Webster Barnaby, the only Black Republican in the Florida House, takes his oath of office in 2021. Credit: House of Representatives
Over the years, Black lawmakers in the Florida Legislature have tended toward the Democratic Party rather than the Republicans, but a small group of Black conservatives have served under the GOP banner.
The most recent is state Rep. Webster Barnaby, a freshman lawmaker, born in Birmingham, England, who was elected last year. He is a resident of Deltona and represents part of Volusia County. He is the House’s only Black Republican.
Barnaby hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from the Florida Phoenix regarding his thoughts about his role and priorities. But he has joined the Legislative Black Caucus, an overwhelmingly Democratic institution.
His party affiliation won’t necessarily be a drawback to Barnaby’s participation in the group, according to former state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Black Republican who won election last year to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Even though my policy ideals are different from Democrats who served in the Legislature, we had a shared background,” Donalds said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.
“A lot of us grew up the same way, we tried to overcome the same things. I think it was helpful for the caucus and for myself to hear and have that dialogue and debate.”
The Florida Legislature is overwhelmingly white and Republican-led, but the percentage of Black members runs close to Florida’s proportion of Black residents (16.9 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census data).
Donalds served in the Florida Legislature during the 2018-2020 term and was an active member of the caucus.
Following racial injustices such as the killing of George Floyd, caucus members have been raising concerns over issues disproportionately affecting Blacks, and hope to pass a slew of bills, from police reform to increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities.
Caucus members who spoke to the Phoenix — including its chairman, State Sen. Bobby Powell, who represents part of Palm Beach County — said they do not know Barnaby or his legislative priorities well enough yet to understand how he’ll fit in.
Still, “Black Republicans can be a very valuable asset,” Powell said.
“I’ve had a conversation with him and he seems like he’s interested in issues that affect the African American community,” Powell said. “I am hopeful that he’ll be a very strong advocate for the communities that look like us in the state of Florida. But we haven’t had the opportunity to work on any of those issues yet.”
‘Is he a good person?’
State Sen. Shevrin Jones — also a member of the Black Caucus — hasn’t had the opportunity to work with Barnaby yet either, he said in a phone conversation.
“Him being a Republican is not important to me. Is he a good person?” said Jones, a Democrat representing part of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
“And is he willing to do what is right for the people he serves? That’s what matters. Everyone, no matter their color, has the right to be a part of the party of their choice. That includes Rep Barnaby.”
Another recent Black Republican House member — Rep. Mike Hill, who represented part of Escambia County, was not “very involved in the Black Caucus,” Powell said. “I am not sure if that was because he was more of a loner.”
Hill, elected to the Florida House in 2018, came under fire when he was recorded on audio at a political event chuckling after someone asked him about introducing legislation to execute gay men based on Christian values, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
That report said Hill claimed “the recording has been taken out of context.” In any event, Hill lost the GOP primary while seeking reelection last summer.
The 117th Congress includes 57 Black House members and only two of them are Republicans, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. They are Donalds and Burgess Owens, of Utah.
When Donalds was a state lawmaker, he saw stark differences between his views and those held by Democrats in the Black Caucus surrounding issues such as education.
“When it came to education policy or providing situations where dollars can follow the child, typically the caucus would disagree with me on that one,” Donalds said.
“Their viewpoint was that it’s better to keep it [funds] in the public school system,” while he was more open to school choice including charter schools. “My viewpoint was it’s better for it to go to parents … that would help Black parents and Black children.”
But Donalds worked with Democrats to support historically Black colleges and universities and criminal justice reform, he said.
“We were able to work out those kind of policies,” he said, “and those were areas where we could agree.”
Powell described Donalds as “a very valuable and active member” who was heavily involved in the organization at the time.
“Of course, he had his own views on certain issues, but for the most part when it came to a lot of Black issues, he was supportive or at least provided real good feedback,” Powell said.
According to his campaign website, Barnaby is a former Deltona City Commissioner and serves as president of the Southwest Volusia Republican Club. He’s described as a “business leader with decades of experience” but his occupation is not listed. His House bio page describes him as “president of an LLC.”
Some of the issues he supported during his campaign included increased pay for teachers, helping small businesses and workers recover from COVID-19, and cutting taxes for families.
Donalds offered words of encouragement to Barnaby. “My advice to him would be just to be direct and honest about where you stand,” he said.
“I think that what happens with the way politics is in our country today, people would assume that because you’re a Black Republican that somehow, you’re now ostracized from Black people. And that’s actually not true,” Donalds said.
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