As the U.S. House of Representatives made its way through a historic sixth vote for speaker of the chamber, a Republican legislator from Florida found himself at the center of a political firestorm.
U.S. Rep.-elect Byron Donalds represents a Southwest Florida congressional district that ranges from the Fort Myers area in the north to Marco Island in the south. He was elected to his second term in Congress last November.
And as of Wednesday, he represented the biggest challenge to Rep.-elect Kevin McCarthy’s bid to lead the House chamber.
Here are three things to know about Donalds.
He’s getting the votes Kevin McCarthy needs to become speaker.
During the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of voting for speaker of the U.S. House, at least 20 of Donalds’ Republican colleagues — all staunchly conservative members — cast their votes not for McCarthy, R-Calif., the party’s longtime House leader, but for Donalds.
Given the narrow Republican majority in the House — and the Democrats’ unity in supporting their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., for speaker — those 20 votes made the difference between McCarthy winning the office of speaker and a historic stalemate. (Prior to this week, no vote for House speaker had gone past the first round of voting in a century.)
It’s not Donalds’ first foray into Republican U.S. House leadership. Late last year, he ran for the No. 3 leadership position but lost to Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, 144-74.
Donalds is being backed by a small but vocal group of Republican holdouts who do not want to see McCarthy gain the powerful House speaker position. It’s unlikely Donalds will gain the votes to hold the position this time around. But as of Wednesday afternoon, it was also unclear which Republican could gain the needed majority of votes.
He’s seen as a rising star in the Republican Party.
Donalds, 44, is conservative and outspoken. He is a vocal supporter of both Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump — and he frequently appears at events with both men.
As a lawmaker, he’s tried to build up an environmentalist image: Among the U.S. House bills he’s sponsored are at least two that focus on protecting communities from “harmful algal blooms.” (Neither passed.) As a state representative, Donalds successfully sponsored a criminal justice reform measure raising the threshold at which a theft becomes a felony from $300 to $750. He’s a Black legislator who is supportive of law enforcement and against the teaching of so-called “critical race theory.”
For a relative newcomer to Congress, Donalds is a seasoned politico. He first ran for U.S. House in 2012, losing in the primary. He was elected to serve two terms in Tallahassee as a state representative starting in 2016, before narrowly winning a hotly contested GOP congressional primary in 2020. He cruised to victory in the general election later that year in the deep-red congressional seat.
His family is politically active.
Donalds grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a single mother. He graduated from Florida State University in 2002. After college, he went into the finance industry, according to his congressional biography.
He settled in the education realm. Donalds helped start and run the Mason Classical Academy, a charter school in Collier County. (He is no longer involved with the school.) His wife, Erika Donalds, served a term on the county school board from 2014 to 2018. They have three children together.
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Since leaving the school board, Erika Donalds has scored a number of prominent appointments from top GOP officials in the state. In 2017, she was selected to be a part of the Constitutional Revision Commission — which meets every 20 years to propose amendments to the state Constitution. And in 2022, Erika Donalds was appointed by DeSantis to serve on the Florida Gulf Coast University board of trustees.