Newly invigorated Florida Democrats have a shot at flipping a vacant seat in the state House, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has prevented the race from getting underway by once again dragging his feet when it comes to scheduling the legally mandated special election.
The 35th District has been without representation since the end of last month, when Republican Fred Hawkins resigned to take a job as president of South Florida State College. As many reports have noted, Hawkins has no background in higher education, but he's particularly tight with DeSantis and even sponsored the high-profile and extremely controversial bill that allowed the state to take over the special development district run by Disney World earlier this year.
(The relationship between the two, incidentally, seems to have experienced quite a turnaround from just a few years ago, when DeSantis suspended Hawkins from his post on the Osceola County Commission after he tried to enter a private meeting by pretending to be a sheriff and flashing an honorary "special deputy" badge.")
But even if Hawkins earned his new gig for all the wrong reasons, the suburban Orlando turf he once represented is now up for grabs. And the most appealing bit of news for Democrats is that his district leans just slightly to the left, at least on the presidential level: It backed Joe Biden by a 52-47 margin and supported Hillary Clinton 49-46. However, thanks in large part to desultory turnout last year among Democrats statewide, Hawkins won a comfortable 55-45 victory over Democrat Rishi Bagga.
Since then, though, Sunshine State Democrats have gotten a new infusion of energy after unexpectedly winning the March race for mayor of Jacksonville, Florida's largest city and a GOP stronghold for three decades. While they remain deep in the hole in the state House—Republicans hold a daunting 83-35 advantage, with both Hawkins' seat and the solidly red 118th District vacant—Democrats are eager for the opportunity to show that Jacksonville wasn't a fluke and that there's still life left in the party.
DeSantis, unsurprisingly, doesn't want to give them the chance. State law requires that he call a special election, but he has delayed in doing so—a stunt he's regularly pulled in the past. In 2021, DeSantis declined to order elections in three heavily Democratic legislative seats in South Florida for more than three months and only scheduled them after he was sued. By dawdling, he ensured that Democrats' diminished ranks would not be replenished until the very end of the next session of the legislature, allowing Republicans to enjoy an even larger majority than they were otherwise entitled to.
Notably, all three of those districts were served by Black Democrats, and all were home to majorities of Black voters. They'd become vacant because of a Florida law that required their representatives to resign in order to run in an earlier special election—this one for a vacant seat in Congress. DeSantis had likewise stalled in calling that election, waiting a month after Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings' death in April of 2021 to do so, and again only acting after a lawsuit had been filed.
Once he finally did act, DeSantis set an election calendar that meant residents would lack representation for a full three-quarters of a year. That 280-day wait was almost twice as long as the gap that had preceded the state's two most recent congressional special elections at the time—both of which were held to replace white Republicans in 2014, when Republican Rick Scott was governor.
Yet when it's suited DeSantis, he's moved with alacrity: As Nicholas Warren, an attorney with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted last year, the governor waited less than two weeks to call a special election after GOP state Rep. Joe Harding, the author of the state's notorious "Don't Say Gay" bill, resigned after getting indicted on fraud charges.
The Florida ACLU in fact just sued DeSantis on Friday for failing to order a special election for the 118th District in the Miami suburbs, more than a month after he appointed GOP Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin to a post in county government. Here the delay is harder to understand, given the district's rightward lean, but as the ACLU's filing points out, it's still a dramatic departure from past practice: From 1999 through 2020, Florida governors took on average just over a week to call special elections. Only more recently has DeSantis sought to gum up the gears of democracy.
Whether or not another suit is necessary to force the governor's hand, though, Democrats will be ready. Along with another Democrat (and a trio of Republicans), Bagga is already running again for the 35th District, and he says he raised more money in his first month on the trail this time than he did during any single month all of last year. DeSantis can keep trying to drag things out, but sooner or later, he'll have to let this seat go before voters and find out whether this newfound enthusiasm among Florida Democrats is for real.