November 16, 2022
Republicans owe their razor-thin House majority to a decision Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made earlier this year that largely escaped notice outside the Sunshine State. In January, Mr. DeSantis proposed a redistricting map that initially upset some members of both parties in the Florida Legislature. Republicans feared the map would elicit a lawsuit, and Democrats feared (correctly, as it turns out) the plan would result in four new GOP seats in the U.S. House. Mr. DeSantis stood his ground and eventually won over the Legislature—and the courts.
The controversy largely centered on Rep. Al Lawson, a black Democrat I have long respected for championing school choice for needy families. For years, Mr. Lawson represented a “safe” minority district that cobbled together heavily black neighborhoods spanning some 200 miles, from west of Tallahassee all the way to Jacksonville.
The Legislature’s original plan left Mr. Lawson’s district intact. Mr. DeSantis vetoed that map, arguing it violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. “We have a responsibility to produce maps for our citizens that do not contain unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” Mr. DeSantis told a March special session of the Legislature.
What I especially appreciated about Mr. DeSantis’s plan was that it gave white independent voters (like me) an opportunity to vote for black candidates who would have never appeared on our ballots otherwise. When the Legislature reversed course and the courts approved Mr. DeSantis’s map, Florida voters proved that black candidates don’t have to run in racially gerrymandered districts to get elected. On Nov. 8, three black Republicans—Rep. Byron Donalds, state Rep. Webster Barnaby and state Senate candidate Corey Simon—won seats in majority white districts against white opponents. State Rep. Kiyan Michael won unopposed in a majority-white district. Mr. Simon beat a longtime incumbent in an area that overlaps much of Mr. Lawson’s new district.
Mr. Lawson lost his seat to another incumbent in Florida’s “red wave.” But more than 20 black Democrats won state legislative races, and three enjoyed the endorsement of the American Federation for Children.
AFC is the organization that activated the 100,000 African-American “school choice moms” who gave Mr. DeSantis his narrow margin of victory in the 2018 gubernatorial election. AFC’s school-choice advocacy is partly a response to racially gerrymandered public-school zoning maps. A recent study from the progressive Urban Institute showed that school-zone maps in many major cities resemble “redlining” boundaries dating back to the days when the federal government discriminated against African-American mortgage applicants.
Few Democrats have paid much attention to such studies. Fewer still have embraced education choice to overcome biases in school zoning. As a GOP school-choice supporter once told me, the only borders most Democrats believe in enforcing are school-zone borders that favor affluent white progressives.
It’s understandable that Democrats are disappointed in the loss of four House seats in Florida, likely sufficient to determine control of the chamber. But everyone who believes in a vibrant and responsive democracy should be pleased that Republicans like Mr. DeSantis are vying for black votes through issues like school choice. And if such efforts help get us closer to the day when schools, neighborhoods and political parties are less segregated along racial lines, we should all be very thankful.