Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week announced that the special election to replace Rep. Alcee Hastings, who died last month, will take place in January 2022.
Democrats urged DeSantis to fill the seat quickly — arguing that leaving a majority Black and heavily Democratic seat in Broward and Palm Beach counties unoccupied for months deprives hundreds of thousands of Floridians of representation in Congress.
The open seat also creates complications in Washington, where House Democrats can afford only two defections within their ranks to pass bills with their 218-212 majority over Republicans in the House of Representatives.
DeSantis said Tuesday the general election will take place on Jan. 11, 2022, with the Democratic primary set for Nov. 2, 2021. The Democratic primary will almost certainly decide who wins the seat that Hastings occupied since 1993 as the district overwhelmingly favors Democrats.
“I know there will be a lot of folks who want to run for it so hopefully that gives them enough time to get on the ballot and do what they need to do to be competitive,” DeSantis said, adding that he decided on the timeline after speaking with Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the election supervisors of Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Candidates for Congress will officially qualify for the ballot in September.
State Sen. Perry Thurston, one of the five sitting politicians running for Congress, said he’s glad that DeSantis scheduled an election but that leaving the seat open for nearly nine months isn’t the best option.
“The primary concern is the representation for the people in District 20,” Thurston said. “It doesn’t have to be pushed back to November. It further delays representation for our constituents. I’m glad that it was done but quite frankly he should have done it sooner.”
A void in Congress
Hastings’ seat will be vacant for more than nine months once it is finally filled in January. The void is about four months longer than the last U.S. House seat that became vacant in Florida following the death of a sitting member of Congress. Longtime Republican Rep. Bill Young died in October 2013 and was replaced in a March 2014 special election, a vacancy that lasted shortly over five months.
The lack of a representative puts the district at a disadvantage. There is no advocate or voting representation for about 800,000 Floridians in Broward and Palm Beach counties. District-level case work continues under the direction of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, an official appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Staff members of Representative Hastings remain on the House payroll under the supervision of the Clerk of the House to receive and undertake constituent casework, to help in handling business with the departments of the executive branch of the government, to provide general status information on pending legislation and to offer other general constituent services provided by House offices,” the clerk’s office said in a statement.
Hastings’ staffers are not allowed to talk to reporters during the vacancy because there is not an elected member in office.
In addition to the lack of voting representation, the district doesn’t have an advocate for securing federal funds. On Friday, every member of Congress from South Florida submitted a list of potential projects that could receive federal funds after the House and Senate lifted a 10-year ban on earmarks. Hastings’ former district was the only one not to submit a list of projects for potential earmarks, which require the member of Congress to justify the expense of taxpayer dollars in their districts.
Down ballot ripple effects
DeSantis did not address any potential openings in the Florida Legislature or Broward County Commission that will likely occur when candidates officially file for Hastings’ seat. At least five sitting politicians — one state senator, two state representatives and two county commissioners — have said they will run for the seat.
Thurston, state Rep. Bobby DuBose, state Rep. Omari Hardy, Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness and Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief are the sitting politicians in the race.
The Secretary of State’s office did not immediately respond when asked if special elections related to vacancies caused by candidates running for Hastings’ seat will occur at the same time.
Former state Sen. Chris Smith, a Democrat from Broward County, said in an interview that he recently met with the Secretary of State’s office and they were in favor of scheduling any special elections in Broward and Palm Beach counties concurrently with the election for Hastings’ seat. All of the candidates running for Congress represent safely Democratic districts.
“One of the things they were trying to do is coordinate the timing of the races,” Smith said. “You have county commissioners, state senators and state representatives all running and trying to coordinate possibly doing these races at the same time. It takes about $3 million to run a full election in Broward County; we’re trying to figure out where we can do multiple races at once.”
But Smith also said he anticipates DeSantis attempting to appoint commissioners to replace Holness and Sharief once they resign to run for Congress. He said replacing Sharief, whose term expires in 2022, is somewhat defensible, but DeSantis replacing Holness, who was elected in 2020, is based on a “flawed interpretation” of the law.
“His [DeSantis’] interpretation that he’s going by would be to appoint the two county commissioners, he appoints them both until 2022,” Smith said. “I think that’s flawed. He can’t appoint state senators and state representatives, even with what I feel is his flawed interpretation.”
But declining to schedule special elections for the seats vacated by Thurston, Hardy and DuBose, if they resign to run for Congress, could aid Republicans in Tallahassee for the 2022 legislative session. All three districts would likely elect Democrats.
“I have not heard anything out of Tallahassee as it pertains to what’s next,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, who represents southern Broward and northern Miami-Dade counties.
The Democratic primary also includes five other candidates: former state representative and 2019 West Palm Beach mayoral candidate Priscilla Taylor; Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a healthcare executive from Hollywood who ran against Hastings in 2020 and received 30.7 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary; Marlon Onias, a Fort Lauderdale attorney; Elvin Dowling, a public speaker and author from Broward County; and Matt Boswell, a Fort Lauderdale resident running on a left-leaning platform.
State of the race
Multiple sources pointed to the five sitting lawmakers as the leading candidates in the race, which could see a future member of Congress win the primary with as little as 4,000 to 5,000 votes.
“This race will turn into who can bring out their people — that’s it,” said Jones, who isn’t backing anyone in the primary yet. “You could spend all the money you want to spend but this is going to be based on who can turn their people out.”
About two-thirds of the district is in Broward County and one-third is in Palm Beach County.
The Democratic primary in November will almost certainly decide who ends up filling Hastings’ seat. The primary winner will need to defeat nominal GOP opposition in January and will likely be sworn into office early next year.
Holness, Thurston and DuBose all represent portions of Fort Lauderdale in central Broward, which is the biggest source of votes in the district. Hardy is the only sitting politician in the race from Palm Beach County, while Sharief’s county commission seat includes southern Broward around Miramar.
But in addition to geography, each of the candidates has a distinct base.
Smith said Holness has support from Broward County’s large Caribbean community while Sharief will benefit from being the only woman in the race among the elected officials. He said Thurston has connections in Washington and Tallahassee that can help him raise money, while Hardy, who commands a large social media following, is running as the most left-leaning candidate among the elected officials. DuBose also has a strong base of support in Fort Lauderdale.
“All of them are pretty liberal but definitely the progressive lane will be taken by Hardy,” said Smith, who said he’s supporting Thurston but also counts DuBose as a close friend.
Smith and Jones said they both expect the race to turn negative, though not until the field is finalized after qualifying. They both said voters in the district responded well to Hastings’ old-school style of politics that eschews TV ads and poll-tested messaging campaigns in favor of personal connections and a deep knowledge of the district.
“How much does being a progressive matter to an old-school Democrat?” Smith said. “You’re talking a John Lewis type. Alcee Hastings was traditional. In an old school, Black seat does being a young progressive really garner enough votes to do it?”
And money could be a wildcard for a seat where the candidates aren’t likely to differ on many issues. None of the candidates can self-fund a seven-figure congressional campaign, but there’s the prospect of national progressive groups backing Hardy after he compared himself to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his announcement video or Big Sugar getting involved in the race to favor a representative who will continue Hastings’ policy of working closely with the industry.
“The policy is extremely important but as far as voting in the Black community goes it really goes down to grassroots,” Jones said. “I don’t care if you’re running for Congress or not.”
Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright contributed to this report.
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