Q&A: Incoming Florida House Democrats leader Fentrice Driskell

Driskell was elected on Tuesday as the leader of the Florida House Democratic Caucus. The Tampa-area representative has been in office since 2018.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, speaks on the floor before her colleagues before they vote on the 15-weeks abortion bill ban at the Florida State House in Tallahassee, on Feb. 16, 2022.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, speaks on the floor before her colleagues before they vote on the 15-weeks abortion bill ban at the Florida State House in Tallahassee, on Feb. 16, 2022. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Special to the Times ]
Published May 24, 2022

Florida House Democrats on Tuesday unanimously tapped Tampa Rep. Fentrice Driskell to be their next leader, making her the first Black woman to lead the House Democratic caucus.

Driskell, who was the first Black woman elected student government president at Harvard University and one of the first Black women to make partner at the Carlton Fields law firm, said she appreciated this opportunity and a chance to again be a “first.”

“The fact that my colleagues put their confidence in me and trust me to not only do a good job but also have the opportunity to break this barrier means a lot,” she said.

Driskell had been slated to be leader for the 2024-2026 session. Instead, she takes over after the November elections after Tallahassee Rep. Ramon Alexander, who had originally been chosen next for the role, dropped his reelection bid earlier this month amid sexual harassment allegations.

Driskell, who has been a state representative since 2018, is expected to serve as leader for four years.

This week, she chatted with the Tampa Bay Times about her goals as minority House leader. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Related: Sunday Conversation: With a flurry of firsts, Fentrice Driskell looks to open doors for others

What do you feel having a Black woman in (this role) could do for the caucus?

I think it’s important to center the caucus around all of our lived experiences, but particularly bringing that experience as a Black woman, and understanding that Black women have been such an integral part in any success that Democrats have had. I think it means a lot to have a leader who also has had that same lived experience for Black women, and to bring that to bear as part of the lens through which our caucus directs its policy objectives.

What are some of your goals as a leader and some policy objectives you’re hoping to pursue?

In order to be able to push those policy objectives, we’ve got to get through the election first. My No. 1 goal, honestly, is to focus really diligently during the election cycle and make sure that we bring back every member of our caucus. I’m not breaking news when I say that the historical trends are against us in 2022, but that’s my focus, on making sure that every single member of this great caucus comes back next year.

Related: National Democrats hesitant about Florida, hindering voter outreach efforts

When we do that, that’s what gives us the best opportunity to fight and to create the freedom for every Floridian to be healthy, prosperous and safe, whether it’s making sure that people have access to high-quality, affordable health care, or revisiting the conversation around marijuana legalization, or whether it’s around making sure that our schools are fully funded and preparing our youth for the jobs of tomorrow.

What drives you when you look at policy?

I do feel like we’ve been in a political era in Florida under Gov. DeSantis where the people’s freedoms are being eroded, and it’s troublesome to me, right? We were going through a pandemic, with everybody doing the best that they could including our businesses, and rather than allow our businesses to try to make the decisions that were best for them, we had a governor who bullied them and told them they couldn’t do what they needed to do to keep their workers and their customers safe.

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We saw the “don’t say gay” bill, which was House Bill 1557, pass, and you saw Disney speak out about that, and you saw the governor try to bully Disney.

Related: The 'don't say gay' bill DeSantis just signed, explained

In Florida, I’m very concerned about our future, and just making sure that we have a government that does the best that it can to help people live a high-quality life and then get out of the way.

Make sure that we are fully funding our public schools so that our kids have a fighting chance. That is probably my No. 1 policy issue, is public education.

What does success look like to you as a minority party?

We are outnumbered, so it’s a challenge anytime you make a piece of legislation that is as bad as a lot of what we saw this past session, but we do have a couple of opportunities and tools in our toolkits. The first is that there are some bills that do require a two-thirds vote, so making sure that we stay above that threshold for a supermajority is very important to me because it is an important check and balance.

As a member of the minority party, I believe that we are there to push for accountability and for transparency and to do whatever we can to bring our colleagues across the aisle along with us, or to make that bill better.

In terms of bringing colleagues across the aisle with us, for House Bill 1557, the “don’t say gay” bill, there were seven Republicans in the House who voted against that bill. Now ultimately it did not kill the bill, but to me, that was an important showing that, through our advocacy, we were able to reach some hearts and minds. And you never know how those small victories may translate into greater successes down the line.

What are some of the issues you think might come up in the next session?

I’m concerned that whatever fix that we come up with for property insurance this special session will only provide temporary relief, and we might need to look at some longer-term solutions.

So far, I’ve not seen the governor expand the call of special session to include affordability issues. We know that, unfortunately, under Republican rule for the past 20-plus years, the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund has been raided repeatedly and this house affordability crisis has just built and worsened over time.

There are more people moving to Florida than we can provide affordable housing for, so that is a big one that I’m watching that I think we’re going to have to address next session.