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'A Political Disaster': How Alcee Hastings' Congressional Vacancy Impacts Local, State Politics

Photo of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings with his hands raised in the middle of speaking
AP via Miami Herald
Rep. Alcee Hastings passed in April after a battle with cancer. He spent nearly three decades in Congress after serving as a federal judge and a civil rights attorney.

The vacancy left behind by the death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings will be one of the longest in modern American history. Now, the ripple effects are coming to light in the race to fill his seat.

The lengthy wait to fill the congressional seat left vacant by death of Democrat Alcee Hastings in April has candidates calling foul, with emerging ripple effects on local, state and federal politics. One candidate has likened the situation to a “political disaster” awaiting residents of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Hastings, first elected to Congress in 1992, held a congressional seat in South Florida for nearly three decades. After his death, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis called a special election for Florida’s 20th Congressional District in January 2022, nine months after his passing.

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That makes the vacancy among the longest in modern American history, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. The analysis showed a correlation between the political party of the member of Congress who created the vacancy and the party of the sitting governor for a general increase of the length of vacancies.

When the political parties are at odds, vacancies tend to last longer.

Candidates for the race told WLRN the extended vacancy for Hastings’ seat will do the majority-Black district actual harm in the current congressional session.

“Now is the time for us to start identifying projects that could fit in the scope of the infrastructure bill,” said Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness.

Without representation from the district, he suggested, infrastructure projects benefiting the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach could suffer.

“Healthcare is a huge issue. We have no voice in terms of advocating for decreasing prescription drug costs,” said Barbara Sharief, who also serves on the Broward commission.

She added beach restoration projects and Everglades restoration projects to potential missed opportunities.

Democratic state Rep. Omari Hardy, another candidate in the race, mentioned another timely discussion.

“There's a debate going on right now in the Congress as to whether the child tax credit should be made permanent," he said.

Hardy would like to take part in those discussions.

If Hastings were alive, his potential vote would have counted towards all of those matters.

Two 'Legitimate' Arguments For The Long Wait

Susan MacManus, a political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, said there is credence to the arguments coming from the candidates.

“A legitimate thing to argue is, look, when things are so competitive in Congress and everything can be decided by a couple votes in the House and the Senate, to be unrepresented just seems counter to representative democracy,” she said.

But on the other hand, MacManus said, there are also "legitimate" arguments for holding off on the election.

The open seat has attracted a broad range of Democratic candidates to put their hats into the race, the result of years of pent-up political ambition. Even from within the Democratic Party, they greatly differ in ideology, age and approach to politics.

The crowded field means that running a quick election might not be ideal, even for some candidates slamming the governor for holding off, MacManus said.

“Summer is the absolute worst time to try to run campaigns in Florida because Floridians head to the beach or or the mountains, so to speak,” she said. “Students aren’t on campus and there’s a lot of energy that comes from young participants.”

Students are typically critical for campaigning and getting the word out on up and coming candidates for primary elections, she said. And because of the political makeup of the heavily Democratic district, whoever is able to turn out enough voters to win the Democratic primary election in November is virtually guaranteed to win the final race in January.

“I've seen speculation anywhere from three to four thousand would be enough to secure the nomination,” MacManus said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis used that strain of argument when announcing the date for the special election in May.

“I know there will be a lot of folks that want to run for it,” said DeSantis. “So hopefully that gives them enough time to be able to get on the ballot and do whatever they need to do to be competitive.”

The governor’s office did not respond to requests to comment from WLRN for this story.

Palm Beach Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartory Link, and Broward Supervisor Joe Scott, initially suggested to DeSantis in a letter that a primary election for that seat be held in August — with the general election taking place in November.

In announcing the settled date, DeSantis said he coordinated with the local officials before making his decision.

"Look, when things are so competitive in Congress and everything can be decided by a couple votes in the House and the Senate, to be unrepresented just seems counter to representative democracy."
Susan MacManus, political professor emeritus at the University of South Florida

The last congressional vacancy happened in Florida in 2013, after the death of Republican Rep. Bill Young. Then-Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, set the primary election for three months later, and held the general special election five months later, a much quicker turnaround than the nine months to fill Hastings’ vacancy.

Candidate Elvin Dowling has a different take on DeSantis’ decision-making process. Dowling sued the governor in federal court after a weeks-long delay in setting the date.

“It wasn’t until after I filed suit against the governor that he acted. And then when he did act I believe it was with — in many ways — with malice and forethought,” Dowling said.

Large Shoes To Fill

Over the course of his career, Alcee Hastings carved himself out as a towering figure representing Florida’s sizable Black population. Before becoming a Democratic member of Congress, Alcee Hastings became the first Black person to ever be appointed to federal judge in Florida history — before being impeached over an alleged corruption scandal — and before that was a prominent civil rights attorney.

“He and attorney George Allen were instrumental in suing the Broward School Board for desegregation following the Brown v. Board [decision], so his legacy to me is just his good deeds have spoken for themselves throughout the course of his career,” said Alcee Hastings Jr., the son of the former congressman. “Public servitude was just in his heart.”

U.S. Congress

As a federal judge in the early 1980s, Hastings issued a sharp rebuke of President Ronald Reagan’s immigration policy towards Haitian asylum seekers, finding it discriminatory. The decision helped change the way the Reagan Administration handled Haitian immigration cases, earning him broad support in Florida’s growing Haitian community at the time. In Congress, he was a top ranking Democrat — advocating for the Black community across the nation and within his Black-majority district.

By the time he passed due to a battle with cancer, Hastings was the most senior member of the Florida congressional delegation.

“Certainly we are mourning the loss but I go forward and I have nothing but fond memories of good times and I think about the many ways that he touched so many lives and I’m always appreciative of that,” Hastings Jr. said.

Ripple Effects Impact State And Local Governments

In addition to the extended vacancy, there is a ripple effect taking place with the special election. Because of Florida’s “resign-to-run” law passed in 2018, two Broward County commissioners, a Palm Beach County commissioner, a state senator and two state representatives have to resign in order to run for this seat.

Five candidates have already submitted their irrevocable resignation letters. They include Broward County Commissioners Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief; state Sen. Perry Thurston; state Rep. Bobby DuBose; and state Rep. Omari Hardy

All of them are Black Democrats.

Gov. DeSantis will fill the county commissions vacancies under his executive authority. But those state legislative seats will need their own special elections. And that means Democratic power in Tallahassee could end up even weaker than it already is.

That’s especially true because the special election for Florida’s 20th Congressional District is set for Jan. 11 — the very same day the Florida Legislature starts meeting for its annual legislative session.

If the governor does not set special elections to take place before the 2022 Florida legislative session starts, it will mean less Democrats voting on top issues like redistricting, the process of redrawing of political maps that determine how people are represented for the next decade.

The current map for Florida's 20th Congressional District drawn by lawmakers after the 2010 Census covers the historically Black Glades communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee, with three lines jutting eastward in south and central Broward, and in north Palm Beach County.

The irony is that this very political map is having a direct impact on the federal congressional race and the need for so many resignations in 2021, said Rep. Hardy.

“The Legislature drew every working class Black person between south Broward and north Palm Beach County into a single congressional district,” he said. “The fact that this race is so crowded is due to the fact that we’re all drawn into a single district that should probably have been two or three congressional districts.”

Elvin Dowling does not have faith that the governor will hold special elections in time to offset the worst-case scenario.

The governor has not yet announced any dates for special elections.

“Do we honestly believe that Ron DeSantis is going to be about his P’s and Q’s?” asked Dowling. “I think not. And so we have a significant and material political disaster that is awaiting the people of South Florida.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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