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Florida's only majority Black county opposed to changes to their congressional district

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson stands at a podium. There is an American flag and a blue curtain behind him.
Valerie Crowder
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee) speaks at a check presentation ceremony in Gadsden County on Thursday, April 14, 2022.

Local opposition to the likely erasure of Rep. Al Lawson’s district was on display at a recent event with the congressman in Gadsden County.

At a check presentation ceremony on Thursday, Lawson joined local officials in announcing $4.6 million in federal funding for renovations to the historic Williams S. Stevens High School. The county’s plan is to build an emergency disaster shelter that could also serve as a COVID-19 isolation ward on the former school's grounds.

“Congressman Lawson really worked hard on this,” Gadsden County Commissioner Brenda Holt (District 4) said during her ceremony speech. “Every week we were talking.”

After praising the congressman's diligence in securing federal dollars for the local project, Holt urged the ceremony’s attendees to contact their legislators and ask them to oppose passage of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ U.S. House district map, which would eliminate Lawson’s 5th Congressional District. “You may not get that representation again where someone’s working for us.”

Florida lawmakers are meeting in Tallahassee this week (April 19 - 22) to pass a new congressional map as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process. Republican legislative leaders have said that they plan to pass a map that the governor will sign and that can stand up in court.

DeSantis has remained adamant that he will not support a map that keeps Lawson’s district intact. Lawson, an African American Democrat, represents a district where Black voters make up 44% of the constituency, enough of the voting age population to elect a candidate of their choice. The district stretches from Gadsden County to eastern Duval County, picking up voters in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

“We are not going to have a two-hundred-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week. He also vowed that North Florida’s districts will be drawn in a “race neutral” manner.

DeSantis’ statements came the day before his office sent a congressional map to the legislature. Absent from the governor's map: an African American voting district in the region to replace Lawson’s.

Last month, the legislature passed a map that moved the state’s 5th Congressional District to the east and placed it entirely within Duval County in an effort to appease the governor with a more compact minority access district. However, DeSantis took issue with lawmakers' use of race as a factor when drawing the district.

DeSantis' proposed map would also remove an Orlando-area district that's held by Rep. Val Demings, another African American Democratic member of Congress.

For his part, Lawson says he’s sure the governor will make good on his promise to erase the 5th Congressional District's current boundaries, which were approved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015. “And he will sign it into law,” Lawson said. “And you’re going to lose minority access seats in the state of Florida until the courts rule and nobody knows how long that’s going to take.”

Congressman Al Lawson poses with members of the Friends of W.S. Stevens High School in Quincy, Florida after they received a check for renovations to the historic school on Thursday, April 14, 2022.
Valerie Crowder
Congressman Al Lawson poses with members of the Friends of W.S. Stevens High School in Quincy, Florida after they received a check for renovations to the historic school on Thursday, April 14, 2022.

Since the governor first proposed eliminating Lawson’s district, the congressman has said that the region’s loss of its minority access district isn’t about him — it’s about the people who live in his district. “Hopefully the court system can change it and say this is wrong. That people of color and minority access communities are very important to the well-being of the state of Florida.”

Lawson, who grew up in Gadsden County, has close ties with its community leaders.

Gadsden County Commissioner Eric Hinson (District 1) says residents should call, email and write to their legislators, including the governor, and explain why they want Lawson’s district to remain. “The governor may not know that this seat is worth so much to the community.”

Citing a delay in getting U.S. Census data due to the pandemic, legislative leaders decided not to gather community input at town-hall-style meetings across the state — neither in-person or virtually — during this redistricting cycle.

“We pay taxes like everyone else. We work hard like everyone else,” said Gadsden County Commissioner Brenda Holt. “Why can’t we maintain the district we have?”

Holt says nobody asked the county’s residents about what they wanted.

Sheila Jackson, a local artist and content creator, live-streamed the ceremony with Lawson on Facebook. After the event, she described the governor’s proposal as “a map of division."

Jackson says she'd like for Lawson to have the opportunity to seek re-election in November. “Let us be represented by somebody that’s a people person,” she said. “Al Lawson is a people person.”

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
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