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'Throwing kerosene on every fire': DeSantis targets Black-held congressional seats. And his own party.

The GOP governor  wants a court fight aimed at provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act and Florida’s constitution, sources said, as he runs for re-election and eyes 2024.
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Abortion and immigration restrictions. A new election fraud police force. Limits on classroom discussion and instruction about sexuality, gender and race.

The Florida Legislature has become a front line in the nation’s culture wars, and its regular lawmaking session ends Monday after it provided a springboard for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ November re-election campaign, as well as his White House ambitions.

Now one major test remains to cement DeSantis’s first-term legacy as the strongest conservative governor in decades: undoing what’s known as a “minority access” congressional seat in north Florida held by a Black Democrat. 

Ultimately, DeSantis wants a court fight aimed at provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as in the state’s Constitution, that generally prohibit the dilution of minority voting strength, according to sources familiar with the governor’s thinking. 

And to do that, DeSantis is taking on the same Republican-led Legislature that has given him everything else he wanted in the run-up to his bid for a second term.

Over DeSantis’ objections, the congressional seat in question survived in one form or another in proposed congressional maps the Legislature passed 10 days ago. Because legislators defied him by refusing to wipe out the seat and take up his own proposed map — the drafting of which was an unprecedented move for a Florida governor and which would eliminate not only the north Florida seat held by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson but also the Orlando-area district held by another Black Democrat, Rep. Val Demings — DeSantis announced he would veto the legislation.

Now Republicans are bracing for DeSantis to keep his promise and haul them back into a special session, worrying that he might hit the campaign trail and use his popularity and the bully pulpit to bring election-year pressure on those who bucked him.

Dragging legislators back to Tallahassee, which would be the ultimate power play for DeSantis, is on brand for a governor who became a top 2024 Republican presidential contender — second only to former President Donald Trump — for his willingness to fight anyone who hints at crossing him.

“This is DeSantis’ M.O.: What he cares about, he cares about deeply. And if you get in his way, he’s going to roll through you,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Tampa Republican. “Members don’t know him and don’t know what he’s going to do. And that not knowing is part of the reason they fear him.”

Brandes said DeSantis is particularly tough for Florida Republicans to go up against because of his skyrocketing profile within the party.

“This whole session was a showcase for DeSantis — a trial balloon for a White House campaign — and nationally he’s a 600-pound gorilla with the possibility of becoming an 800-pound gorilla, especially if he gets his way with these maps,” Brandes said.

'A win-win' for DeSantis

From drawing his own map to threatening that veto, DeSantis’ involvement in congressional redistricting hasn’t been seen before in Florida, said University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald. 

McDonald, an expert in redistricting, said he can’t think of a single governor in the country who vetoed congressional maps passed by a legislature controlled by his party in recent history. 

McDonald, who’s involved in a lawsuit against the university for trying to block him and other professors from lending their expertise in court cases that would challenge DeSantis policies, said that the governor knows how to exercise power and that he wants more Republican congressional seats created in Florida — despite the Fair Districts requirements in the state Constitution. 

The 2010 voter-approved constitutional amendments prohibit legislators from intentionally drawing seats that favor or disfavor incumbents or parties or that reduce the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.

“It’s a win-win situation for him,” McDonald said. “DeSantis wants to stand up for Republican interests because he doesn’t want to be labeled as the Republican who gave control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democrats. And second, he has a much larger agenda where he’s challenging Fair Districts and seeks to unravel parts of the Voting Right Act.”

The governor’s office declined to comment for this article beyond pointing to a Feb. 18 memo his office issued that argued that the north Florida seat, currently Florida’s 5th Congressional District, was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander under a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina case.

The ruling was issued two years after the seat was drawn by the Florida Supreme Court.

Last month, DeSantis’ office also dispatched a redistricting expert, Robert Popper, of the conservative group Judicial Watch, to warn state House legislators that their map preserving the north Florida district was vulnerable to court challenges.

'This is about the presidential election of 2024'  

Ellen Freidin, a Democrat who founded the Fair Districts political group that successfully put the anti-gerrymandering amendments before voters, said the memo and Popper’s involvement show that DeSantis has a “litigation strategy” that dovetails with a broader nationwide conservative effort to reduce minority voting power. 

“This is not just about Florida redistricting. This is about the presidential election of 2024,” said Freidin, whose group is still active.

People familiar with DeSantis’ thinking agree that he wants to put Florida’s case in the national spotlight in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, alongside another case in Alabama over whether legislators should have drawn a second Black district in the state.

Referring to the influential Washington-based legal group, a Republican said: “All of the constitutional lawyers he speaks with, both in the Federalist Society and elsewhere, believe that both Fair Districts and the Voting Rights Act when it comes to racial gerrymandering are illegal.” The Republican asked not to be identified, lacking authorization to speak publicly about private conversations with DeSantis about redistricting. “It should be color-blind. It should be based on geography and political boundaries, not on race,” this Republican said.

The source said DeSantis is in regular email contact with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a leading opponent of racial set-asides, which the conservative-leaning court has scaled back in recent years. 

The seven-member Florida Supreme Court also became more conservative after DeSantis appointed three members, noting along the way that he was seeking more conservative interpretations of Florida’s Fair Districts law. The state’s high court, however, declined DeSantis’ request to weigh in on the north Florida congressional seat he has targeted.

All sides agree that the courts will ultimately rule on the maps, but it’s unclear whether the issue will be decided in federal or state court because of the complicated nature and case law of congressional redistricting. 

Democrats sue first 

On Friday, national Democratic lawyer Marc Elias’ law firm struck first by asking state courts to create a new congressional map, which must be drawn every 10 years under the U.S. Constitution. Florida is gaining an additional House seat under reapportionment, for a total of 28. 

The filing came before the Legislature even sent DeSantis the maps and therefore before he could veto them. Once he gets them, it’s not certain whether he will call legislators back into session, and even if he does, there’s no guarantee they’ll pass his maps. 

To that end, some in DeSantis’ orbit want him to add additional pressure by forcing legislators into a special session that would include not just redistricting but also restrictions on unions or the right to openly carry guns without permits. Others say DeSantis should just veto the redistricting maps, not attack members of his own party, and then head to court.

Some Republicans in the Legislature, asking not to be identified so as not to defy DeSantis openly, say the governor may not call them back into session because they ultimately won’t accede to this one demand of his and he won’t want the embarrassment of a loss.

DeSantis ostensibly isn’t seeking to eliminate all four districts held by Black Democrats in the state. Two of them, in South Florida, are majority-minority seats that probably can’t be undone under the current interpretations of the Voting Rights Act. 

Instead, he’s targeting the north Florida and Orlando-area districts held by Lawson and Demings, respectively, which don’t have majority-minority populations but are still considered “minority access seats” drawn to better ensure that minority voters elect members of Congress who are of the same race or ethnicity. Black voters aren’t a majority of voters in either district, however.

Lawson’s district stands out because it’s not compact, running for 200 miles from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. It was drawn by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 to make sure that Black voters in Jacksonville still had an opportunity to elect a Black lawmaker after a different, gerrymandered minority-heavy seat, which ran south from Jacksonville to Orlando, was eliminated after the passage of Fair Districts. 

The state’s high court drew the seat after prolonged litigation from Fair Districts backers — who were overwhelmingly Democratic — exposed how the Republican-led Legislature intentionally gerrymandered it to benefit the GOP.

But in light of the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the 5th District’s sprawling nature, Republicans might have an easier task eliminating it compared to the Alabama case over whether to draw a hypothetical second Black-held district, which would have been far more compact, said law professor Doug Spencer, a redistricting expert at the University of Colorado.

“I think that is the ultimate goal [of DeSantis]: provide a vehicle for the court with the best possible facts to strike down the Voting Rights Act. And this would be the best way to do it — he’s not wrong,” he said. “I think he would probably actually win.”

Mindful that DeSantis could be right, the Legislature passed two versions of its congressional map. The first map would curtail Lawson’s district to just the Jacksonville area; the second would keep the district essentially as it is now. Demings’ seat would also be largely preserved under the Legislature’s maps.

DeSantis disliked both. 

“I will veto the congressional reapportionment plan currently being debated by the House. DOA,” DeSantis tweeted March 4 before he held a news conference in Jacksonville, where he emphasized how serious he was.

“After seeing me for however many years, what makes you think when I say I’m going to do something that I’m not going to follow through?” DeSantis asked reporters. “I don’t bluff.”

Republicans in the Legislature say they were taken aback by DeSantis’ power play, with one describing him as being hyperfocused on redistricting compared to other issues. 

“In meetings, he would just demand: ‘Pass my maps! My maps! My maps!’ He’s just bizarrely obsessed with this. He won’t let it go. He won’t listen to reason,” said a Republican who didn’t want to criticize DeSantis publicly.

Republicans who served in the state Capitol during the last star-crossed redistricting process say they have “redistricting PTSD” and want to make sure that this time legislators adhere to the voter-approved Fair Districts constitutional amendment. 

“But then here comes Ron, and he just blows the whole thing up because he wants to be president,” a top Republican said. “And this is after we gave him everything he could want: the most conservative legislative session and all his budget priorities.”

During the session, legislators passed restrictions on abortion, immigration and teaching about race and sexual orientation and gender. They gave him an election fraud police force he called for, and they heeded his veto threat and made changes to a controversial water bill backed by the sugar industry and hated by Everglades advocates.

But it’s not enough.

“In the old days, in a session like this, everyone would be raising their hands in victory because everyone got something,” said a second source close to DeSantis who discusses politics with the governor. “But DeSantis — like his voters — lives in a world of absolutes. He doesn’t remember the 99 times you were with him. He remembers the one time you weren’t. And he’ll make sure the base knows.”

DeSantis became a magnet for controversy — and thereby a darling of conservatives nationwide — for his early resistance to Covid mandates. He showed a knack for earning national media coverage and liberal outrage as he fought the teaching of racial history in schools, berated high school students for wearing masks at a media event and tussled with Disney’s CEO over the controversial “parental rights” bill concerning sexual orientation and gender.

“DeSantis has carved out his own lane in the GOP: the Voldemort lane,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat who clashed with DeSantis over Covid lockdowns and who was involved in Democrats’ redistricting efforts in 2010.

“DeSantis has shown that there’s now a political premium on throwing kerosene on every fire,” Gelber said. “He just fights everyone, even his own Republican Legislature, if they try to follow the law.”