2022 session: Florida Democrats start with legislative vacancies

Unfilled Senate and House districts could possibly leave more than 700,000 residents in South Florida without representation.
The vacancies in Senate District 33, House District 88 and House District 94 are the result of three lawmakers who resigned to run for Florida’s Congressional District 20, a void left by the death of former U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.
The vacancies in Senate District 33, House District 88 and House District 94 are the result of three lawmakers who resigned to run for Florida’s Congressional District 20, a void left by the death of former U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings. [ Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 8, 2022|Updated Jan. 10, 2022

Rick Hoye, Broward County’s newly elected Democratic Party chair, knows he’s running against the clock. In the past months, he helped lead voter outreach for a congressional special election primary in an overwhelmingly blue seat. Now he has to mobilize voters for two more special elections in his county — a task that will prove difficult in elections with historically low turnout.

“It’s not an easy task but it’s our task,” Hoye said. “We don’t have that much time … the average person doesn’t follow this thing the way I do.”

For a party that has for years struggled to counter Republican-led bills and priorities, Florida Democrats are facing an added hurdle in this year’s legislative session. Three safely Democratic districts in Broward and Palm Beach counties are likely to go unfilled during most of the legislative session that starts Tuesday.

The unfilled positions would possibly leave more than 700,000 residents without representation in one or both chambers, a scenario where major swaths of both South Florida counties will not have advocates for local projects and priorities — especially worrisome in a year when the state budget is expected to benefit from a windfall of money from federal funds and local tax revenue.

The vacancies — in Senate District 33, House District 88 and House District 94 — are the result of three lawmakers who resigned to run for Florida’s Congressional District 20, a void left by the death of former U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.

For Democrats, it means they will now have 15 members to the 24 Republican lawmakers in the Senate.

But in the House, the vacancies are more drastic for the likely 40 Democrats who will be in office during the session, a scenario that renders the party a so-called “super minority” in what is regularly a 120-member chamber, and deepens Republican power to easily bypass opposition.

“That’s a big deal,” Hoye said. “We wish we had as many people holding the line for us as possible. ... It’s bad that we won’t have our full regiment, but we will be doing everything we can to make sure that we’re not mistreated.”

Mail ballots started going out on Jan. 1, but the special elections’ primaries, which will be held at the same time as the general election for the 20th Congressional District, are scheduled for Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, with the general election scheduled for March 8.

Although Broward’s House District 94 will have no general election, it is unclear whether House leaders will allow the victor to be sworn and serve for the remainder of the 60-day legislative session. The other two districts will have to wait until after the March 8 general election to be filled, just three days before the end of the legislative session.

The timing of the elections, which were fixed by DeSantis, drew plenty of controversy late last year from Democrats. Many community leaders, including some of the candidates who had resigned their seats, criticized DeSantis’ decision to wait 87 days before declaring the dates for the special elections, instead of pegging the special election dates to the congressional primary that took place in November, as politically motivated. DeSantis was ultimately sued over the controversy.

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Related: Facing lawsuit, DeSantis sets special elections for South Florida legislative races

DeSantis’ spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, said the governor “fulfilled his constitutional and statutory duties” by scheduling the elections to coincide with the upcoming Florida Congressional District 20 general election that was set to take place at the same time.

Some Democratic leaders have argued that the election dates left three majority-Black districts without any representation during a crucial year of redistricting — the once-in-a-decade redrawing of district maps — and legislation related to critical race theory, voting rights and immigration. Senate District 33, for example, includes the heart of much of Broward’s Caribbean immigrant community and organizations that help fund social services for underserved residents.

“I’m the only Black senator who we’ll have to defend on the (Senate) education committee because Sen. (Perry) Thurston will be gone off that committee,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, whose district straddles south Broward and north Miami-Dade. “It’s sad that’s the representation that’s needed at the table. It’s there, but it’s one less because of politics, in my mind.”

Representing those constituents

Florida House leaders may have some discretion in determining when the victor in the House District 94 race will be allowed to be sworn in, said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee elections lawyer.

The governor’s executive order scheduling the special elections says that a general election “shall be held on March 8, 2022, if necessary, to select the State Senator for Senate District 33, the State Representative for House District 88, and the State Representative for House District 94.”

By presuming that a general election may not be necessary, the language assumes that the victor may be chosen in the primary, and therefore eligible to take office during the legislative session. But, Herron said, state law says that even if a candidate is not on the ballot in the general election, they are assumed the victor by a vote of 1 to 0. That gives House leaders the option of waiting until the general election to swear in the winner of the House District 94 seat, he said.

Lawmakers relied on that interpretation of the law when former state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, was appointed by DeSantis to be director of the Division of Emergency Management in 2019. Moskowitz was replaced in a special election by Rep. Dan Daley and, although Daley was elected in the primary, he was not sworn in until after the general election.

Meanwhile, there are some efforts from the Broward legislative delegation to advocate for appropriations to benefit the vacant districts, including from Jones and Minority Leader Sen. Lauren Book. Former Rep. Omari Hardy, who left Palm Beach’s House District 88 to run for Hastings’ seat, said he asked House leadership to retain his staff during the two-month gap so they can answer calls from constituents seeking help.

Hardy said his staff received a lot of calls in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to help people in his district access unemployment benefits and utility assistance.

“In our case, the unemployment system was designed to fail. It was designed to frustrate folks who were trying to access their benefits when they needed them most,” Hardy said. “That will continue to happen during the pandemic. It’s just kind of unfortunate that we’ve had to make these contingency plans.”

Spokespeople for both Republican leaders, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the vacant seats. Sprowl’s office also did not respond to questions about whether the speaker intends to allow the winner in House District 94 to take the seat immediately after the election next week.

Cities, organizations may be hurt

Still, some South Florida officials don’t think filling in for constituent services in the two-month gap is enough. Democratic Rep. Marie Woodson, whose district includes Miramar and Hollywood, pointed to a series of voting restrictions that DeSantis wants the Republican-led Legislature to consider as an example of legislation that Democrats won’t have the numbers to credibly oppose.

“Everything that impacts our people’s daily lives are at stake and it will be impacted because you don’t have the numbers,” Woodson said. “We don’t know what to expect.”

“They need somebody who understands the culture, somebody who understands the community. And go and fight for them. And guess what? They don’t have that person.

“This is why you have representation, for legislators to talk to their constituents, go into their communities, find out what their needs are,” Woodson said.

Hardy said that while he agreed with the concept of having representation, he was equally skeptical that adding two Democrats in the House would present any significant resistance to bills driven by DeSantis’ political priorities.

“I, again, believe folks should have strong representation but I don’t want folks to think that our mere presence is enough to stop or shed the roughest edges from these bills,” Hardy said. “We should not kid ourselves; Republicans run Tallahassee.”

The effect might not be as noticeable in the short term for local governments who depend on lobbyists to advocate on their behalf.

Melissa Dunn, vice mayor of Lauderhill, one of the cities located within the vacant Broward districts, said its city manager works with a lobbying firm that helps coordinate their appropriation requests. But Dunn admitted they are hoping for at least one of the two Broward seats to be filled before the end of session.

“Anything beyond the short term, then I think we’ll really feel the impact,” Dunn said. “It’s always very helpful when you can pick up the phone and call a Sen. Thurston or State Rep. DuBose.”

The impact of the vacancies is more direct for organizations that depend on yearly state funding, and are accustomed to lobbying legislators to advocate for their causes.

The concern was enough for Germaine Smith-Baugh, president and CEO of the Urban League of Broward County, to bring up the lack of representation during a meeting with the Broward legislative delegation.

The Urban League is a civil rights organization that assists residents in Black communities with job training, housing, entrepreneurship and education. The Broward branch of the nonprofit, which is located in the center of Senate District 33 and House District 94, has received millions of dollars in appropriations in years past.

“I have really taken the stance of encouraging and challenging our Broward delegation to be representative of these areas, to be advocates for these areas,” said Smith-Baugh, adding that she’s received a positive response from elected officials since she raised concerns.

“Organizations will find a way to be represented and advocate. But the regular Jill and Jane, whether they have been very politically involved or not, I think that’s where those conversations need to be had,” she added.

Maria Meyer, chief development officer at the community early education center Jack and Jill, said her Broward-based organization hasn’t yet come to terms with how it might be affected by the vacancies. While the group was about to receive state funding last year for the first time, it was one of several smaller nonprofits cut from the state budget when it reached the governor’s desk.

But since then, Meyer said efforts have been made to appeal to state lawmakers. And while Jack and Jill depend on other sources of income for its operational budget, like fundraisers and community partnerships, there is hope that this session will prove fruitful.

“We’ve spent a lot of time educating the legislators,” said Meyer, mentioning Broward-based Rep. Evan Jenne and Miami-Dade Rep. Vance Aloupis, in particular.

It is not lost on Hoye, the Democratic chairperson in Broward, that the lack of representation for the districts in his county are happening in a year when critical race theory and the power of local government will be debated in the Legislature. Hoye, who is the first Black person to chair the Broward Democratic Party, is also an American History teacher.

“I take it on both sides of my face,” Hoye said. “You have a war on minorities and educators and people who work in public education in general. ... We’re reinforcing the fact that we still need representation and we need people to come out and vote.”

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