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Who is Byron Donalds? Rebel Republicans rally around the Florida congressman to defeat McCarthy

Donalds describes himself as “everything the fake news media says doesn’t exist: a Trump supporting, liberty loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.”
Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) confer with each other on the floor of the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol Building on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023 in Washington, DC. After three failed attempts to successfully vote for Speaker of the House, the members of the 118th Congress is expected to try again today.
Reps. Scott Perry, R-Pa., Byron Donalds, R-Fla., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., confer with one another on the House floor Wednesday.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The group of hard-line Republicans standing firm in opposing Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker has coalesced around an alternative: Rep. Byron Donalds, a conservative two-term lawmaker from Florida who is considered a rising star in the GOP but is still relatively unknown nationally. 

Donalds, 44, has found himself thrust into the national spotlight after receiving 20 votes for speaker in each of the three roll calls Wednesday, compared to McCarthy’s 201 votes each time. That 20-vote faction has prevented McCarthy from reaching a majority of 218 votes, since he can afford to lose no more than four votes from his caucus to be elected speaker. 

"What this is about is having a deliberative conversation about what leadership is going to look like in the nation’s capital in the House of Representatives,” Donalds said during an interview with CNN on Wednesday morning. “For far too long in this town, too many things have been by acclimation. And that’s actually not worked for the American people.”

Donalds is considered a “rising star” in the party because of his conservative values and aggressive expressions of them. Donalds’ campaign website describes him as “everything the fake news media says doesn’t exist: a Trump supporting, liberty loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.” 

After his election to the House in 2020, Donalds became part of the “Freedom Force,” which positions itself as the conservative counter to the left-wing lawmakers elected in 2018 known as “The Squad.” 

“Good man,” said Shelley Wynter, a Black host of the Atlanta conservative radio show Word on the Street on 95.5 WSB. “He’s a solid conservative who has not forgotten where he came from. He would be a great historical pick for speaker, as he is well liked and not entrenched in the ‘swamp.’ He would also do much to bring in more minorities, especially men, to the Republican Party. I’m very excited about Donalds for speaker.” 

Donalds, who was raised by a single mother in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, is a Donald Trump supporter and staunch anti-abortion and gun ownership advocate. While growing up, Donalds was arrested for distribution of marijuana and bribery. He completed a diversion program on the drug charge and the other was expunged. Donalds said the incident inspired him to change his life and eventually emerge from businessman to politician.

“I can’t undo my mistakes,” he told WFTX-TV of Naples, Florida, in 2014. “The only thing I can do is show and become the man that I am today for my family and the community that I love.”

He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2016 after losing a run for a congressional seat as part of the tea party movement in 2012. In 2020, he won a crowded Republican primary before handily beating Democrat Cindy Banyai in the race to represent Florida’s 19th district.  

In 2021, Donalds was denied membership in the Congressional Black Caucus and insisted it was because of his conservative views. The American Conservative Union gave Donalds a 100% rating during his previous term, for his conservative voting record on a host of issues ranging from immigration to labor. He also was among the 147 Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Donalds also supported the laws in Florida that were considered by many Black leaders to be voter suppression efforts, including identification requirements that voting rights groups said disenfranchised Black voters.  

Donalds’ wife, Erika Donalds, with whom he has three children, is also a conservative Republican and involved in state politics. She has served as the Collier County School Board vice chairwoman and was appointed in 2017 to the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every two decades to evaluate proposed amendments to the state constitution.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., talks with colleagues in the House chamber after six failed votes to elect a new speaker, and a motion to adjourn for the day, in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., center right, speaks with a colleague in the House chamber Wednesday.Alex Brandon / AP

During the House vote for a new speaker on Wednesday afternoon, Donalds’ conservative values catapulted him to center stage, as other Republicans noted the historic nature of his being considered for the role. 

Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania awkwardly evoked Frederick Douglass in praising Donalds, saying Wednesday that the abolitionist “went and worked with Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the people of color in this country and said he would never be anything but a Republican. … Byron has a big mind and he’s big in stature as well. ... In a negotiation with Chuck Schumer I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of Byron Donalds.”

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, borrowed a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to throw his support behind Donalds.

“We do not seek to judge people by the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character,” Roy said. “The American people want a new face, new vision, new leadership, and I believe that face, vision and new leadership is Byron Donalds.”

Democrats had a different take on Donalds’ nomination. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who is Black, tweeted that he’s being used as a “prop.” 

“Despite being Black, he supports a policy agenda intent on upholding and perpetuating white supremacy,” she wrote. “His name being in the mix is not progress — it’s pathetic.”

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