TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Over the chants of Democratic lawmakers who planted themselves in the center of the chamber in protest, the Florida House gave final approval Thursday to a congressional redistricting plan that is expected to help Republicans and reduce the number of Black Democrats representing the state.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called lawmakers into a special session this week and proposed the plan, which then moved quickly through the Republican-dominated Senate and House. As the end of debate neared, Democrats late Thursday morning began a rare protest that temporarily suspended proceedings.
After the House returned, it voted on the redistricting plan without any further debate, as Democrats continued to protest. Without debate, the House also quickly passed two bills targeting the Walt Disney Co. after the entertainment giant criticized a new state law that restricts discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
The redistricting plan and the Disney-related bills now go to DeSantis for his signature.
Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, told reporters that Democrats protested because Republicans were unwilling to listen to them on issues.
"We always talk about communism and socialism. Well, what do you think Ron DeSantis is doing?" Rayner told reporters from the House floor during the protest. "He's saying we can't talk about certain things. He said, we can't love who we want to love. You can't vote a certain way. You cannot have certain representation. Last time I checked, that's what Vladimir Putin does. Last time I checked, that's what Fidel Castro did. Last time I checked, that's what an anti-democracy does."
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, also talking to reporters from the House floor, said that rather than addressing issues such as property insurance, housing affordability and health care, DeSantis and Republicans are focused on consolidating power, "while they use the full power of state government to punish businesses and individuals who speak out against their extreme agenda."
Sprowls issued a statement after the session that said Democrats "tried to drown out the voices of the other elected representatives and the 22 million Floridians they represent."
"Today a group of representatives 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," Sprowls said. "We saw a group of Florida House members with microphones at their desk, a statewide audience, and an opportunity to vote on behalf of their constituents, and they instead chose to pretend they had to stage a protest to be heard."
Other Republican lawmakers tried to link the protest to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
"I think we need a 4/21 committee," tweeted Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Democrat referring to a congressional select committee investigating the 2021 events.
Just over an hour after the protest started, the House voted 68-38 along party lines to approve the new map (SB 2-C)
Republicans currently hold 16 congressional seats in Florida, and the map is likely to increase that number to 20. Once signed into law, it is almost certain to face legal challenges, which likely won’t be resolved until after the 2022 elections.
DeSantis called the special session after vetoing a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Legislature last month.
Rep. Kaylee Tuck, a Lake Placid Republican who is vice chairwoman of the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee, defended DeSantis unusual move to inject himself into the map-making process.
"He publicly submitted maps, which is something that anybody can do. He's allowed to do it. Every single member of the public was allowed to do it," Tuck said.
"And just because it's different, doesn't mean it's bad. Just because it's different, doesn't mean it's wrong. It's just different," Tuck continued. "The process was thorough, it was transparent. It was open. It was complete. It was constitutional. And it was good."
The Senate voted 24-15 along party lines Wednesday to approve the map, which is expected to diminish the chances of electing Black Democrats in districts in North and Central Florida.
Thursday’s protest started about 11:45 a.m. after Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, said during the floor debate that Republicans were pushing the bill like "thug life 101."
Hinson, who was cut off in debate because of a time limit, went to the center of the House chamber with Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, Rep. Travaris McCurdy of Orlando, Rep. Felicia Robinson of Miami Gardens and Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa.
Other Democrats joined them. They refused to leave when asked by Sprowls.
Democratic members chanted, "Stop the Black attack," and sang, "We Shall Overcome."
Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said during an impromptu prayer with fellow Democrats that "we are fighting for the people of Florida." She added, "Sometimes we find ourselves in moments that we did not choose, but that find us."
Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who was in the chair, called a recess, and most Republicans left the House floor.
When Republicans returned, Sprowls procedurally took up all three bills for votes over the chants of McCurdy and Nixon, who remained seated on the floor.
Like their Senate counterparts, House Democrats maintained lawmakers have been "bullied" by DeSantis into accepting "gerrymandered" changes as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, dismissed the bullying allegation, pointing to the House passing a map that DeSantis opposed during the regular legislative session.
"We are not mindless automatons. We don't do this because we were bullied. We do this because we think it is right," Fine said.
Questioning a "racial" intent of the governor’s map, Democrats said it would violate the federal Voting Rights Act and what are known as the Fair Districts amendments in the Florida Constitution. Voters approved the Fair Districts amendments in 2010, at least in part to try to prevent gerrymandering.
DeSantis contended the plan passed by the Legislature during the regular session violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, in part because of a sprawling North Florida district. DeSantis’s plan would redraw District 5, which now runs from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee, to become a more-compact district in the Jacksonville area. The seat is currently held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.
The current configuration of District 5 --- renumbered District 4 in the new map --- emerged after a court fight about lines drawn in 2012.
"You hate when we use the word disenfranchisement. You turn your back. You look the other way," Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said. "But you have to realize that is exactly what this is: Gutting, now-CD 4 … leaves us simply without representation. It simply means that the Black population in Florida that lives north of the I-4 corridor, their voices will be diluted. Their power in this process simply washed away."
DeSantis’ plan also would make significant changes in Central Florida’s District 10, which has been held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, and diminish Democratic strongholds in the Tampa Bay region.
Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, on Wednesday, described the map as a "compromise," with the governor’s plan incorporating Senate proposals for districts in South Florida.
— Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.