Editor’s note: With this article we open the Donalds Dossier, an occasional series of articles tracking, reporting and analyzing Rep. Byron Donalds’ activities in representing the 19th Congressional District of Southwest Florida in the US Congress.
March 3, 2021 by David Silverberg
Today marks two months since Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) took the oath of office—and it has been two of the most momentous months in American history.
Just how momentous needs to be fully appreciated: during the past 60 days a coup nearly succeeded, the Constitution was nearly demolished, an election was nearly overturned, the Capitol was violently attacked, congressional leaders were nearly killed, the Vice President was nearly lynched, a president was impeached for a second time and democracy barely survived—and all this amidst a deadly pandemic.
Into this turmoil stepped Byron Donalds, a former Southwest Florida state lawmaker, banking executive and financial advisor who unreservedly pledged his personal loyalty and complete obedience to Donald J. Trump during his election campaign.
Throughout the events of his first two months in office, Donalds has remained ideologically consistent: still pledged to Trump and Trumpism and opposed to any Democratic measure brought forth in the House of Representatives.
A man in microcosm
Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol attack, illuminated Donalds in microcosm. In the morning he attended Trump’s anti-election rally on the Ellipse outside the White House. Then he went to the Capitol building at 11:17 am where he signed his objection to certifying the election. When rioters entered the building to stop the vote count he fled to safety with other members. That night, after the riot, when members returned, he voted against certifying the election, which was the object of the attack.
At 10:09 pm in a lengthy Twitter statement, Donalds called the rioters “lawless vigilantes,” “a bunch of lunatics” and condemned their actions as “thuggery.” He later altered the tweet to remove the criticism and watered it down to just state that the rioters “do not embody my constituents’ values and heart.” Despite their actions, he tweeted, “they will not alter my decision to object to the Electoral College certification.”
Donalds’ vote against it notwithstanding, Joe Biden’s election was certified and Donalds attended the inauguration on Jan. 20.
So despite Trump’s and Donalds’ best efforts, the results stood—including Donalds’ own election to his office—and there is still a legislative branch of the United States government in which he can serve.
A vocal ideologue
After an initial pause, Donalds has shown himself an active and vocal representative, taking to all forms of media—social, right-wing and mainstream—to get out his messages. For all the talk, his positions have been orthodox conservative and Trumpist. He:
- Opposed invoking the 25th Amendment and voted against the second impeachment of Donald Trump, calling the trial “a partisan political sideshow;”
- Voted against stripping Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) of her committee assignments;
- Condemned halting construction of the Trump border wall;
- Supported retaining the Hyde Amendment prohibiting US funding in any form for abortions;
- Denounced the Biden administration’s proposed immigration reforms;
- Accused the Biden administration of planning to vaccinate terrorists and undocumented migrants before American citizens;
- Denounced teachers’ unions for pressing for safe classrooms;
- Praised Rush Limbaugh as being “our voice” and said his passing was “a tremendous blow to generations of patriots;”
- Opposed The Equality Act (House Resolution 5) combating gender discrimination.
Some of these positions were merely cosmetic or superficial but Donalds’ really substantive efforts surrounded the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, aimed to stimulate the economy, bring relief to those affected financially by the pandemic and speed vaccine distribution.
Marching the party line
Donalds followed the Republican Party line against the plan but added his own extra effort from the beginning, when the legislation was in committee. Donalds sits on the Budget Committee and, in keeping with the Republican position, denounced the plan as “nothing more than a liberal wish list under the guise of COVID-19 relief, but in reality, this bill is using the pandemic to push forth the radical and misguided policies of the far-left.”
He opposed every aspect of it. First, he opposed using a procedure known as “budget reconciliation” to get it through Congress (which allows it to pass by a simple majority vote). He vehemently inveighed against the $15 minimum wage provision, which more than 60 percent of Florida voters approved in their own referendum last year. He opposed use of Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) funds for non-profit corporations, particularly denouncing Planned Parenthood’s receipt of the funds. He also complained that aid was going to states that skewed Democratic like New York and California that had locked down to halt the spread of COVID-19. He called these public health precautions “authoritarian measures,” and contrasted them with Florida’s lack of restrictions despite the virus (which he himself caught in October but from which he recovered).
The very night that the bill passed, Donalds joined other Republican freshmen in the Capitol to further denounce the bill. While the other members stood behind him, masked as required by House rules, Donalds, a vehement anti-masker, said that he’d forgotten his mask in his office. He proceeded to argue that the only reason Democratic members were supporting the bill was because they feared House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and needed the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Unlike the Republicans, who never acted out of fear of a presidential tweet.)
For all that, of course, the American Rescue Plan passed the House by a vote of 219 to 212 at 2:00 am on Saturday morning, Feb. 27.
On the fast track
Donalds, one of only two Black Republican members in the House (the other is Rep. Burgess Owens (R-4-Utah)), is clearly on a fast track in the Republican caucus and in the conservative movement.
The Republican leadership gave him committee assignments that offer numerous opportunities for political advantage. He sits on the Oversight and Reform Committee, which frequently generates headlines for its investigations and revelations of government misdeeds and shortcomings. His seat on the Budget Committee puts him in a very prominent position for consideration of the Biden administration’s annual budget initiatives, in this year’s case the American Rescue Plan. He also sits on the House Small Business Committee, which while generating fewer headlines, is helpful in the district.
(By contrast, Republicans have traditionally assigned less promising members to the Education Committee, which they regard as a backwater. It generates few headlines, offers few opportunities for high-profile work and congressional Republicans generally despise the Department of Education, which it oversees. It was where former Rep. Francis Rooney was initially placed and where Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was consigned before she was stripped of her committee assignments.)
Donalds also received recognition from the conservative movement at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the conclave that gathered in Orlando last week. While he was not one of the main speakers, he was given a seat on a panel discussing the political utility of supporting law enforcement, a slot in keeping with his rank as a freshman House member. On that panel he argued that while criminals need to be punished, they also need to be reintegrated back into society once they’ve completed their sentences. Donalds himself was arrested at 19 for drug possession and theft.
Back in the district…
While Donalds has been active on the front lines of conservatism and Republican ideology, he’s done little to no visible work in Congress yet on local issues like ensuring Southwest Florida’s vaccine allocation (dealt with in a broader sense by the American Rescue Plan he opposed), protecting the environment, strengthening measures against harmful algal blooms, bolstering infrastructure resilience against climate change or ensuring water purity. These were not key issues in his election campaign, either.
He has held no public town halls or constituent listening sessions—impossible in person right now, although possible virtually.
He did, however, conduct a very limited outreach session to local black businesses in a virtual roundtable on Thursday, Feb. 25, which was closed to the media.
Hospitality—and then some
One of Donalds’ more interesting efforts with local businesses occurred prior to the election. On Oct. 26, 2020 he sponsored an online roundtable with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association to discuss the needs and challenges of Southwest Florida’s hospitality industry with seven local restaurateurs and business owners. It didn’t hurt that he was connecting with local businessmen as early voting was taking place.
Two of the major points to come out of that panel were the need for COVID liability protection for local businesses and opposition to a minimum wage hike, opposition that Donalds clearly shared and took to Congress during the American Rescue Plan debate.
At the time Donalds agreed that economic stimulus was necessary but said it had to be targeted in concert with state governments. Ultimately, he voted against the stimulus contained in the American Rescue Plan.
Among the panelists was Alfie Oakes, the extreme conservative grocer and farmer. Oakes told the panel that COVID is “not a pandemic in my mind.” If any of his employees became sick “We would get some hydroxychloroquine and give it intravenously and within two days they were perfect. We didn’t jump into the fear of everything.”
But even Oakes, a vehement anti-masker, had to admit that despite his having called it a “hoax,” COVID caused him some concern. “Some people may still think I’m handling this in a reckless manner,” he said. “I have customers coming in, he’s 97, his wife is 94, they’re not wearing masks and I was worried for them but they’re still shopping every day. They didn’t buy into the fear.”
Oakes, who is otherwise a vociferous opponent of the federal government, stated that the PPP program helped stave off layoffs on his farm and the federal Farmbox program, which provides food to the needy directly from farms, aided his enterprise.
When it came to raising the minimum wage, Oakes said, “It would be asinine. It would be socialism. The people it would hurt are the people who it’s supposed to help. I’d have to squeeze more out of existing employees. It is a total liberal sham and I pray it doesn’t pass as I hope that Joe Biden doesn’t get elected.”
Analysis: Getting what you say you want
Make no mistake; in Byron Donalds the majority of voters in the 19th Congressional District got what they said they wanted: “a strong, Trump-supporting, gun-owning, liberty-loving, pro-life, politically incorrect black man,” as he put it during his campaign. His actions in office to date have followed logically for someone meeting that description.
Donalds is clearly ambitious and his election put him on a path to greater national glory and possibly higher office. But it’s not an easy path, it’s more of a tightrope over a chasm and Donalds is like a juggler trying to walk it while keeping three balls in the air.
One ball is the Republican congressional leadership. Donalds has to keep them happy to advance. So he follows the Party line, with which he seems to actually agree at the moment. So far they like him, are promoting him and he seems to really share their pronouncements and positions.
The second ball is Donald Trump and he is a ball that isn’t perfectly spherical and doesn’t follow the normal laws of aerodynamics. Donalds has to stay in his good graces or at least out of his line of fire. At CPAC, Trump declared that he will be staying in the Republican Party, he will be purging its heretics and when it comes to the 2024 presidential race, “I may even decide to beat them for a third time. Okay? For a third time. True.” To keep from dropping this ball, Donalds has to go along with the complete and utter fantasy that Trump won and had the election stolen from him. It takes a lot of willful credulity and a lot of sycophancy to keep that ball in the air—and it’s a ball that can fly off in any direction at any moment or suddenly hit him in the face.
The third ball is the “base,” the conservative movement and Donalds’ hard-core Trumper constituents in Southwest Florida. This includes the “lawless vigilantes” and “bunch of lunatics” who attacked the Capitol but whose votes Donalds needs to stay in his seat. These have been among some of Donalds’ most faithful supporters and donors to date. Donalds has to be conscious, though, that on Jan. 6 these people were a lynch mob just as surely as the lynch mob that rampaged through Fort Myers in 1924—only in 2021 they were seeking to hang the faithful and subservient Vice President of the United States. They could riot again, in person or at the ballot box, and turn against anyone, including him.
If Donalds can keep all three of these balls in the air and keep his footing on the tightrope, he just may get to the other side of the chasm.
And what is on that other side? Presumably whatever Donalds thinks constitutes “success.” But what Donalds considers “success” for himself may not necessarily be “success” for Southwest Florida.
Liberty lives in light
© 2021 b David Silverberg