TALLAHASSEE (Fla.) -- Immigration and abortion restrictions. A new election-fraud police force. Limits on classroom discussion, instruction regarding sexuality, gender, and race.
The Florida Legislature is now a frontline in the nation's culture conflicts. Its regular lawmaking session ended Monday, after providing a platform for Gov. Ron DeSantis' November election campaign and his White House ambitions are both part of his re-election campaign.
To cement DeSantis’s first term legacy as the most conservative governor in decades, one important test remains: removing what is known as a "minority-access" congressional seat in North Florida that was held by a Black Democrat.
According to sources familiar with DeSantis' thinking, he wants a court battle aimed at the provisions of the federal Voting Rights act and the state Constitution that generally prohibit the dilution of minorities' voting power.
DeSantis will be taking on the Republican-led Legislature to accomplish this.
The proposed congressional maps that the Legislature adopted 10 days ago included the seat in question in some form or other. This was despite DeSantis' objections. DeSantis declared he would veto any legislation that was drafted by legislators to remove the seat and replace it with his own map. This was an unusual move by a Florida governor. It would have eliminated the North Florida seat currently held by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson and the Orlando-area seat currently held by Rep. Val Demings, another Black Democrat.
Republicans now expect DeSantis will keep his promise and bring them back to a special session. They are also worried that he may hit the campaign trail to use his popularity and bully pulpit as a way to put pressure on those who have bucked him.
Dragging legislators back to Tallahassee would be the ultimate power play by DeSantis. This is a governor who was a top 2024 Republican presidential candidate for his willingness and determination to fight any person who might cross him.
"This is DeSantis’ M.O. "This is DeSantis' M.O. State Sen. Jeff Brandes of Tampa, a Republican, said that he will roll through anyone who gets in his way. "Members don’t know him, and they don’t know what he’s going to do. That is why they fear him.
Brandes stated that DeSantis is a particularly difficult opponent for Florida Republicans due to his rising profile within the party.
Brandes stated that the whole session was a showcase of DeSantis, a trial balloon for a White House Campaign. He's currently a 600-pound gorilla in the US and could eventually grow to be an 800-pound gorilla if he has his way with these maps.
DeSantis' win-win situation
Professor Michael McDonald, University of Florida political science, stated that DeSantis' participation in congressional redistricting is unprecedented in Florida. He has drawn his own map and threatened to veto.
McDonald's, an expert on redistricting, stated that he cannot think of any governor who has vetoed congressional plans passed by a legislature controlled in part by his party in recent times.
McDonald's is involved in a lawsuit against university over trying to stop him and other professors lending their expertise in court cases that challenge DeSantis' policies. McDonald's claimed that the governor understands how to exercise power, and that he wants more Republican seats in Florida's congressional delegation -- despite the Fair Districts requirements of the state Constitution.
The 2010 voter-approved amendments to the Constitution prohibit legislators' from insinuating seats that favor incumbents or party members or that limit minority voters' ability to vote for candidates.
McDonald's stated that it was a win-win for him. "DeSantis is determined to defend Republican interests, as he does not want to be labelled the Republican who handed control of the U.S. House of Representatives over to the Democrats. Second, he has a larger agenda. He challenges Fair Districts and seeks the demise of parts of the Voting Right Act.
The governor's office refused to comment beyond pointing out a February 18 memo his staff issued in which he argued that the North Florida seat, currently Florida 5th Congressional District was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander according to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a North Carolina case.
Two years after the Florida Supreme Court had drawn the seat, the ruling was made.
Last month, DeSantis’ office sent Robert Popper (from the conservative group Judicial Watch) to warn state House lawmakers that their map to preserve the north Florida district was open to legal challenges.
"This article is about the 2024 presidential election"
Ellen Freidin, a Democrat, founded Fair Districts, a political group that put the anti-gerrymandering Amendments before voters. She said that the memo and Popper's involvement showed that DeSantis has a litigation strategy that ties in with a larger conservative effort nationwide to decrease minority voting power.
"This isn't just about Florida redistricting. Freidin, whose group remains active, said that this is about the 2024 presidential election.
People who know DeSantis' thinking agree that DeSantis wants Florida's case to be in the forefront of the U.S. Supreme Court's attention. This will also include another case in Alabama about whether the legislature should have drawn a second Black District in the state.
A Republican spoke out about the Washington-based legal organization. He said that Fair Districts and the Voting rights Act, when it comes to racial election gerrymandering, were illegal. The Republican requested not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk publicly about private conversations with DeSantis. It should be colorblind. This Republican stated that it should be determined based on political and geographical boundaries, not race.
According to the source, DeSantis was in regular email communication with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He is a prominent opponent of racial sets-asides which the conservative-leaning court has reduced in recent years.
After DeSantis appointed three new members to the Florida Supreme Court, it became more conservative. He also noted that he wanted more conservative interpretations for Florida's Fair Districts law. DeSantis requested that the state's highest court weigh in on his request to address the North Florida congressional seat he is targeting. However, it declined.
All sides agree that courts will eventually rule on the maps. However, it is unclear whether the issue will go to federal or state court due to the complex nature of congressional redistricting.
Democrats sue first
Marc Elias, a national Democratic lawyer, created , a law firm that asked state courts to draw a new congressional map. This map must be drawn every ten years according to the U.S. Constitution. Florida will gain an additional House seat through reapportionment. This brings the total to 28.
DeSantis had not received the maps from the Legislature when the filing was made. He could therefore veto the files. It's uncertain if he will call the legislators back to session once he has them. Even if he does, it's unlikely that they will pass his maps.
Some in DeSantis’ orbit want him to increase pressure on legislators by forcing them into a special session. This would not only redistrict but also restrict unions and allow for openly carrying guns without permits. Others believe DeSantis should veto redistricting maps and not attack his party members, before heading to court.
Some Republicans in the Legislature asked not to be identified to avoid defying DeSantis. They claim that the governor might not call them back to session because they won't comply with his one demand and he doesn't want to embarrassment by a loss.
DeSantis claims he isn't trying to remove all four districts in Florida held by Black Democrats. In South Florida, two of these seats are held by majority-minority residents and can't be reversed under current interpretations.
Instead, he is targeting the Orlando-area and north Florida districts held by Demings and Lawson, which do not have majority-minority population but are still considered "minority accessibility seats", drawn to ensure minority voters vote for members of Congress of the same race and ethnicity. However, there aren't many black voters in either district.
Lawson's district is unique because it runs for more than 200 miles, from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. The Florida Supreme Court created it in 2015 in order to ensure that Black Jacksonville voters still had the opportunity to elect a Black lawmaker.
After lengthy litigation by Fair Districts supporters, who were overwhelmingly Democratic, the state's highest court removed the seat. This was after it became clear that the Republican-led Legislature had deliberately gerrymandered the seat to favor the GOP.
However, given the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision and the 5th district's sprawling nature, Republicans may have an easier task eradicating it than the Alabama case about whether to draw a hypothetical new Black-held district. This would have been much more compact, according to Doug Spencer, a law professor at the University of Colorado.
"I believe that this is DeSantis' ultimate goal: to provide a vehicle for a court with the best facts possible to strike down the Voting rights Act. He said that this would be the best method to accomplish it. "I believe he would win."
The Legislature adopted two versions of its congressional map, mindful that DeSantis might be correct. The first map would limit Lawson’s district to the Jacksonville area. The second map would preserve the seat of Demings.
Both were not liked by DeSantis.
"I will veto any congressional reapportionment plan being considered by the House. DOA," DeSantis tweeted March 4, before he held an interview in Jacksonville where he stressed how serious he was.
"What makes you think that after seeing me for so many years, I can say I'm going do something but I won't follow through?" DeSantis asked reporters. "I don't bluff."
Republicans in the Legislature claim they were shocked by DeSantis’ power play. One said that he was hyperfocused on redistricting when compared to other issues.
"He would simply demand that you pass my maps in meetings. My maps! He is just so obsessed with maps. He will not let it go. He won't listen. ", said a Republican who was not going to publicly criticize DeSantis.
Republicans who were in the state Capitol during redistricting's last star-crossed process claim they have "redistrictingPTSD" and want to ensure that legislators follow the Fair Districts constitutional amendment.
"But then Ron comes in and he just blows everything up because he wants the presidency," said a top Republican. "And this was after we gave him all he wanted: the most conservative legislative session, and all his budget priorities."
The session saw legislators pass restrictions on abortion, immigran, and teaching about gender and race. They gave him the election-fraud police force that he requested, and they heeded their veto threat to make modifications to a controversial water bill supported by the sugar industry but hated by Everglades supporters.
It's not enough.
"In the old days in a session such as this, everyone would be lifting their hands in victory because everybody got something," said another source close to DeSantis, who talks politics with the governor. "But DeSantis, like his voters, lives in a world full of absolutes. He can't recall the 99 times that you were there with him. He will remember the time you were with him. He'll ensure that the base is aware.
For his resistance to Covid mandates, DeSantis was a hot topic and a darling among conservatives nationwide. He opposed teaching racial history to schools and ridiculed high school students who wore masks at media events. Then, he clashed with Disney CEO about the controversial "parental right" bill regarding sexual orientation.
"DeSantis has carved his own lane within the GOP: The Voldemort lane," stated Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. Gelber was a Democrat who clashed over Covid lockdowns with DeSantis and was involved in Democrats redistricting efforts for 2010.
Gelber stated that DeSantis had shown that there is a political premium for throwing kerosene onto every fire. He doesn't care who they are, even the Republican Legislature.