Lawson understands that, he understands what we need.
Reverend Don Tolliver in Tallahassee says he and other black voters have already compromised too much, referring to voting restrictions passed by the state legislature last year. Suffrage advocates see new laws that limit the location of ballot boxes or restrict the distribution of food and water to people queuing to vote as efforts to suppress minority voters. DeSantis is also set to sign a new law that will make it a crime to possess more than two ballots at once, criminalizing the custom of many black churches to collect ballots from parishioners and submit them to the office. elections.
“The change the governor wants will diminish our vote and we won’t have fair representation,” said Tolliver, a pastor and member of the Equal Ground Action Fund, a voting rights organization.
Most black voters in Florida are registered Democrats. In Gadsden County, for example, there are over 20,000 Democrats to 5,000 Republicans.
Tolliver was at Lawson’s election night in 2016 when it became clear that for the first time since 1877, someone other than a white man would represent the area in Congress. Josiah Wallis, a black man, represented Florida in Congress from 1871 to 1877
“It was elation. We were thrilled,” Tolliver recalled. “It was a sense of accomplishment.”
Lawson gave a brief speech that evening on “how we need to keep pushing,” as elsewhere in the country Democrats were stunned by Trump’s victory. He and others see support for issues like protecting voting rights, funding child care and expanding Medicaid as dependent on electing black leaders.
“We need more districts, we need more representation so that we don’t feel left out of the process of government,” Tolliver said. “And now the governor wants to remove that, using redistricting to keep the minority voice out of the process. It’s very discouraging.
Adrian Blanco contributed to this report.