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Florida Democrats stage sit-in on House floor over congressional redistricting map

Republicans leave, then reconvene to pass the map over shouts. It’s expected to reduce the number of Black Democratic members in Congress.
Rep. Tray McCurdy, D-Orlando, and Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, sit on the Florida Seal in protest as debate stops on Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the House of Representatives Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Rep. Tray McCurdy, D-Orlando, and Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, sit on the Florida Seal in protest as debate stops on Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the House of Representatives Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Apr. 21|Updated Apr. 21

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans powered through shouts and protests from their Democratic colleagues Thursday, putting an abrupt end to a sit-in on the floor of the chamber by voting to end debate and send the governor a congressional redistricting map.

The 68-38 vote along party lines came an hour after several Black Democrats in the Florida House disrupted debate and sat down in the center aisle of the chamber to protest a map drawn by the governor’s staff that is expected to reduce the number of Black Democratic members in Congress and increase the number of Republicans.

Democrats said the protest was an emotional and spontaneous response to months of watching House leaders limit their debate on controversial issues, refusing even modest modifications, and finally cutting off the debate of Rep. Yvonne Hinson, a Gainesville Democrat and revered colleague who had grown up in segregation.

“I’ve been kicked. I’ve been talked about and I have been called names you don’t even put in the dictionary anymore,” Hinson told her colleagues. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965, I fought for that. I’ve met Martin Luther King, I don’t just talk about him. He taught me peaceful protests, and here we are 2022 rolling back the tide.”

Related: Republicans call Florida Democrats' protest an 'insurrection'

The House was halfway through a three-hour debate on the map when Hinson’s microphone was silenced by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, who was presiding.

Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, walked onto the floor with a T-shirt under her suit jacket that read “Stop the Black Attack” and held a sign in protest. It was 11:47 a.m.

As Black Democrats started chanting and white Democrats joined the protest, House Speaker Chris Sprowls ordered the House in recess and stunned Republicans slowly walked off the floor.

Statements of protest, a chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome’

Rep. Travaris McCurdy, an Orlando Democrat, then sat on the floor of the House reading a portion of the 14th Amendment, which had been used to justify reducing the number of Black districts.

The members of the Democratic delegation sang: “We Shall Overcome.” Rep. Daisy Morales, an Orlando Democrat, held a sign that read: “Legislators serve the people. Not your party.”

“Our demands are clear. The Legislature needs to draw maps,” Nixon said. “The Republicans in leadership need to come to the Democratic leadership, and we’re going to draw some constitutional maps. Those are our demands and we will not be moved.”

The House sergeant at arms next removed the Associated Press photographer from the floor. The Florida Channel, which broadcasts legislative proceedings and is funded in part with taxpayer money, cut away from the sit-in.

The Senate had voted 24-15 along party lines on Wednesday for the bill, and the House had expected to complete its work on Thursday.

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Related: Florida Senate OKs Gov. DeSantis congressional map in special session

State Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa, was seen crying and wiping her tears with a napkin as she joined her colleagues in protest.

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, said he was not aware of the sit-in ahead of time and made it clear that some Democrats were more enthusiastic about the demonstration than others.

“I’m a military man,” Learned sent in a text message, noting that he usually respects decorum in the chamber. “But when millions of Black voters are being silenced by the governor and a complicit Legislature I certainly understand the spirit of my colleagues making sure at least their opposition is heard.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said the House rules, which prohibit floor demonstrations, don’t matter when the Florida Constitution is being violated — in his view — by the GOP maps.

Rep. Tray McCurdy, D-Orlando, Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville and Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens, sit on the Florida Seal in protest as debate stops on Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the House of Representatives Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Rep. Tray McCurdy, D-Orlando, Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville and Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens, sit on the Florida Seal in protest as debate stops on Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the House of Representatives Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

Although only three Democrats — McCurdy, Nixon and Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens — sat on the House floor, more than a dozen Democratic colleagues milled around in solidarity.

Meanwhile, top House Democrats went behind the scenes to negotiate with their Republican counterparts.

Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said he, Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, and Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, conferred with Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and other GOP leaders.

The Democrats floated adding debate time so members could feel more heard about their opposition to the maps, and they talked about temporarily postponing the congressional map, Alexander said.

Republicans didn’t budge.

While protest continues, voting proceeds

An hour into the protest, House officials appeared to have cut off the Wi-Fi, in an apparent attempt to stop the protesting lawmakers from posting live videos.

At 12:55 p.m., Sprowls called members back into session and, as shouting continued, Sprowls unlocked the board to vote on the map and two other bills.

“It is my belief that no members of this chamber should have the opportunity to shut down our process and shut down a job that members of the public and people of Florida have asked us to do,” he said as his voice was drowned out by shouts.

“We will be concluding our business today,” he said to applause from Republicans.

As McCurdy and Nixon chanted, “Stop the Black attacks,” the House voted for the map 68-38.

The House Republicans then moved ahead with votes on two bills to remove Disney’s special districts and its special treatment in a social media bill passed by lawmakers last year. The measures passed along a party-line vote to applause. Sprowls then adjourned the session at 1:02 p.m.

Related: Florida Republicans fire shot at Disney; Reedy Creek bill heads to DeSantis' desk

Within hours, the House sent all three bills to DeSantis for his signature, which is the final act needed to complete Florida’s once-a-decade redistricting process. But it will not be the final chapter.

Voter advocacy groups such as Common Cause Florida and the League of Women Voters of Florida have already vowed to challenge the map in court, arguing that it violates the protections of both the state’s Fair District amendments to the state Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Fair Districts amendments prohibit lawmakers from drawing maps that favor incumbents or political parties or diminish the voting strength of language or racial minorities.

Ellen Freidin, chairperson of the FairDistricts Now campaign, which ran the voter initiative that won voter approval for the provision in 2010, called the congressional map “probably the most intentionally partisan and racist congressional map in the history of Florida.” She said it “completely violates the Florida Constitution’s Fair Districts provisions” and predicted the courts will throw it out.

After the House adjourned, Democrats told reporters the protest was not planned.

“I would have worn different shoes,” quipped Anika Tene Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes.

It was triggered, they said, by the frustrations that have built up for months and the fact that Republican leadership would not let Hinson finish her debate on the congressional map bill.

“We walked in with the feeling like this was already done. That it was a done deal,” said Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville.

She said the emotion came from the “lack of attention” their Republican colleagues paid to Democrats’ debate and concerns.

“There was no one listening. There was no one looking,” she said. “By the time that we started the debate half the chamber with my Republican colleagues had already been empty, they would use the bathroom, go to their offices or they were watching from the back.”

Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, wipes tears from her eyes as she is hugged by Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes, as debate stops for an on-floor protest by Democrats on Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the House of Representatives Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, wipes tears from her eyes as she is hugged by Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes, as debate stops for an on-floor protest by Democrats on Senate Bill 2-C: Establishing the Congressional Districts of the State in the House of Representatives Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

Democrats complain about unequal treatment

Democrats noted that the Republican majority changes the rules when they want to work something in their favor but not when it means listening to opponents.

“What we have here is a group of people who are worried and concerned and scared about the browning, about the darkening of our country and they are trying to hold on to power so much that they are changing the rules,” Nixon said.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, agreed.

“Republicans waived the rules to skip debate and pass all bills including the petty attack on Disney and unconstitutional Congressional maps that erase Black access seats,” Eskamani wrote on Twitter. “This is not democracy — this is one party rule drunk on power and bullying anyone in their way into submission.”

An hour after adjourning the session, Sprowls said in a statement that the Democratic members “decided to hijack the legislative process, violating House Rules and interfering with the rights of their fellow elected colleagues to debate important legislation before the body.”

He noted that although Democrats had agreed to 75 minutes of debate on the congressional maps, and “used the entire time, they did not request any additional time prior to the group’s disruption.”

“Ultimately, this group tried to drown out the voices of the other elected Representatives and the 22 million Floridians they represent,” Sprowls wrote.

Driskell responded that Sprowls had lost control of the chamber and decided to cut off debate.

“He saw that our members were not going to be moved at this point,” she said. “So, what you saw was an acceleration of the process that we’ve seen all session long, which is just to move things through.”

Earlier, when reporters had asked Democrats how long they planned to protest, the Democrats answered: “As long as it takes.”

Within an hour, it was clear Republicans who control the chamber also controlled how the protest would end.

Under House rules, the House leadership could have ordered members to return into session and have the sergeant at arms forcefully remove the protesting Democrats. Instead, they shut them down with their votes.

Krysta Brown, the executive director of The Florida Channel, said the network followed standard procedure when it cut away from the sit-in and after the voting concluded.

“When the House or the Senate is in informal recess and we understand it’s going to be a long one, we switch to other programming,” Brown said.

The channel was not directed by anyone in leadership to stop covering the sit-in, she said.

• • •

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