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Testimony: N. FL Blacks lost attention from Congress after DeSantis destroyed district

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Testimony: N. FL Blacks lost attention from Congress after DeSantis destroyed district

Sep 27, 2023 | 4:40 pm ET
By Michael Moline
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Testimony: N. FL Blacks lost attention from Congress after DeSantis destroyed district
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The Joseph Woodrow Hatchett U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in Tallahassee, Sept. 27, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

When he was a congressman representing portions of Tallahassee, Al Lawson steered through Congress a measure renaming the city’s main post office after Edwina Stephens, the “mother of the Southside,” the predominantly Black area where the building is located.

By the time the naming ceremony transpired this June 10, Lawson, a Black Democrat, had lost his re-election in a rejiggered congressional district now represented by Neal Dunn, a white man from Panama City. That was in last year’s midterm elections.

“He was not familiar at all with the important work of Ms. Stephens,” former Tallahassee City Commissioner Dorothy Inman-Johnson testified in federal court Wednesday of Dunn, in a lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ dismantling of the district that had sent Lawson to Congress for a decade.

Testimony: N. FL Blacks lost attention from Congress after DeSantis destroyed district
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson Jr. Credit: Wikipedia.

The episode represented only one way in which the governor’s redistricting maneuvering, which also gave his Republican Party control of 10 of Florida’s 28 congressional districts, has harmed Black voters like herself, Inman-Johnson said.

Inman-Johnson took the stand on Day Two of a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Florida, Fair Districts Now, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and individual voters (including Inman-Johnson, a self-described longtime member of the NAACP) seeking to overturn the DeSantis map and reinstate a version of Lawson’s old district, which ran 200 miles between Jacksonville and Gadsden County in North Florida.

Federal, state challenges

A panel consisting of judges Adalberto Jordan, Casey Rogers, and Alan Windsor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida is hearing the case, which is expected to extend through next week — and will continue even if D.C. Republicans force a federal government shutdown, Windsor said.

In a separate challenge in state court, a trial judge ruled the DeSantis plan violated the Florida and U.S. Constitution. The appeal is now before the First District Court of Appeal.

In the federal case, the plaintiffs assert that DeSantis insisted a reluctant Legislature dismantle the district specifically to deny Democrats a Black seat.

Lawyers representing the state, meanwhile, insist the governor opposed the use of race as a predominant factor in drawing congressional districts, even though the federal Voting Rights Act allows it and so does Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, sometimes referred to as the FDA.

Harm to Blacks

As for Inman-Johnson, even though she didn’t live within Lawson’s old District 5 — the boundary divided Tallahassee and Leon County between Lawson and Dunn in District 2 before the 2022 reapportionment — Inman could call upon him or his aides at any time and get results, she said.

“He was accessible. He didn’t draw a line through Leon County and say, ‘You can’t have access to me because you are in 2 not 5,” Inman-Johnson continued.

“Because Al Lawson was a minority, he understood issues impacting us and it was important to have somebody in Congress from our region who had interests in common, had an understanding of our community.”

Testimony: N. FL Blacks lost attention from Congress after DeSantis destroyed district
U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn

Dunn’s staff when she called his office were “very pleasant,” but “nothing was done about the issues I had contacted them about,” Inman-Johnson said. Neither is the conservative Republican sensitive to the problems of Blacks in Tallahassee, including poverty and substandard housing, she added.

The voters adopted the amendment, modeled on the VRA, in 2010 and it specifically forbids diminishment of minority voting power (it also forbids political gerrymandering, but no one yet has sued over the advantage DeSantis’ plan gives to Republicans).

In cross examining Inman-Johnson, Joshua Pratt, a former deputy general counsel to Gov. DeSantis now in private practice, focused on her involvement in Democratic Party politics and lack of involvement when the Legislature was debating the new districts. She recently filed papers to run again for the Tallahassee City Commission.

History lesson

Wednesday’s proceedings included a lesson from Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and political science at California Institute of Technology who has extensively studied race relations in the United States.

Kousser sketched over a video feed the history of North Florida’s slave economy, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. North Florida especially has a “long tradition of Black people living there being discriminated against,” he noted.

They’re reminders of the antebellum slave economy, and they continued to live in the region as small farmers and sharecroppers, Kousser said. Whites kept them down through all-white Democratic primaries, poll taxes, and “violence and intimidation,” including the election-related 1920 Ocoee Massacre and bombing assassination of NAACP President Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriet Moore on Christmas Day 1951.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required specified electoral jurisdictions to preclear any voting changes with the U.S. Department of Justice. Florida (except for a few jurisdictions) escaped inclusion because it lacked an explicit literacy test — the law’s drafters wanted to focus on the worst of the worst, Kousser said.

It was still pretty bad here. “It wasn’t that it was less discriminatory in general,” he said.

“They were basically shut out of most of the Twentieth Century because of discriminatory actions,” Kousser said of Blacks and political power.

Florida sent its first Black member to Congress since Reconstruction only in 1993, after the courts forced Black-accessible districts upon the state. The one in North Florida stretched down to Orlando, but the Florida Supreme Court eventually reoriented the district from east-to-west.

The FDA drew strong opposition from Republican political elites before and after it passed, Kousser testified, and tried to undermine it after 62% of the voters approved it, including rank-and-file Republicans.

‘Could not accept yes for an answer’

Sponsors proposed the amendment to the Florida Constitution because of a legal case then working its way to the U.S. Supreme Court trying to undo Section 5 of the VRA, Kousser said. In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the justices gutted Section 5 preclearance, ruling that it no longer was necessary to protect voting rights.

Alex Kelly, a senior aide to DeSantis, made a similar argument while testifying in the case on Tuesday.

But by then, the principle was enshrined in the Florida Constitution.

Kousser tied DeSantis’ stand on the Black district to his administration’s clampdown on Black history books and instruction and allowance of lessons designed by the right-wing PragerU, including “awful distortions of Black history.”

He described how DeSantis inserted himself into the 2022 redistricting process against precedent — no one could remember a governor getting that involved before. Legislative GOP leaders were intent on avoiding the protracted litigation that finally ended when the Florida Supreme Court drew its own map, including the east-west CD 5.

The Legislature ended up approving a version of the old district as a backup to an alternative map situating a Black district within Duval County. DeSantis balked at both. “The governor could not accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Kousser said.

“Above all, he wanted to eliminate the possibility that Black voters in North Florida could elect a candidate of their choice,” Kousser added.

In one memo, DeSantis’ General Counsel Ryan Newman argued there was no evidence of “pervasive, flagrant, widespread, or rampant discrimination.”

The FDA voters knew better, Kousser said.

“Voters had before them a general recognition that there had been discrimination and it continued enough for them to add the racial components of the FDA to the anti-gerrymandering components of the FDA,” he said.