TALLAHASSEE — On the first day of Black History Month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court if a Black congressman’s district was unconstitutional. Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson responded that the governor is race baiting to build political points with his base.
The north Florida district runs from Jacksonville to Gadsden County. The Republican-dominated Senate recently approved a map that largely keeps it intact. The Republican-dominated House also has proposed maps that do the same. The Supreme Court last decade also approved the map as constitutional.
But now DeSantis is questioning whether the district meets the state and U.S. constitutions. The state requires that districts be compact, contiguous and not drawn to benefit or hurt a political party or candidate.
“I ask for your opinion to help me be sufficiently conscious of race to comply with the Florida Constitution’s anti-diminishment provision but avoid being so conscious of race that my actions could violate the U.S. and Florida Constitutions,” wrote DeSantis, who is seeking reelection in 2022 and could be a presidential candidate in 2024.
On the night before Martin Luther King Day, DeSantis proposed new congressional maps — a highly unusual move for a governor. The map included a redrawing of Lawson’s district so that it would contain more Republican voters and be more difficult for him to win re-election.
Lawson questioned the governor’s motives.
“He has a Napoleon complex,” Lawson said. “This is the first time we’ve ever seen the governor really drop a map before the Senate and the House, and especially when he dropped it on MLK week. It’s obvious that there’s some problem with the governor as related to communities of interest and I think that’s something he has to resolve himself.”
Asked to respond, DeSantis’ communications office cited a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that said North Carolina unconstitutionally used race too heavily in approving congressional districts.
“Representative Al Lawson’s seat poses legal concerns,” said DeSantis spokesman Taryn Fenske.
In his letter to the Supreme Court, DeSantis pointed out that the district spans about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from east to west to connect Black voters, but at one point is only three miles (about 5 kilometers) from north to south along the Georgia border.
DeSantis has stacked the state Supreme Court with conservatives, replacing three liberal justices who were forced to leave the bench because of age limits in the state constitution.
The governor’s request to the Supreme Court had an immediate effect on the legislative process. A House committee cancelled a meeting to discuss congressional maps.
“It is not in our interest to proceed until such a time that the court indicates whether it will provide additional guidance,” Republican Rep. Tyler Sirois and chairman of the Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee wrote to members.
The issue comes as the Legislature is considering another DeSantis priority related to race: A bill that would outlaw public schools and businesses from making white people feel uncomfortable for racist policies in the United States’ past, such as slavery and refusing Blacks the right to vote.
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A state House committee voted on political lines — all Republicans in favor, and all Democrats opposed — to support the legislation on Monday.
“It’s more race baiting for election, because none of this is being taught in schools,” said Lawson, who spent nearly three decades in the state Legislature. “To put fear into citizens — white citizens — is more race baiting.”
By BRENDAN FARRINGTON, Associated Press.