The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The House district under threat from Florida’s governor is steeped in Black history

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), seen last month, has proposed a partisan congressional map that boosted Republican seats and erased the 5th District. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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QUINCY, Fla. — When Black business owner Kiara Smith looks across the street from the door of her downtown shop, she sees the grounds of the county courthouse. The building was constructed in 1912, but the site is historic for what happened there decades earlier.

“This was one of the biggest places for the slave trade,” Smith, 30, a Quincy native, said of the place where the enslaved were sold. “When you’re born in Quincy, there’s no doubt your great-great-great grandparents were slaves. And some of the White people here, they’re more than likely the descendants of the owners. That’s just the reality we live with.”

A 200-mile stretch along Florida’s northern border is dotted with small cities like Quincy, at its western end, where Black residents have historically made up a third or more of the population. But in the 145 years since the end of Reconstruction, only in the last five years has Quincy and most of North Florida been represented in Congress by a Black politician, Rep. Al Lawson (D).

Now a rancorous and unprecedented battle between the Republican-led Florida legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over the decennial redrawing of political maps could wipe out Lawson’s district and put Gadsden County, where Quincy is located, and seven other counties with large Black populations back in congressional districts represented by White Republicans.

“This governor is attempting to turn back the hands of time. He’s not leading us forward. He’s leading us backward,” said Ben Frazier, an activist in Jacksonville at the eastern end of the district, who likened DeSantis to Southern segregationist governors who battled the civil rights movement. “He’s doing the same thing that Orval Faubus in Arkansas and George Wallace in Alabama did. He’s just doing it in a new suit.”

The battle over the district lines began in January, just as the Florida Senate was set to vote on its map, which left Lawson’s 5th Congressional District intact. On the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, DeSantis complicated what had been a bipartisan process by presenting his own, dramatically more partisan map that boosted Republican seats and erased the 5th District.

The current House seat was created in 2015 after a protracted legal battle over redistricting ended with the state Supreme Court drawing 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, Republicans in the state House bent to DeSantis’s will and passed two possible congressional maps — one already approved by the state Senate that kept Lawson’s seat intact and another that reduced the district to a tiny area around Jacksonville that would be 35 percent Black, displacing all the other Black communities in Northern Florida into districts Donald Trump won in 2020. The Senate quickly passed that second map and the legislature sent both options to DeSantis.

DeSantis has vowed to veto both maps, claiming all versions but his own contain “unconstitutional gerrymanders.” As the House was voting on its maps March 4, DeSantis said on Twitter that they were “DOA.”

Under DeSantis’s map, most of the current 5th District seat would be absorbed into GOP Rep. Neal Dunn’s district, taking it from a district Trump won in 2020 by 34 percent of the vote down to one where Trump would have won by 11 percent. Dunn’s office did not respond to request for comment.

“We had a lot of legislators who were calling our office saying, well, it’s a bluff. I don’t bluff,” DeSantis said at a news conference after he sent the tweet. “So let’s get together and try to have a compromise on some of those issues.”

In a letter to the state Supreme Court in February seeking an opinion on his map, DeSantis said the district doesn’t conform to “usual political or geographic boundaries.” The court rejected DeSantis’s request for an advisory opinion.

On Friday, a group of voters represented by Democratic voting rights lawyer Marc Elias filed a lawsuit asking for the court to draw a new map. The lawsuit, filed in Leon County Court in Tallahassee, says “there is no reasonable prospect that Florida’s political branches will reach consensus.”

DeSantis’s effort to purge the district was urged on by Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who called on supporters of his radio show to flood the governor’s office with demands that he oppose any map that doesn’t dramatically increase the number of Republican seats in the state’s U.S. House delegation. Democrats say DeSantis, who is running for reelection and is considered a potential presidential candidate, may be looking beyond this year’s redistricting by picking a fight that helps the Republican Party’s goal of taking control of Congress.

DeSantis scrambles Florida’s redistricting debate, with an eye to 2022 and perhaps 2024 elections

“The governor keeps saying he thinks the district is unconstitutionally gerrymandered, but this map was drawn by the Florida Supreme Court to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat on the Florida House Redistricting Committee. “I think he’s trying to set up a challenge to the Voting Rights Act, and should he succeed in that, it’s going to be very bad for the country.”

Democratic governors and state Supreme Court judges have thwarted some efforts by Republican-led legislatures to draw maps that minimize the voting strength of minority voters, but there remains an imbalance between the rapid growth of those 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 GOP-drawn map because it had only one majority-Black district out of six in a state where Black population has grown to one-third of the overall population.

Quincy, which is 25 miles west of Tallahassee, was once one of the most prosperous towns in a vast cotton- and tobacco-growing area that reached east to Jacksonville. White “pioneer entrepreneurs,” as one official Florida account described them, moved from Georgia and other Southern states before the Civil War and built plantations in the region using the labor of enslaved people. Many of the homes and mansions from the 1840s and 1850s still stand, and many of them were built for men who turned against the country during the Civil War and served in the Confederate Army.

The area was called Middle Florida, and at that time, 44 percent 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 that representation entirely.

“Never in our state’s history has the Florida legislature submitted two maps for review — one that is clearly unconstitutional and a second ‘in case we get caught’ map,” Lawson said in a statement after the House passed the second map.

Lawson, 74, like his father and grandfather, worked in the Gadsden County tobacco fields when he was young, and like them, he faced the racism of the Jim Crow South. Once, he recalled, the “colored” public water fountain had a fly in it, so he drank from the “Whites only” one.

A guy came out and pulled a gun and said, ‘Boy, you can’t drink out of 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 assistance, and I would give them help and assistance.”

In Quincy, Smith said most of her elected officials, from city hall to the statehouse, are Black. She said it makes a difference.

“I feel like the doors are open when I go into an office and I’m speaking to someone that looks like me,” Smith said. “The best representation is someone who knows what it’s actually like to be a Black person in America, and that’s going to be another Black person.”

Londe Mondelus, a sophomore at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a historically Black university, is worried her school and the Black communities around it will be overlooked if they are no longer represented by a Black person.

“I love my HBCU, and Al Lawson has done a lot in securing funding for my institution,” said Mondelus, 19, who is also a student government senator. “And that’s good, because we are underfunded in comparison to FSU [Florida State University], which is right across the tracks. Al Lawson gets that, he understands what we need.”

The Rev. Don Tolliver in Tallahassee says he and other Black voters have compromised too much already, referring to the voting restrictions passed by the state legislature last year. Voting rights advocates see new laws that limit ballot box locations or restrict food and water handed out to people waiting in line to vote as efforts to suppress minority voters. DeSantis also is set to sign a new law that will make it a felony to possess more than two ballots at a time, effectively criminalizing the custom at many Black churches of gathering ballots from parishioners and submitting them to the elections office.

“The change that 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, an advocacy organization for voting rights.

Most Black voters in Florida are registered Democrats. In Gadsden County, for example, there are more than 20,000 Democrats compared with 5,000 Republicans.

Tolliver was at Lawson’s election night victory party 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 until 1877.

“It was elation. We were overjoyed,” Tolliver recalled. “It was a feeling of accomplishment.”

Lawson made a short speech that night about “how we need to continue pushing,” as elsewhere around the country Democrats were stunned by Trump’s victory. He and others see support for issues like voting rights protections, child care funding and Medicaid expansion as dependent on electing Black officials.

“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 take that away, using redistricting to keep the minority voice out of the process. That’s very discouraging.”

Adrián Blanco contributed to this report.