FL Legislature 2021: Black lawmakers have to struggle to gain leadership roles, address issues affecting Blacks

By: - February 24, 2021 7:00 am

Demonstrators gathered in Tallahassee near the Florida Capitol on May 31, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald

Black voices in the political sphere in America have come a long way since the early days, when myriad civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to fight for equality — a battle that endures today.

Kamala Harris made recent history in the 2020 presidential election as the first woman and first woman of color to serve as the U.S. vice president. And before that, Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, becoming the first African American to hold that office in the White House.

But in state politics, Black lawmakers in the Florida Legislature still have to struggle.

Struggle to increase the number of Black lawmakers in both the House and Senate chambers. Struggle to move into leadership roles, such as committee chairs. Struggle to get legislation through both chambers and on to the governor’s office, to help uplift communities of color across the state.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones. Credit: Florida Senate website.

When reality sets in, State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing part of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, says proposals aimed to improve conditions for Black people in the state may not see the light of day.

“People have filed legislation, but the question is will they ever get heard and the answer is probably ‘no,’” he said.

Minority representation 

In Florida, Black residents make up about 16.9 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census data.

In the Legislature, that percentage is close to Florida’s black population.

In all, 15 percent of Black members serve in the state Senate — a total of six Black senators out of 40 members. Those Black state senators are all Democrats. One is female.

In the other chamber, 17.5 percent of Black members serve in the state House, a total of 21 Black state representatives out of 120 members. Of the 21 Black reps, 20 are Democrats and one is a Republican. The gender makeup is 13 Black females and eight Black males.

Black lawmakers would like to increase the racial diversity and inclusiveness in the Legislature, which is predominantly white and Republican-led.

Sen. Audrey Gibson
State Sen. Audrey Gibson. Credit: Florida Senate website.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat representing part of Duval County, is the only Black woman in the Florida Senate.

“I would love to see more African American women run and win in the Florida Senate,” Gibson said in a phone interview with the Phoenix.

“I raise the issues that are important to my people and I talk to every senator regardless of race and ethnicity about things I want to work on,” she said. “And I try to build support on those things I’m trying to do.”

Lack of leadership roles

Black state lawmakers are largely absent from top leadership positions in legislative committees such as chairs and vice chairs — powerful roles in the legislative process.

In Florida, the Senate President and Speaker of the House — currently white male Republicans — selected the chairs and members of each committee in their respective chambers for the upcoming session.

Not one Black lawmaker is in a leadership role in the Florida House, whether that’s a chair or a vice chair.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson. Credit, Florida Senate website.

In the Senate, State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat representing part of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, is the lone Black lawmaker serving as a chairman in a standing committee. He’s chair of the Committee on Agriculture.

Sen. Gibson serves as vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Jones serves as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

The Senate has a Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, and State Sen. Randolph Bracy, who represents part of Orange County, is the vice chair.

The Senate’s Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight has an alternating chair, currently State Sen. Bobby Powell.

Powell pointed to the Republican-led state Legislature as the main reason why there’s not enough Black leadership in both chambers.

“The Democrats are not in leadership roles,” said Powell, a Democrat representing part of Palm Beach County.

“It is a matter of Democrats not being in positions of power to determine who sits on committees. Of course, it is problematic, but it is also systematic being that it is a matter of who controls the chamber.”

As to Sen. Jones, there seemed to be a surprise.

He didn’t find out about his appointment as the vice chair of the Committee on Education until after receiving a text message from a friend, saying “congratulations Mr. vice-chair.”

“So, I went online and saw it and I was vice-chair,” Jones told the Phoenix.

Addressing issues affecting communities of color

Meanwhile, in the wake of last year’s incidents involving police officers and others killing Black people such as George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has transcended the national conversation on racial injustices, leading to protests and demonstrations in many states including Florida.

With the legislative session convening on March 2, Black state lawmakers have raised concerns surrounding issues disproportionately affecting Blacks, presenting a slew of bills during a press conference earlier this month, the Phoenix previously reported.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, flanked by Sen. Perry Thurston, Rep. Patricia Williams and other lawmakers in the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, insist their police-reform bills should be given hearings. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Police reform is one of the top priorities in Florida for many state Democrats, even though protests over racial injustices have been dwindling, State Rep. Fentrice Driskell told the Phoenix.

She is a “Democratic Ranking Member” on the Judiciary Committee in the state House, but not a chair or vice chair.

“After the protest that happened last summer, we needed to think about what our role would be and what policies we wanted to introduce,” said Driskell, a Democrat representing part of Hillsborough County.

“Even though the energy of protests subsided, does not mean that our work subsides. That’s when our work starts.”

Driskell and other Democrats in both chambers hope to address police procedures such as no-knock warrants, body cameras for all state law enforcement agencies, and excessive use of force and other measures.

The bills are aimed at building accountability and transparency into the law enforcement process.

The ultimate goal, she said, “is to build trust between the law enforcement community and communities of color,” Driskell explained.

‘The question is will they ever get heard’

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus is working with state lawmakers to push a variety of those proposals in the upcoming session, from police reform to increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities, Sen. Powell said.

FL Sen. Bobby Powell. Credit: FLSenate.gov

Powell is also the chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, which tackles issues affecting communities of color. He works with lawmakers to push bills that benefit underrepresented populations throughout the state.

“Right now, we are coming up with our priorities which are statewide. And those are the things that we stick together for the Black community throughout the state. Some of those things include law enforcement reform, funding of our HBCUs and a number of other issues that we are getting ready to roll out,” Powell said.

As to whether the legislation pushed by Black Democrats will be heard remains a question, according to Sen. Jones.

“The Republicans,” Jones said, “they so often miss the mark of listening to Black members and our concerns and things that really hurt our communities, which is unfortunate.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.