TALLAHASSEE — State House members wasted no time this week in reviving a proposal for a Florida slavery memorial near the Capitol, an idea that stalled at the end of the 2017 session last spring.
Now several months later, the proposal — sponsored by Miami Democratic Rep. Kionne McGhee — takes on new meaning against a backdrop of the growing racial divide across America and of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., during the summer over the removal of a Confederate statue there.
"It sends a signal to the entire country that Florida is willing to take a step — like it has always done in certain circumstances — in the right direction. We lead by example. We are Florida," McGhee said after his bill (HB 67) swiftly passed its first of three House committees by a unanimous vote Wednesday morning. (The bill was the first piece of legislation considered by the House government oversight committee ahead of the 2018 session.)
McGhee said the debate over whether symbols of the Confederacy — including one on the Florida Capitol grounds — ought to be removed is a separate issue from the Florida Slavery Memorial he wants built. But the two matters are nonetheless intertwined in the broader national discussion on race.
In contrast to the Confederacy debate, though, the slavery memorial concept has resounding bipartisan support in the Florida House, where it passed unanimously last session after stalling in the Senate when a key chairman blocked it.
"This particular monument has garnered the support of everyone — the only people who I feel are going to be against this are individuals that haven't particularly sat down and come to grips with the reality that we have moved forward in a bipartisan way and the times that we've seen in the past where folks wanted to divide us based upon class and culture, those days are completely over," said McGhee, who's poised to be the House Democratic leader after the 2018 elections. "This is a movement, and it's going to be driven by the people."
The first Republican co-sponsor of McGhee's measure both last session and this upcoming session was Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
He told reporters Wednesday that the slavery memorial proposal serves to "counterbalance" the debate over Confederate flags and monuments.
"I've been a proponent of free speech and I know there's been a lot of things in the press about the Confederate flag — and I've always said we shouldn't be attacking one side of free speech. The answer to free speech is more free speech," Ingoglia said.
"So I believe that adding this is a good thing — not only to remind us of the injustices that happened in the past but in the light of everything that's happened now, it's to counterbalance everything and remind everybody."
If lawmakers approve the memorial in 2018, the Department of Management Services and the Florida Historical Commission would determine its design and placement on the Capitol Complex in Tallahassee — where a post-Civil War monument already stands in honor of Leon County soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy, which wanted to preserve slavery.
After the violent rallies in Charlottesville two months ago — which drew neo-Nazis and white nationalists, who clashed with counterprotesters — some Florida Democrats called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature to remove the obelisk.
Scott himself remained silent on what should happen with the monument, but some state leaders — including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — rejected the prospect of considering its removal.
As with his original measure last spring, McGhee wants a Florida Slavery Memorial "to honor the nameless and forgotten men women and children who have gone unrecognized for their undeniable contributions to our great state and to this great country."
The proposal stalled in the Senate after Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley — a champion of Confederate symbols — declined to hear it in his committee because he objected to "memorializing slavery" and said the monument would "celebrate defeat."
While Baxley's remarks initially set off a firestorm of criticism from black lawmakers and Democrats, he and McGhee made amends before the end of the 2017 session — and this week, they both expressed optimism at finding compromise to advance the bill in 2018.
"My intention is to hear it," Baxley told the Times/Herald, but said he still wants some changes made to the Senate version (SB 286), which is being sponsored St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson.
"I still think I can help improve it a little bit," Baxley said, reiterating: "It was never my intention to stop the bill; I didn't think it was ready."
McGhee said it's his understanding Baxley wants "little technical differences but nothing substantive that would stop this bill." He said Baxley also wants to add money to the bill to ensure the costs of later building the memorial are covered.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark.