DeSantis to play key role in filling Hastings’ seat

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ultimately has the power to determine when the special election to replace Hastings will happen. Leaving a deep blue seat unfilled for months will help Republicans in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., listens to testimony at a bipartisan delegation meeting on the heroin crisis in Florida in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2016.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., listens to testimony at a bipartisan delegation meeting on the heroin crisis in Florida in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2016. [ Miami Herald ]
Published April 7, 2021|Updated April 7, 2021

WASHINGTON — The death of Congressman Alcee Hastings on Tuesday will touch off a competitive Democratic primary for a seat in a majority Black district that hasn’t been open since 1992.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ultimately has the power to determine when the special election to replace Hastings will happen, and leaving a deep blue seat unfilled for months will help Republicans in Washington as they attempt to stop President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

DeSantis hasn’t announced plans for a special primary and general election, and Hastings’ seat is the first vacancy in the state’s U.S. House delegation since DeSantis assumed office.

If precedent is any guide, Hastings’ eventual successor could be selected by voters in about six months. Rep. C. W. Bill Young was the last Florida member to die in office in October 2013, and former Gov. Rick Scott held a special election in March 2014.

“Whoever is next has big shoes to fill, and they’re going to be responsible to a community that’s going to expect and require their congressman to be present first and foremost because that’s what [Hastings] was,” said Juan Peñalosa, the former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “I would expect that the governor would not play politics with this.”

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a potential special election. In a statement, DeSantis said Hastings’ “service to our state will be remembered.”

Two candidates previously filed paperwork to run in 2022: Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who ran against Hastings in 2020 and received 30.7 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

A number of other Democrats are expected to at least consider a run, including state Sens. Perry Thurston and Shevrin Jones, former state Sen. Chris Smith, former Broward County mayor Dale Holness and Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam.

“I believe over the next few weeks there will be a diverse pool of people who will be in that race,” Jones said. “I think people will have to decide who will continue the work of Alcee Hastings. No decisions have been made on my end, but it’s going to be interesting.”

Serving while fighting cancer

Despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after winning reelection in 2018, Hastings ran in 2020 and planned to run in 2022.

Some Democrats are concerned that a large pool of Black candidates for the seat could open the door for a non-Black candidate to win a special primary election that’s likely to have low turnout. There’s also the possibility that a large group of Broward-based candidates could end up splitting a geographically-based vote and handing the seat to a candidate from Palm Beach County, which accounts for about a third of the district’s population.

It’s highly unlikely the district will elect a Republican. Hastings’ seat is the second-most Democratic leaning in the entire state, slightly behind Rep. Frederica Wilson’s neighboring district in Miami-Dade County.

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There’s also a chance that Hastings’ seat could look much different after 2022, especially without a longtime incumbent in place. The Voting Rights Act that forced the creation of Hastings’ district in 1992 was significantly weakened, and Republicans control the redistricting process in Florida. It’s not clear how many new U.S. House seats Florida will gain after Census data is finalized, but Republicans will likely try to draw seats to increase their current 16-11 advantage.

Peñalosa said whoever wins the low-turnout special election will likely be the candidate who best uses the tactics that Hastings employed throughout his 28 years in office — a personal touch combined with the deep knowledge of the people and issues that matter to some of Florida’s poorest communities.

“His style of leadership is a guide to modern day campaigning,” Peñalosa said. “Those of us who worked with him know that digital metrics, TV placements and mailers meant a lot less to him. You kind of walked down the street and you’d see him speaking to people with their first name.”

Community connections

Wilson said Hastings was able to become a household name in the district based on his knack for grassroots politics. He frequently attended demonstrations and protests throughout his district and was a fixture at “Souls to the Polls” events in South Florida. And instead of hosting traditional big-money fundraisers, Wilson said Hastings held free events where he handed out awards to constituents, a way for the congressman to build up goodwill in the community.

“He had like tentacles everywhere in the community and whatever issues impacted Broward County,” Wilson said, adding that his work was focused on “legislative victories for Black people in America.”

Hastings’ death also has implications in Washington, where Democrats will hold a narrow six-vote margin over Republicans when they return next week after a three-week recess. Democrats are expected to begin a push to pass major infrastructure legislation, a massive $2 trillion bill that opponents say amounts to a liberal wish list, without GOP support.

Three Democratic-held seats in addition to Hastings’ are currently vacant after the incumbents took jobs in the Biden administration, along with one GOP-held seat once occupied by the late Rep. Ron Wright, who died of COVID-19 complications in February. Wright’s seat could be potentially competitive for Democrats, and the other three open seats favor Democrats, but the absence of additional votes for at least the next few months gives House Speaker Nancy Pelosi little wiggle room for defections within her party.

“His name in the community — especially in the Black community, is riveted with respect,” Wilson said of Hastings. “When you said Alcee Hastings everybody...children, adults they just adored him and respected his work and respected his stance for them because they knew that every day he was fighting for them because he proved it. That’s why he never really had any serious opposition in his races, because of his record.”

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.