(The Center Square) – The death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Ft. Lauderdale, means there could be a competitive Democratic primary to fill his vacant seat in a deep blue South Florida congressional district that hasn’t seen one in three decades.
But it’s up to Gov. Ron DeSantis to decide when to call for special primary and general elections to determine who serves the rest of Hastings’ term through 2022.
And with Congressional Democrats holding a slim advantage in their House push to advance President Joe Biden’s initiatives, including the proposed $3 trillion-plus Build Back Better infrastructure plan, DeSantis – a non-Trump GOP 2024 presidential frontrunner – has the discretion to leave the seat open for months.
Hastings, 84, died Tuesday after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Elected to 15 terms, including in November, Hastings served 28 years in office and was the senior member of Florida’s 27-member congressional delegation, the “dean” of the state’s 12 congressional Democrats, and senior House whip.
Beginning his career as a civil rights lawyer fighting to desegregate Broward County schools, Hastings was a fixture in South Florida politics for 60 years, serving as Florida’s first Black federal trial judge in 1979 and in Congress since 1992.
“As an attorney, civil rights activist and judge, and over his nearly thirty years in Congress, he fought tirelessly to create opportunities to lift up working families, communities of color, children and immigrants,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
“Across his long career of public service, Alcee always stood up to fight for equality, and always showed up for the working people he represented,” President Joe Biden said.
With Hastings’ seat vacant, Democrats’ 218-211 advantage is soon to be further whittled to 218-212. Six seats are empty with one to be filled next week by Republican Julia Letlow, elected after her husband, Louisiana Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, died of COVID-19.
Four seats previously occupied by Democrats now serving in Biden’s administration are in deep-blue districts with Democrats near-certain to win special elections. The Texas congressional seat formerly occupied by Republican Rep. Ron Wright, who died from COVID-19 in February, could be competitive in an increasingly purple district.
Florida state law requires party leaders to meet within five days of a congressional vacancy to discuss how to proceed, but also grants the governor expansive authority in setting election dates.
As of early afternoon Wednesday, DeSantis had not addressed a special election. In a Tuesday statement, he said Hastings’ “service to our state will be remembered.”
This is the third Florida congressional vacancy in 12 years. Special elections in one were called by former Gov. Charlie Christ in three months and in another by former Gov. Rick Scott in six months.
With that as a guide – although DeSantis has no obligation to precedent – special elections to determine Hastings’ successor are likely between July and September.
While “when” is uncertain, it’s a near-guarantee a Democrat will win any election in the district, which spans African American and Caribbean American communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties where Biden won 77 percent of the vote in November.
Among potential candidates are Broward County commissioners Barbara Sharief and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick. Both already filed paperwork to run against Hastings in the 2022 Democratic primary.
Others include state Sens. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale and Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.
“I believe over the next few weeks there will be a diverse pool of people who will be in that race,” Jones told the Miami Herald. “I think people will have to decide who will continue the work of Alcee Hastings. No decisions have been made on my end, but it’s going to be interesting.”