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Lawmakers convene special session on governor’s plan to add 4 Republican-leaning seats, nuke North Florida majority-minority district
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Florida lawmakers will be back in Tallahassee this week to approve a new U.S. House map, with the Republicans in charge ready (or maybe just resigned?) to letting Governor Ron DeSantis take the lead – a decision that’s almost certain to result in both state and federal court fights over how far Republicans can go in gerrymandering the map to their advantage.
DeSantis has proposed a new map that will add four GOP-leaning seats across the state, giving the party a shot at winning 20 of 28 seats – in a state where Republicans usually only win by single-digit margins in statewide races.
Potentially more problematically from a legal perspective, DeSantis wants to nuke the current 5th District in North Florida, a Democratic-leaning, majority-minority district that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
Instead, metro Jacksonville will be carved into two Republican-leaning districts, and Tallahassee and rural areas in the district will be subsumed into two existing districts, which have heavy GOP majorities.
DeSantis has railed against the 5th District, which was created by the Florida Supreme Court after a lawsuit over the 2012 U.S. House map. Its existence was the primary reason he vetoed the map approved earlier this year by Republican legislators, who were wary of trying to dismantle a district that is 47% black, represented by black Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson.
But DeSantis has insisted he wants a “race neutral” map, in which districts aren’t drawn with racial considerations in mind, and Republican legislative leaders now appear resigned to letting him get his way.
While DeSantis’s new map leaves the current line-up of seats in South Florida intact, he’s rejiggered the lines in Tampa Bay to make the 13th District in Pinellas County (currently held by Democrat Charlie Crist) more Republican and also made changes in metro Orlando to give the currently competitive 7th District (held by Democrat Stephanie Murphy) a decidedly Republican tilt.
Currently, there are 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats in Florida’s House delegation. Under the new map, there will be 18 Republican-leaning seats, eight that lean Democratic and two in South Florida that will be competitive but are now both held by Republicans.
Should DeSantis’s map pass as is, the legal fight will commence in two directions.
First, in 2010, Florida voters passed two constitutional amendments, dubbed the Fair Districts amendments, designed to prevent legislators from drawing maps designed to protect incumbents or create partisan advantage. This makes Florida somewhat unique among states by limiting, at least in theory, how far legislators can go in partisan map making.
In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court cited those very amendments in overturning the U.S. House map drawn in 2012 and imposing a new one, which created the districts that Lawson and Murphy won.
However, thanks to appointments by DeSantis and his predecessor as governor, Rick Scott, the state’s high court is more conservative that it was in 2015, and there is speculation the justices will look more favorably on legislators’ handiwork this time around.
But what also remains as a potential impediment to DeSantis’s best-laid plans is the federal Voting Rights Act. Although Florida no longer has to get clearance from the Justice Department for its maps, they still must conform to the act’s purpose of maximizing minority voting representation.
North Florida has sent an African-American representative to Congress continuously since 1992; DeSantis’s proposed map would almost certainly end that representation for the foreseeable future, which will certainly raise voting rights concerns.
It would also have the effect of reducing the number of black Congress members from the Sunshine State from five to four. (Those numbers include Republican Byron Donalds, who represents a mostly white district in Southwest Florida; South Florida Democrats Federica Wilson and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick; and Democrat Val Demings from Orlando.)
That would leave Florida’s black representation in the congressional delegation at about 14%, the same as the state’s black voting age population – which could be an argument in the map’s favor despite the loss of the North Florida seat.
And the final arbiter of a federal challenge to DeSantis’s new map might very well be the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative justices seem ready and eager to wade into the issue of voting rights.
In a larger sense, the fight over the maps also shows how DeSantis, in just four short years, has come to amass enough power to bring legislative leaders to heel – in this case, even against their better judgment.
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Former presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton eulogize civil rights icon at Ebenezer Baptist Church
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
ATLANTA (CFP) — Three former U.S. presidents and more than 50 U.S. House colleagues gathered in Atlanta Thursday to say a final farewell to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who represented the city for more than 30 years in Congress.
From the pulpit of Ebeneezer Baptist Church, once pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former President Barack Obama called Lewis “perhaps [King’s] finest disciple.”
Lewis’s life redeemed “that most American of ideas — the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is within our power to remake this country that we love,” Obama said.
“He believed that in all of us there exists the capacity for great courage, and in all of us, there is a longing to do what’s right,” Obama said. “He knew that non-violent protest is patriotic, a way to raise public awareness and to put the spotlight on injustice and make the powers that be uncomfortable.”
“What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way.”
Former President George W. Bush said Lewis “believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity, and he believed in America.”
“His lesson for us is that we must all keep ourselves to hearing the call of love, the call of service, and the call to sacrifice for others,” Bush said.
Bush noted that while he and Lewis often disagreed politically, “in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”
Joining Obama and Bush to speak at the funeral service were former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew emotional when she presented his family with the flag that was flying over the Capitol on the night that Lewis died.
“When this flag flew there, it said good-bye. It waved good-bye to John, our friend, our mentor, our colleague, this beautiful man we had the privilege of serving with,” said Pelosi, who served with Lewis in Congress for 33 years.
“Every time he stood up to speak [in the House], we knew that he was going to take us to a higher place of our understanding, of what our responsibilities were and what our opportunities were,” Pelosi said. “When he spoke, people listened. When he led, people followed.”
Not attending Thursday’s event was President Donald Trump, whose impeachment Lewis had vigorously supported last year. Trump also did not join he crowds who paid tribute to Lewis when his casket was displayed at the U.S. Capitol.
The funeral was the culmination of nearly a week of events honoring Lewis, including a memorial service in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, and lying in state at both the Alabama and Georgia state capitols.
The crowd inside the church for the private service was limited due to coronavirus, and mourners wore masks. The service was broadcast on a television screen outside of Ebenezer, where crowds gathered in the summer heat.
Lewis, 80, died on July 24 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
During his long and illustrious life, Lewis, who grew up on a farm in rural Alabama during the Jim Crow era, had a first-hand presence at some of the most pivotal moments of American history.
In 1960, as a student at Fisk University, he participated in protests to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, and, a year later, became of the original “freedom riders,” risking his life to desegregate buses in the South.
By 1963, he had risen to a leadership position in the civil rights movement, as president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and, at just 23, was the youngest person to address the historic March on Washington, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the summer of 1964, he went to Mississippi to register black voters, part of the “Freedom Summer” to break the power of segregation in its most redoubtable citadel.
In 1965, baton-wielding state troopers fractured Lewis’s skull as as he tried to lead marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a shocking scene captured on national television that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.
A campaign is now underway to rename the bridge for Lewis.
In 1968, he was in Los Angeles working for the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was gunned down after winning the California primary.
Lewis had eventually extended his activism into politics, winning a seat in the U.S. House in 1986 that he held for more than three decades, becoming known as the “conscience of Congress” — opposing military action, supporting gay rights, leading a sit-in for gun safety.
Through all the beatings and tragedies, and the twists and turns of political life, Lewis never wavered from the philosophy of non-violence — and never stopped advocating for equality. He made his last public appearance in June at the dedication of a “Black Lives Matter” mural in Washington, the latest incarnation of the cause to which he had dedicated his adult life.
In his eulogy, Obama exhorted the audience to honor Lewis’s legacy by working to “revitalize” the Voting Rights Act and fighting against restrictions on voting access.
“Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting, by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision — even undermining the postal service in an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick,” he said.
Georgia Democrats have selected State Senator Nikema Williams to replace Lewis on the November ballot and take his place in Congress representing the 5th District, which includes much of the city of Atlanta and suburbs to the west and south.
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U.S. Rep Diane Black tries to fend off two Republican rivals in governor’s race, without Donald Trump’s endorsement
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
NASHVILLE (CNN) — Voters in Tennessee are heading to the polls for a unique Thursday primary in which the Republican race for the open governor’s seat is getting the lion’s share of attention.
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who had been considered the front-runner earlier in the race, is now facing a battle with Randy Boyd, an adviser to outgoing Governor Bill Haslam, and Bill Lee, a businessman and rancher from Williamson County.
Despite her ardent support for President Donald Trump and her work getting his tax cuts through Congress, Black has not received a coveted presidential tweet of endorsement, which has buoyed GOP candidates for governor in primaries in Georgia and Florida.
Because Tennessee doesn’t have primary runoffs, the candidate who finishes first in the six-way primary will become the nominee.
In the U.S. Senate race, Republicans are expected to nominate U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn to face Democratic former Governor Phil Bredensen in what’s likely to become one of the fall’s hottest Senate contests.
In West Tennessee’s 8th District, incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. David Kustoff is facing a strong primary challenge from George Flinn, a self-funding former Shelby County commissioner making his fifth try for federal office.
Tennessee is one of only two states that do not hold their primary elections on a Tuesday, a schedule dating back to its admission as a state in 1796; Louisiana holds its primaries for state and local offices on Saturdays.
Polls open in most of Tennessee at 7 a.m., although times may vary by county. Polls close at 8 p.m. in the Eastern time zone and 7 p.m. in the Central time zone.
The governor’s race features six Republican candidates, including Black, 67, from Gallatin, who has spent the last eight years in Congress representing the 6th District, which includes the northern Nashville suburbs and north-central Tennessee; Boyd, 58, from Knoxville, who made his fortune with a company that makes electronic fences for dogs and was an adviser to Haslam on education policy and economic development; and Lee, 58, owner of a heating and air company making his first run for political office.
Also running on the Republican side is State House Speaker Beth Harwell, 60, from Nashville, although polls showed her slightly behind the three candidates at the front of the pack. She has been in the legislature for 20 years, culminating in her selection as the first woman speaker in state history.
While President Donald Trump has waded into Republican governor primaries in Georgia and Tennessee, he did not offer an endorsement in Tennessee, something of a blow to Black, who, as chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, helped shepherd the Republicans’ tax cut bill through the House.
However, Black has been using video of Trump praising her in one of her TV ads, and she did get the endorsement of Vice President Mike Pence.
Haslam is term-limited and hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race. However, Boyd — who, like Haslam, is from Knoxville — has served in his administration, and the New York Times has reported that the Republican Governors Association, which Haslam chairs, has been lobbying Trump not to endorse Black. (The governor’s office has refused to confirm that report.)
The winner of the Republican primary is expected to face former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who is the favorite the three-way Democratic primary.
The fall race for governor will be a crowded affair, as 26 independents have qualified for the ballot, including 13 Libertarians. Because the Libertarian Party does not have official ballot access, the party has no primary, and all 13 candidates will appear on the ballot as independents.
In U.S. House races, Republicans will be settling contested primaries in four GOP-held districts in which the Republican winner will be favored in the fall.
In Duncan’s 2nd District seat, which includes metro Knoxville and surrounding portions of East Tennessee, the GOP race features Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett; State Rep. Jimmy Matlock from Lenior City; Jason Emert, a Bount County lawyer and former chairman of the Young Republicans National Federation; and Ashley Nickloes from Rockford, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard.
In the open race for Black’s 6th District seat, the Republican race includes John Rose from Cookeville, who served as state agriculture commissioner; Bob Corlew, a retired judge from Mount Juliet; and State Rep. Judd Matheny from Tullahoma.
In 2017, Trump nominated Green, a physician and West Point graduate, to be Secretary of the Army, but Green withdrew the nomination amid controversy of some of his previous public statements, including an assertion in 2016 that most psychiatrists believe being transgendered is a “disease.” (The American Psychiatric Association does not classify gender non-conformity as a mental illness).
Democrats in the 7th District race include Justin Canew from College Grove, a digital media producer and two-time contestant on The Amazing Race, and Matt Reel from Primm Springs, a congressional aide who serves in the Tennessee National Guard.
In the 8th District, which includes part of Memphis city, its eastern suburbs and the Mississippi Delta, Kustoff, a former federal prosecutor from Germantown, who was elected in 2016, is facing a challenge from Flinn, a physician who also owns a string of 40 radio and television stations.
Flinn, who lost to Kustoff in the GOP primary in 2016, is making his fifth run for Congress, having run twice in the U.S. House in the 8th District, once in the Memphis-based 9th District and for the U.S. Senate in 2014. He has poured more than $3 million of his own money into the campaign, giving him a signficant fundraising advantage over Kustoff.
However, Kustoff is likely to benefit from a last-minute endorsement by Trump, whom he called “a champion for the Trump Agenda.”
Ruling could have an impact on other Southern states with partisan maps
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RALEIGH (CFP) – In an unprecedented decision, a panel of three federal judges has struck down North Carolina’s U.S. House map, ruling that Republican lawmakers unconstitutionally diluted the voting strength of Democrats by gerrymandering the map for political reasons.
The panel’s majority opinion said partisan gerrymandering – a common political practice in many U.S. states – violates a “core principle of republican government” that “voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”
The January 9 ruling gives state lawmakers just 20 days to redraw the map; if they don’t, a new map will be redrawn by a special master appointed by the court. However, GOP legislative leaders are vowing to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could leave the current map in place until the appeal can be heard.
If the Supreme Court doesn’t issue a stay, significant chaos will be injected into the Tar Heel State’s 2018 election, with qualifying for candidates supposed to begin Feb. 28 for a May 8 primary.
The ruling marked the first time that a federal court has stuck down a congressional map for being gerrymandered for political, rather than racial, reasons. However, U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering similar cases involving state legislative districts in Wisconsin and Maryland that could set a precedent.
The judicial panel in the North Carolina case found unanimously that the map violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution and ruled 2-1 that it also violated the free speech rights of Democrats.
Should the ruling in North Carolina be upheld on appeal, it could have significant effects in other Southern states where Republican state legislative majorities have gerrymandered maps to their advantage, particularly Florida, Virginia and Texas.
Democrats cheered the ruling, which could help them make a dent in the GOP’s 10-to-3 advantage in North Carolina’s congressional delegation. But Republicans accused the judges of “waging a personal, partisan war” against the state GOP.
Ironically, what may have sunk the North Carolina map was the explicit admission by GOP lawmakers back in 2016 that they were drawing lines to maximize the number of Republican-friendly seats – an admission made to overcome objections to a previous map struck down for improperly using racial considerations.
After the map was redrawn in 2016, several incumbent lawmakers were forced to run in new territory and one, former U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, didn’t survive after she was forced to run against another incumbent in a Republican primary. However, the new map did not change the overall party composition in the state’s House delegation.
The 2016 map has allowed Republicans to hold on 77 percent of the state’s congressional seats, even though election results have been closely divided between the parties in recent statewide and presidential elections.
Donald Trump carried North Carolina by just 4 points in 2016, as Democrat Roy Cooper squeaked into the governorship by a margin of less than 1 percent.
The redistricting case was heard by James Wynn, a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; W. Earl Britt, a senior U.S. District Court judge in Raleigh; and William Osteen Jr., a U.S. District Court judge in Greensboro.
Wynn and Britt were appointed by Democratic presidents; Osteen, who dissented from part of the ruling while concurring in striking down the map, is a Republican appointee.
Committee looking into whether Farenthold lied, used government resources in his political campaigns
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas used government resources in his congressional campaigns and lied to the committee during an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment claims by a former staffer.
Meanwhile, CNN is reporting that a former staffer has told House investigators that she was pressured to perform campaign-related tasks during regular work hours in Farenthold’s congressional office, activity that is not allowed under House rules.
The latest charges are likely to increase pressure on Farenthold, who has already announced that he won’t seek re-election in 2018 after revelations that he used $84,000 of government money to settle a lawsuit by a former staffer who alleged that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer.
In a December 21 news release, the chair and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee — U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, and Ted Deutch, D-Florida — announced that their probe of Farenthold had expanded from the original sexual harassment allegations to include allegations that staff resources may have been used on his campaigns, that he or “any person acting on his behalf” may have required staff members to work on his campaigns, and that he “may have made false statements or omissions in testimony to the committee.”
The statement did not give any details to indicate why the probe had expanded.
In response to the Ethics Committee’s statement, Farenthold’s office released a statement to Texas and national media noting that he had previously been cleared of sexual harassment charges by the Office of Congressional Ethics and pledging his full cooperation with the committee’s expanded probe.
CNN reported that former Farenthold staffer Elizabeth Peace told Ethics Committee lawyers that she was pressured to work on Farenthold’s 2016 campaign during regular office hours in her Capitol office, using House-issued computers and her work e-mail account. The network cited a source familiar with Peace’s conversation with the lawyers; she refused comment to CNN, although she did acknowledge talking to committee staff.
Under House rules, congressional staffers are only allowed to work on campaigns on their own time, and they are not allowed to use House resources, such as office space, computers, or email accounts,, to do political work.
In 2014, Farenthold’s former communications director, Lauren Greene, sued for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, alleging that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer. The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated and cleared Farenthold, and he reached a mediated out-of-court settlement with Greene in 2015.
The revelation that $84,000 in taxpayer dollars had been used to pay Greene’s settlement in early December led Farenthold to abandon his 2018 re-election campaign in Texas’s 27th District, which sprawls across the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Houston.
In a statement posted to Facebook on December 14, Farenthold insisted that the sexual harassment charges made against him by Greene were false, but he conceded that a lax management style in his Washington office created a “decidedly unprofessional” work environment — a situation he blamed on his lack of political experience after being elected in 2010.
“I had no idea how to run a congressional office and, as a result, I allowed a workplace culture to take root in my office that was too permissive and decidedly unprofessional,” Fahrenthold said. “It accommodated destructive gossip, offhand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general that was less than professional.”
“And I allowed the personal stress of the job to manifest itself in angry outbursts and, too often, a failure to treat people with the respect that they deserved,” he said. “Clearly, that was wrong. It is not how I was raised, it’s not who I am, and for that situation, I am profoundly sorry,” he said.