As chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, Sean Pierre Jackson says he represents nearly 60,000 registered Black Republicans throughout the state.
In photos plastered on the caucus website and social media, Jackson poses with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who he says he once advised, and other top GOP leaders, such as U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and President Donald Trump.
The way 31-year-old Jackson tells it, he’s an up-and-coming kingmaker enjoying a remarkable rise in politics.
While he claims the caucus’ mission is to increase the number of Black residents registering and voting Republican, Jackson’s media profile shows he plays a different role — safeguarding white Republican politicians from accusations of racism.
It’s a role he’s played often.
Since 2015, Jackson, as leader of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, has endorsed DeSantis for public office — first as a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, then for governor.
Jackson popped up twice in news reports during DeSantis’ 2018 bid for governor. Both times he defended remarks tied to the campaign that were widely denounced as racist.
During a Fox News interview hours after he won the GOP primary, DeSantis told voters not to “monkey this up” by electing his Black Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, sparking a firestorm of criticism over the terminology that many took as a racist dog whistle.
Amid the uproar, Jackson’s Black Republican Caucus issued a statement.
The Clear Channel radio station in West Palm Beach that airs Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, Newsradio 1290 WJNO, picked up the statement in an Aug. 30, 2018 story.
“Among those who are defending Congressman DeSantis was the Black Republican Caucus of Florida,” the story said. “The chairman, Sean Jackson, said he has personally known DeSantis for many years and it sickens him to see ‘how the left is attempting to paint him as something that he is not.‘”
Less than a month later, Jackson emerged again after it was found that a top DeSantis campaign supporter, Steven M. Alembik, used a vulgar racist slur against President Barack Obama on Twitter.
The DeSantis campaign disavowed the tweet. When the New York Times tried to reach Alembik he wouldn’t comment. But the New York Times said his company, SMA Communications, referred a reporter to Jackson.
Jackson, according to the story, “called questions about the tweet ‘a vile attempt to demean’ Mr. Alembik and the DeSantis campaign and asserted that if someone of color had said the same about Mr. Obama, it wouldn’t be considered racist.”
When the Associated Press called Alembik, he wouldn’t comment. Instead, the AP reported that Jackson handled calls for him. The story that was picked up nationally and across Florida, including by the Tampa Bay Times, reported that Jackson said Alembik isn’t a racist and that he has a “plethora of black friends.”
“All of it is false, all of it is incorrect and all of it is a flat-out lie,” Jackson said. Later that month, Alembik donated $5,000 to the Black Republican Caucus of Florida.
Although the articles quoting Jackson defending the DeSantis campaign identified him as chairman of the caucus, they didn’t mention he played any formal role with the campaign itself.
But he did. In November 2018, DeSantis’ campaign paid Jackson $5,000 for “campaign consulting” and another $1,500 for “reimbursement.”
In 2016, Jackson defended Trump’s questioning of Obama’s birth certificate. In an appearance on MSNBC, Joy Reid asked Jackson whether Trump would do better with African Americans in Florida if he apologized for his birtherism comments, Jackson replied, “In all honesty, there is no need for Mr. Trump to apologize.”
In a separate appearance on MSNBC he added, “Mr. Trump has never said one racist thing, or one derogatory thing, I should say, as it pertains to Black America.”
Jackson flirted this year with a run for Congress before deciding to withdraw. As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the nation, Jackson says he has put in personal calls to the White House, pitching himself as “one of the key people who the party should be listening to.”
He told the Tampa Bay Times that he’s familiar enough with Trump that he issued the White House an ultimatum.
If Trump doesn’t act on the caucus’ demands regarding how to address the nationwide reckoning over race, Jackson said in June, “all bets are off” and he’ll urge Florida’s registered Black Republicans to stay home this election.
Earlier this year, Jackson’s caucus secured a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan of $150,000 to $350,000, even though the group’s status as a political organization would ordinarily disqualify it from any Small Business Administration loan. Nevertheless, it was approved, ostensibly so the caucus could retain 11 jobs.
But what, exactly, is the caucus doing?
Although the 2020 election is in high gear, the caucus hasn’t held meetings or events this year. Jackson blames the pandemic.
Of the nearly 20 board members listed on the website and bylaws, only five could be reached by the Times. All deny current involvement with the caucus.
Bishop W. Oshea Granger, who is listed as the Christian Outreach Director for the caucus, said he’s good friends with Jackson. Still, Granger said, he’s not familiar with the name of the group. He said the group’s current activity “is a mystery.”
Latanya Peterson says about five years have passed since she’s worked with Jackson. Once she realized the group wasn’t working toward the goals they originally set out to achieve, she said, most of the group resigned. The group has been dismantled, said Peterson, who recently served on the Florida Commission on Human Rights.
Another board member is Gloreatha “Glo” Scurry-Smith, who ran for Congress. She said she was involved momentarily but has since pursued other interests and has not recently been in contact with Jackson.
Marcia V. Hayden said in an email that she hasn’t been involved with the group since 2016. When she was involved, she said, Jackson “was the driving force and basically it was his show.”
Also listed is Gladys Van Otteren, a 61-year-old real estate agent in Palm Beach. Van Otteren says she was a member of the board years ago as it was starting up but did not stay on as Jackson began to rally behind Trump.
Jackson called the Times on July 9 to request all communication surrounding the caucus go through him.
“The board members don’t do interviews,” said Jackson. The names on the bylaws are from when they were first executed, he said. “Our board has changed since.” Jackson declined to provide the names and contact information for current board members but said an updated list is not online because recently the website “was hacked.”
Rebecca Isaac of Fort Pierce spoke with the Times six days later and said she was the newly appointed secretary of the caucus. She declined to answer when asked how long she had been with the group.
The Times searched corporate documents, news articles, search engines and social media trying to track down any of the 57,000 members that Jackson says belong to his caucus, but it found only one quoted on behalf of the caucus: Jackson. Of the politicians and listed board members who were contacted, none were able to name anyone involved with the caucus besides Jackson.
Currently, Jackson says the caucus is working on a big push to expand nationally. This national caucus of Black Republicans will target swing states, including Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, said Jackson, with a chairman for each state as well as a national chairman.
Yet, GOP officials say the caucus is not affiliated with the party. Many of the state’s most prominent Republicans say they have never worked with the group.
“The Black Republican Caucus of Florida is not a (Republican Party of Florida) club and it is not an organization that has been chartered by the (Republican Party of Florida),” said Alia Faraj-Johnson, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida. “We have no affiliation with them.”
Initially, Jackson spoke at length about how expansive the caucus was and emphasized his close personal ties to the GOP elite.
After the Times assessed Jackson’s claims and sought to ask follow-up questions on the caucus’ recent activity, the makeup of the board, his work history with DeSantis and why all communication surrounding the caucus had to go through him, Jackson cut off communication.
Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, and Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples — the only two Black Republicans in Florida’s Legislature — say they have heard of Jackson, but haven’t worked with the Black Republican Caucus of Florida.
Hill said he hasn’t spoken with Jackson in about a year. He said he doubts the effectiveness of Jackson’s group in getting Black people to register and vote Republican.
“I’m not aware of any activity there,” Hill said.
Donalds said he knows Jackson, but they have not worked together with regards to the caucus. His wife, Erika Donalds, who has served on the Collier County School Board and the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, said she only heard of the group after learning they received a large federal loan.
Before news of the loan, Erika Donalds said, she was unaware that a Black Republican caucus even existed in Florida.