Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

Inflamed by what they regard as repeated political assaults by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state Legislature, African American and Caribbean American Democrats in South Florida are vowing to channel their frustration into action aimed at the November elections.

“The governor and the Republicans in the state of Florida have awakened a sleeping giant with Black people in the state,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat whose district straddles the Broward/Miami-Dade county line.

“For the past two years, Black people in the state of Florida have been walked on,” Jones said, arguing DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature have “used Blacks and marginalized people as their political football.”

State Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat and immediate past president of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, decried what he said “seems to a be a collective series of attacks.”

“We’ve seen all the progress that has been made within the Black community in terms of equality, in terms of diversity,” Powell said, “but we have a governor and a Legislature that wants to roll that back.”

It adds up to a critical time for Black Floridians, said state Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Democrat who is an associate pastor at New Mount Olive Baptist Church, one of the biggest, most important Black churches in Fort Lauderdale.

“We’re in this moment where many people that don’t look like us are fearful,” Osgood said. “We will continue to fight for what is morally right, and we know that the oppressor is never going to relinquish anything. … Just know that we’re not kowtowing. We’re going to fight and fight and fight until that change comes.”

Jones, Osgood and Powell have repeatedly expressed their concerns. Now, they’ve said in recent interviews and news conferences, they’re done talking.

“Let’s turn this frustration into action,” said State Rep. Marie Woodson, a Hollywood Democrat. “Let’s turn our frustration into the work we need to do.”

Democrats can’t just sit around and hope Black voters come to them, Jones said. He said Black voters have to be reached wherever they are are: at home, at fish fries, at barber shops, at barbecues — even the drive-throughs at restaurants.

“We have to go back to the streets to get Black voters. We’ve gotten so comfortable with social media that it has … made quite a few people lazy when it comes to organizing, because people believe that they can organize from the computer,” Jones said. “We have to take us outside of this small box.”

Operation BlackOut: The effort to encourage minority Floridians to use vote-by-mail in numbers sufficient to tip elections to Democrats is focused on engaging with minority and young voters who are registered — but don’t actually show up to vote.

This month, Operation BlackOut started the first round of a digital advertising campaign on social media platforms “in urban communities” that the organization said would reach six figures of spending by the Aug. 23 Florida primary. Jones announced Operation BlackOut in February.

Save Our Democracy: Woodson and other volunteers are part of a coordinated campaign that includes knocking on doors and phone banking.

Door-to-door canvassing takes place on Saturdays, starting with a Zoom video meeting, which allows people to join from home — and then immediately start work in their neighborhoods. The mission is educating people on issues and on how to register to vote, Woodson said.

Stay Woke Go Vote: On May 21, Black state legislators and supporting groups are holding big, public events throughout the state. The digital save-the-date flyer, was somewhat indirect, but pointed: “Florida Got Us F(ired) Up!”

Jones said the timing isn’t an accident. On May 20, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War and two years after President Abraham Lincoln freed enslaved people, emancipation was declared in Tallahassee.

(The Broward/Miami-Dade County event starts at 2 p.m. May 21 at Miramar City Hall, Jones said. Time and location aren’t yet final for West Palm Beach, Powell said.)

The most recent catalyst for Black Democrats’ outrage is the new map of Florida’s congressional districts proposed by DeSantis and ratified in April by the Legislature’s Republican majority.

It reduces from four to two the number of Florida districts with boundaries drawn to enhance the chances of voters electing Black members of Congress.

The plan is in legal limbo after a circuit court judge invalidated part of the map on May 11, restoring one of the disputed districts. Interests on both sides don’t expect the ruling will be implemented as the issue winds its way through.

Black Democrats viewed the changed congressional configuration as a monumental setback.

Under mid-1980s revisions to the federal Voting Rights Act, congressional boundaries have been drawn with a goal of increasing the chance that someone from a minority group can win an election and bring a voice that otherwise wouldn’t be heard to the halls of Congress.

The Voting Rights Act update immediately produced results: In 1992, Florida elected its first Black members of Congress since 1877, when the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction ended.

Black Democratic leaders cited several other issues:

Stop WOKE Act: DeSantis signed a law last month that imposed restrictions in the way race-related issues are taught in public schools and in private workplaces in Florida, banning lessons that might make some people uncomfortable.

The governor said he was acting to protect students from “pernicious ideologies like critical race theory,” known as CRT, promising that “we are not going to use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country or hate each other.”

The law was a response to concerns among conservatives who believe so-called “critical race theory” is being taught in schools. Educators say that’s not happening.

Election law changes: A 2021 law — being litigated in the courts — makes many changes in state election law, including new restrictions on volunteers conducting voter registration, new requirements for people who wish to vote by mail and limits on when and how mail ballots can be turned in by voters.

Taken together, Black Democratic lawmakers and activists said, the provision would make it more difficult for Black citizens to vote. Though Florida elections have had little more than relatively small glitches in the last two decades, DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have said they acted to prevent problems.

Protest restrictions: In 2021 DeSantis signed a law restricting protests, something the governor called for in the aftermath of widespread Black Lives Matter protests that followed a white Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, a Black man.

Florida protests occasionally caused some property damage and blocked some expressways, but they were generally nonviolent.

The new law makes it easier for police to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they hadn’t engaged in violence. Anyone charged under the law is denied bail until their first court appearance.

It adds up, Powell said, to DeSantis and Florida Republicans engaging in something akin to the 1960s “Southern Strategy,” widely associated with former President Richard Nixon and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, in which anger over new civil rights laws among some white voters was used to get them to the polls and voting Republican. “We’re seeing that today,” Powell said.

It’s a marked change in just 20 months.

In summer of 2020, DeSantis was joined by some of Broward’s most prominent elected Black Democrats as he championed his candidacy of Renatha Francis, a Jamaican-born circuit court judge in Palm Beach County, to fill a Florida Supreme Court vacancy. (The nomination faltered because she didn’t have the minimum required 10 years as a member of the Bar required for Supreme Court justices by the Florida Constitution.)

Republicans categorically reject the suggestion the governor and lawmakers are doing anything to hurt Black Floridians.

There is “absolutely not” anything racially motivated in DeSantis’ policies, said Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. “He’s no racist. He’s the farthest thing from it. I’ve met him several times. I feel like I know him. I feel like he is a really good man who wants to do what’s best for the state.”

Barnett said people who disagree with DeSantis’ policies “will find any excuse to attack him, [delivering] ad hominem attacks [of] racism.”

Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said via email that DeSantis “rejects identity politics. He sees Floridians as individuals first, not as collective blocs defined by skin color or any other superficial characteristic. He enacts the policies that he believes are right for Floridians.”

DeSantis and his team are masterful at creating the scenes that end up in video clips and pictures on television, on social media and on the front pages of newspapers — both to advance his objectives and undermine his opponents.

The April 22 rally at which he enacted new restrictions on teaching of racial issues in schools and workplaces was an example. Among those joining DeSantis and speaking at the event were Quisha King, of Duval County and John Davis, the governor-appointed director of the Florida Lottery. Davis grew up in Pahokee in far western Palm Beach County.

Both King and Davis, who are Black, praised the governor.

“Governor DeSantis has been, again, bold and courageous. Every time I see him, those are the two words that I see and that I want to say because so many of us are searching for strong leadership these days,” King said.

DeSantis introduced her as a “parent, a friend of mine.”

She’s more: a political communications consultant, former staffer for the Republican National Committee, activist with the conservative organization Moms 4 Liberty’s northeast Florida branch. As she stepped away from the lectern, DeSantis asked her to “give me a hug. You did good.”

King said she CRT exists and was applauded DeSantis for fighting it. “I am just so very grateful that critical race theory will now be outlawed in schools and also in corporations. We don’t want to hear about your ‘be less white.’ We don’t want to hear about any of these other things going on involving critical race theory.”

Jones, the state senator, said the inclusion of Black participants is an effort by DeSantis “to try to legitimize what you’re doing and make it seem like what you’re doing is right.”

The bill-signing event featured a racially diverse group of schoolchildren at a Hialeah Gardens charter school who were given signs to hold — one set shaped like a stop sign proclaimed “Stop Woke” in red and white and the other had the letters CRT with a red circle and slash over the term.

Jones, a former public school teacher, objected to using the children that way.

“Young people do not even know what CRT is,” he said. “Those children were not clear on the fact that you all are trying to take away how Black history is taught in our classrooms away from us.”

The issues cited by the Democrats “could” trigger greater involvement by Black voters, said Sharon Austin, a political scientist at the University of Florida, who teaches about and researches African American and Caribbean American politics. “That’s possibly what is going to happen now.”

Just how much a reaction, if at all, is unknown, she said.

Barnett said Democrats are deluding themselves if they think the policy differences they’re complaining about will help them at the polls.

“I don’t know how much on the minds of Black voters CRT is or parental rights or the redistricting of congressional districts are. Like any Americans, Black Americans care about how policies of the government affect their lives day to day: Inflation, gas prices. That affects everybody no matter what your color is,” he said. “Economic issues affect everybody. I think that’s what will be foremost in people’s minds when they vote in the election.”

And Rudy Jean-Bart, a professor of American history and African American history at Broward College, said he is skeptical that the concerns the Democrats are raising are enough to affect DeSantis’ reelection bid, the biggest Florida contest of 2022.

“I don’t think that Democratic legislators [in Florida] should be confident any longer in the thought that all we need to do is depend on Republicans to create heinous legislation, and that is going to bring voters out,” Jean-Bart said.

“They’re not going to vote unless they are moved to vote. And if you tell a Black person, ‘Hey did you know that this governor is creating legislation that is racist,’ they’re going to be like ‘But we’ve been dealing with racism forever in America. It’s Tuesday,” he said.

And, Jean-Bart said, Black Floridians’ political views are not all the same. “We are not a monolith.”

Some issues that have outraged Democrats have some support among Black voters, he said.

He cited the Parental Rights in Education law, labeled the “don’t say gay” law by critics, that prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade and limits it in older grades. “You are appealing to a religious base, and what we see is that a lot of Black folks are very religious,” Jean-Bart said.

Pushaw, too, said many Black residents like the governor’s policy priorities.

“Within the same racial or ethnic group, different people will have different priorities, concerns, and considerations,” Pushaw said by email. “Our office hears from Floridians of all races, including Black Floridians, that they support the governor’s policies that have strengthened protections for parental rights, expanded school choice opportunities, and protected their jobs from COVID vaccine mandates.”

Jones and Woodson acknowledged that voters want to see concerns about “kitchen table” issues that affect people’s everyday lives.

The issues the Democrats are highlighting have gotten people’s attention, Jones said. “They’re seeing it on their timelines, they’re seeing it on their newsfeeds, they’re seeing it on their TVs. Now that we have their attention, give me something to vote for,” Jones said.

“You can campaign on Ron DeSantis. Or you can campaign on what you’re going to do for people,” Jones said, promising Democrats would give voters “something to vote for.”

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @browardpolitics





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