TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a new congressional map on Thursday just after Democratic lawmakers shut down the state’s special legislative session for more than an hour with a pray-in and sit-in inside the chamber.
The chamber passed the map at just before 1 p.m. as two Black Democratic members shouted a call-and-response chant in opposition to it. The new map was drawn at the insistence of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who demanded the elimination of a Black-heavy congressional seat; Democrats say the redrawn districts unravel Black political power in the state. The Senate voted Wednesday to pass the map.
The noisy and chaotic proceeding marked the end of an unusual standoff between the state legislators, who typically control redistricting, and a governor who inserted himself into the process to secure a significant political gain for his party nationally.
The surprising act of defiance began at a little before noon, when Rep. Yvonne Hinson went over her allotted speaking time and had her microphone cut, prompting other Black lawmakers to stand without being recognized and gather in the center of the chamber, showing off shirts that said “Stop the Black Attack” and sitting on the state seal of the House floor’s blue carpet.
In all, four Black lawmakers and one Hispanic representative — Hinson, Angie Nixon, Travaris McCurdy, Felicia Robinson and Daisy Morales — occupied the center of the chamber as bewildered Republicans looked on.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls tried to rule them out of order, and when they refused to comply, the session was gaveled into an indefinite recess. The Republicans then left; the TV feed to the Florida Channel, which was broadcasting the session, was cut; an Associated Press photographer was kicked off the floor by the sergeant-at-arms and had his media pass taken away; and the top security official also kicked out the few members of the public observing in the gallery and barred others from entering.
“We’re on lockdown right now,” one sergeant explained.
Democrats, alone in the chamber, prayed and chanted.
Rep. Dotie Joseph led a prayer suggesting Republicans were under the sway of Satan, whom she called “the Adversary.”
“Right now, we’ve lined up all of the works of the Adversary — all of the works of the Adversary — seeking to divide us, seeking to distract us with a culture war,” she said. “We refocused us on your two highest and greatest commandments: that we would love you and that we would love each other, and that people would know you by our works and how we treat one another.”
Rep. Anna Eskamani led a chant as Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith appeared to livestream from the House floor.
Under Florida House rules, the speaker has the right to have the members forcibly removed, but after an hour of the sit-in, he did not exercise that authority.
Instead, the GOP majority took the floor in force an hour later, determined to pass the map. Hinson stood at the center of the floor, on the seal, while Nixon and McCurdy sat beside her.
Nixon shouted: “when Black votes are under attack, what do we do?”
“Stand up fight back!” McCurdy shouted back.
The two engaged in the call-and-response chant, drowning out Sprowls voice on the speaker system as he tried to talk about decorum.
But Republicans could hear him enough, and when he called for a vote, the map easily passed, and the Republican majority erupted in loud applause, drowning out McCurdy and Nixon.
The speaker then took up legislation aimed at changing Disney’s special self-governing statute. Nixon and McCurdy kept chanting while Republicans voted again, and won, applauding once again, and the session came to a close.
Republicans in the Legislature previously passed two different maps that secured Republicans a slight political advantage while preserving a most of the current 5th Congressional District, a Black-held seat with a politically powerful number of Black voters. The lawmakers’ maps were an effort to comply with the state’s anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments, which bar favoring one party or another and denying minority representation.
But DeSantis said the congressional seat in northern Florida is a racial gerrymander that violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and vetoed the plans, going on to call this week’s special session to pass another map. His office proposed one that creates four new Republican seats while eliminating three Democratic seats, including the current 5th district.
GOP legislators, with little incentive to continue fighting with their popular governor, advanced the governor’s map rapidly this week.
During debate on Thursday morning, Democrats lambasted the plan for defying state and federal law.
“Our job is to pass something that complies with the Florida constitution, including those Fair Districts provisions, and with the federal Voting Rights Act,” said state Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. “Our job is to comply with the law as it exists and this map plainly does not do that.”
State Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican representing parts of Brevard County, argued that his party hadn’t caved to the governor because they had initially passed plans he opposed.
“We are not mindless automatons. We don’t do this because we were bullied. We do this because we think it is right,” he said. “Today, we pass maps that are constitutional, and they will be litigated, and we will learn whether the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reigns supreme over the Florida state constitution. That is the discussion at hand.”
CORRECTION (April 21, 2022, 3:39 p.m.): A previous version of this article misidentified the Hispanic representative involved in a protest on the floor of the Florida House. It was Daisy Morales, not Susan Valdés.