Al Lawson ratcheted up the rhetoric Thursday in a redistricting feud with Gov. Ron DeSantis, vowing to “take him out.”
The Black Democratic congressman from Tallahassee was joined by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, also a Democratic candidate for governor, in issuing a call-to-action at a lunchtime rally. They want to take a fight over how Florida’s 28 congressional districts are drawn “to the streets, the ballot box” and, if necessary, to the courts.
“He started the fight and now we’re not backing down from it and we gonna take him out,” Lawson said. “The governor doesn’t really care about minority voters.”
Small town redistricting blues:Historically Black Florida town could lose Black congressman under DeSantis redistricting
The rally organized by the NAACP to protest DeSantis’ redistricting agenda and proposed vote-by-mail proposals in the Legislature drew a crowd of more than 200 that included military veterans, retirees, office workers and ministers, along with a Miami mom dressed as Lady Liberty to the lawn of Florida’s Historic Capitol.
Numerous people waved signs urging people to register to vote, and for lawmakers not to “steal our choice.”
Leon County School Board Chair Darryl Jones said he saw “hatred” in the GOP voting and DeSantis redistricting agenda, adding that “wickedness in high places seeks to undermine the very tenets of our democracy.”
Lawson and Democrats believe DeSantis targeted Lawson’s district for elimination when, in a surprise move, the governor released a proposed redistricting map that eliminates two minority-access districts, including Lawson.
Experts said the proposal could net the GOP an additional three seats in Congress in 2024, when Republicans hope to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He’s trying to show other Republicans across the country how he is going to (act as) president; Florida is a test case,” Lawson said, alluding to the conventional wisdom that DeSantis is aiming for the White House one day.
“If he’s successful in Florida, that means there’ll be no minority access district throughout America,” he added as Leon County Commission chairman Bill Proctor and commissioners Nick Maddox and Rick Minor stood behind him.
Tallahassee city commissioners Curtis Richardson, Dianne Williams-Cox and Jeremy Matlow also stood with Lawson on the Capitol steps.
What the congressional map would mean for Tallahassee
Congressional District 5 is one of two Tallahassee congressional districts. Lawson holds one that favors a Democrat; the other is a Republican-leaning seat, CD 2, represented by Panama City’s Neal Dunn. The two districts meet near the Railroad Square area of Tallahassee.
DeSantis would place all of Leon County, where fewer than a third of voters are registered with the GOP, in Dunn’s red district.
He brought the Florida Legislature’s work on the once-in-a-decade redrawing of the state’s political boundaries to accommodate population growth to a screeching halt last month with the release of a proposed map, eliminating Lawson’s district.
And while both the House and Senate worked on maps that largely kept CD 5 intact, DeSantis pledged to veto any proposal that contains what he sees as an illegally gerrymandered district.
DeSantis later asked the Florida Supreme Court if the federal Voting Rights Act requires a minority access district in north Florida. The court declined to opine.
Lawson said he called DeSantis to have lunch and to ask if DeSantis has a problem with minority access districts. It’s unclear if the governor responded but the Congressman said he’ll keep trying to talk to him. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
DeSantis has criticized Congressional District 5 for joining together the urban cores of Jacksonville and Tallahassee by splitting in two each of the five counties between them in what he sees as an illegal gerrymander guided by race.
Redistricting data expert Matt Isbell, who has consulted for Democrats, disputes that. An analysis by his company, MCI Maps, shows Black voters are a majority of seven of the district’s eight counties.
The configuration that gives Tallahassee two congressional districts was drawn seven years ago by the Florida Supreme Court with the intent of one being a minority access districts.
Fried called the DeSantis proposal a pile of “B.S.” and a “power grab” that voters won’t stand for.
“We’ve marched before and we’re going to march again. We’re going to march right to the polls,” Fried said. “Not because we need a Democratic governor on this, but because we need decency. We need compassion. We need honesty.”
And then with a pause, Fried turned and looked at the Capitol: “And you’re not getting it from the people that are behind us.”
While Fried and the others spoke, retiree Ed Oaksford stood on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol and waved a sign that said, “Our vote, our voice, don’t steal our choice.”
When asked why he responded to the NAACP’s call to rally for minority representation and voting rights, Oaksford — a white man — said it was what a good citizen does.
“I can only hope that it raises consciousness and gets people thinking about these things,” said Oaksford, who spent a career with the U.S. Geological Survey in Tallahassee.
Oaksford said over the past year he has been to many rallies protesting voter suppression.
“You can’t let up ever, because when you let up, you’ve given up and it’s over,” Oaksford said. “So I intend to be wherever democracy is infringed. Today, this is where I think it is.”
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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