In the opinion Alito argued that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.” He calls for its complete overturn.
Of the region’s congressional delegation Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) was the first to comment on Twitter with three tweets starting at 7:41 am today.
“It is unfortunate that the news of the greatest victory for the Pro Life movement comes on the heels of one of the most profound breaches of trust the Court has ever seen,” he tweeted. “If the report is true, I am grateful that all of God’s children will now have a voice, and I am committed to ensuring that the leaker and their complicit partners in the media will be held accountable for their actions to the fullest extent,” he continued.
At 12:41 pm today Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), released a tweet and statement condemning the leak.
“Those liable for prematurely and irresponsibly unveiling this draft opinion have engaged in a historically dangerous political maneuver intended to intimidate Lady Justice and the Constitution that guides our Republic,” he tweeted.
In his formal statement he maintained that the leak was a crime and stated that America had fallen victim to “culture wars and clickbait journalism.”
In no statement, however, did he address the substance of overturning Roe v. Wade or a woman’s right to choose.
Cindy Banyai, a declared Democratic candidate for the 19th Congressional District, issued a statement saying “Conservative activist justices inappropriately appointed to the Supreme Court are about to send the United States back 50 years. The overturning of the right to medical privacy and abortion care should alarm all Americans.”
She continued: “I stand firmly in opposition to overturning the super precedent of Roe v. Wade. I believe people have the right to choose when and where to start a family. I believe people have a right to medical privacy and decisions about medical care should be made by a person and their medical practitioner, not pre-emptively made by the government.”
As of this writing Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) had not yet commented on any platform.
All of Southwest Florida’s Republican elected representatives ran on anti-choice platforms.
In his 2020 election bid, Donalds’ campaign tag line was: “I’m everything the fake news media says doesn’t exist: a Donald Trump-supporting, liberty-loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.”
All of Southwest Florida’s state elected officials voted in favor of Florida’s “Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality” bill (House Bill 5), which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on April 15. The law prohibits abortions after 15 weeks and makes no exceptions for rape or incest. It is slated to go into effect in July and will likely stand if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade before then.
Of Southwest Florida’s state senators, Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples) has consistently held an anti-choice position, telling Florida Politics in September 2021 that while she opposed abortion she was also uncomfortable with provisions of Texas’ anti-abortion law encouraging civil litigation against those providing or seeking abortions.
“I am pro-life but I am not pro-telling on your neighbors,” she said in a speech to the Argus Foundation in Sarasota at that time.
State Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers) reaffirmed his anti-abortion position to the Fort Myers Beach Observer in February.
Asked about Florida’s then-pending anti-abortion bill, Rodrigues told the Observer, “I hope it passes”—as indeed it did.
By a vote of 31 to 4 the Florida Senate yesterday, Jan. 20, passed its version of Florida’s new congressional districts.
The new map makes only slight changes to Southwest Florida’s congressional districts but it does take a chunk of Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres out of the current 19th Congressional District and puts it in the 17th Congressional District to the north.
Those districts include considerable Black and Hispanic populations and dilute any potential Democratic voting blocks in the 19th, making both the 19th and 17th districts, already heavily Republican, even more so.
The Senate completely ignored a map submitted on behalf of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), which made radical changes to Florida’s congressional districts. DeSantis has indicated that he may veto the Senate map, since he has to sign off on any congressional boundary changes.
The Florida House has yet to weigh in with a final version of its congressional map.
The Senate map
The map approved yesterday by the Senate (S000C8040) largely keeps existing boundaries and numbers.
This map was chosen and shepherded through the committee process by Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Lee County) who chaired the Senate’s Reapportionment Committee.
From the outset, Rodrigues said he was committed to avoiding the experience of the 2010 redistricting, which was challenged in court and took six years to litigate before final maps were approved.
The initial round of maps proposed by the Senate received a “B” grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an academic, non-partisan evaluation by Princeton University. It largely kept existing districts intact, while giving Florida its new 28th district. The B meant that the map was considered “better than average for the category, but bias still exists.”
As of this writing the new maps have not yet been graded by Princeton.
The Senate map keeps Fort Myers’ River District in the 19th and makes Park Ave. the boundary line between the 19th and the 17th in the west. State Road 82 becomes the boundary between the 17th and the 19th until it reaches Rt. 75 in the east.
It also puts the 19th District portion of Lehigh Acres solidly in the 17th.
The initial draft of this map was denounced by Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai. “This is gerrymandering,” she stated in a Nov. 19 press release. “Most of the people who are no longer in FL19 are minorities, our Black and Latino neighbors. It’s well known that this district has always been a giveaway to the Republicans, but this clear targeting of our communities of color should alarm everyone.”
The DeSantis map
The DeSantis proposal (P000C0079) largely follows county lines.
Under the DeSantis proposal, all of Lee County would constitute the 19th Congressional District. Collier County would constitute the bulk of a re-numbered 26th District, along with a chunk of Broward County as far east as Hialeah, the Cuban-American stronghold that provides the center of gravity for the current 25th District. A newly re-numbered 18th District would cover an immense swath of land including all of Charlotte County. Today, much of this area is contained in the 17th District.
It remains unclear whether the Senate or DeSantis maps will prevail when it comes to congressional districts. (The Senate also redrew state Senate districts. House districts will be redrawn by the state House. These do not need the governor’s signature to take effect.)
“We have submitted an alternative proposal, which we can support, that adheres to federal and state requirements, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible, and protect minority voting populations,” stated Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary. “Because the governor must approve any congressional map passed by the Legislature, we wanted to provide our proposal as soon as possible and in a transparent manner.”
The controversies over the dueling maps will not center around Southwest Florida. The battles are emerging over heavily populated districts on the east coast in Democratic areas like Miami and Jacksonville. According to The Florida Phoenix, it appears “DeSantis’ proposed congressional map favors Republicans in 18 districts and Democrats in 10. Under the existing map, Republicans control 16 seats to the Democrats’ 11” whereas the “Senate draft contains 16 districts that went for Donald Trump two years ago and 12 likely to skew Democratic — a gain of one seat.”
Under the Senate map, existing representatives would remain largely in place, with Rep. Byron Donalds (R) representing the 19th, in which he does not reside, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) representing the 25th, and Rep. Greg Steube (R) representing the 17th.
Under DeSantis’ map, Donalds would have to choose whether to run in a 19th District that’s even further from his home—meaning a dual commute to Lee County as well as Washington, DC—or stay where he lives in the 25th and face off against fellow Republican Diaz-Balart.
If Donalds decided not to run in the DeSantis 19th, it could open the door to a new contender of any party.
For his part, if Diaz-Balart decided to run in the DeSantis 26th District, he would suddenly have a population center to contend with in a relatively urbanized western part of his district. Until now, the western part of the 25th was barely populated and Diaz-Balart could concentrate his attentions on Hialeah and his Cuban-American constituents with the occasional trip out to Immokalee serving as a show of some degree of concern for western constituents.
Though the redistricting process is far from over, the Senate map has the greatest likelihood of passage, although DeSantis’ wild card could still change the outcome of the game.
Maps must be finalized by June 17 when candidates qualify to run in the new districts. They’re more likely to be finalized by March 11, the last scheduled day of the legislative session.
For the most part, the new maps leave Southwest Florida’s 17th, 19th and 25th congressional districts largely intact. The districts retain their existing numbering. No local congressmen were redistricted out of their seats or forced into runoff elections. All the districts remain overwhelmingly Republican based on voter registrations.
The big change for the state as a whole is the addition of a new congressional seat, the 28th. It is proposed, as expected, for the center of the state where population growth has been greatest.
While there was widespread trepidation—and expectation—that the new Florida maps would be radically biased in favor of Republicans that proved not to be the case.
When the maps were released, “they were surprisingly unaggressive,” wrote the website FiveThirtyEight.com. “Instead, they largely preserve Florida’s current congressional map, exhibiting only a mild Republican bias.”
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an impressively deep and thorough examination of redistricting across the country, gave them an overall grade of B, meaning “better than average for the category, but bias still exists.”
This article looks at the four draft maps for three US congressional districts in Southwest Florida and what they mean for voters. Subsequent articles will examine state Senate and House districts and other draft maps.
In all four draft maps released last week (S000C8002, S000C8004, S000C8006 and S000C8008) the boundaries for the 17th, 19th and 25th congressional districts that make up Southwest Florida remain largely the same.
There are, however, some important changes.
The Florida Fair Districts amendments aim to keep districts as compact and contiguous as possible, following existing boundaries, like county lines. These maps largely do that.
The 17th District, represented by Rep. Greg Steube (R), is a huge, although largely rural, district encompassing Hardee, Desoto, Charlotte, Glades, Highlands, and Okeechobee counties, with chunks of Polk, Lee, and Sarasota counties.
In the new maps the 17th loses all its territory in Polk County, which goes to the newly-formed 28th Congressional District. It also gives up much of its Sarasota County territory to the 16th, although it keeps North Port and the whole town of Venice. But it gains territory in Lee County.
North Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres
It is in North Fort Myers that there are big changes proposed as that community shifts from the 19th to the 17th.
The 19th District is represented by Rep. Byron Donalds (R), who lives two miles east of Rt. 75 in the 25th District.
In the new maps State Road 82 becomes the boundary between the 17th and the 19th until it reaches Rt. 75. Then everything—the River District, Buckingham, Tice, Dunbar, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., as far south as Winkler Ave. and as far west as the Seminole Gulf railway—becomes part of the 17th.
The 19th may be losing a big chunk of North Fort Myers but it picks up Palmona Park across the Caloosahatchee River in Cape Coral.
In the past, most of Lehigh Acres was in the 17th District with a sliver in the 19th. That’s no longer true: the 17th takes all of Lehigh Acres as far south as State Road 82.
Since its drawing in 2010, the 19th District has resembled a railroad spike or a mushroom, with a bulbous north and a skinny south along the coast in its Collier County portion.
In the draft maps, that spike or stem widens slightly. Instead of Livingston Rd. in Collier County being the eastern end of the district, this map extends the line to Rt. 75, which makes much more sense as a boundary.
Between Vanderbilt Beach Rd. and Pine Ridge Rd., it also extends the district eastward to Logan Blvd. to include The Vineyards, which are now entirely in the district.
In its southern end, it stops following Rt. 75 and instead makes 32nd Ave. SW its boundary as far as Collier Blvd., where it goes straight south to Rt. 41 and encompasses Marco Island and Goodland as its most southeasterly community.
Where the 19th gains in Collier County the 25th loses, but not by much. The western edge of the 25th, represented by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) retains Golden Gate and the unincorporated town of Immokalee and more or less keeps its existing shape. More important is the action on its more densely-populated eastern side where it gains population with Opa-Locka and slivers of Miami. However, it keeps its most important community, Hialeah, a Cuban-American stronghold.
Redistricting—or gerrymandering, if you don’t like the results—is always a delicate art. Drawing the lines can’t help but get partisan as they’re drafted.
In this case, the 19th District was overpopulated and had to lose population somewhere. It so happens that the state Senate drafters chose to take it out by removing minority, working class, somewhat Democratic communities.
Moving North Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres into the 17th means the interests of those suburban communities will be subsumed by the majority rural and agricultural voters further north in Charlotte, Hardee, Desoto, Glades, Highlands, and Okeechobee counties.
In partisan terms, it means they can’t threaten Republican dominance in either the 19th or the 17th. But that was the way the existing lines were drawn anyway.
Assuming that redistricting proceeds smoothly and according to its assigned schedule, next year candidates will be campaigning in the newly drawn new districts. However, it’s difficult to see how the new lines could make much of a difference.
Currently, both the 19th and 17th districts are represented by extreme, radical right-wing Republican incumbent representatives, Donalds and Steube.
For residents of North Fort Myers that doesn’t mean much of a difference in being represented to policymakers in Washington, DC. For Black residents of the affected areas, Donalds not only has no interest in traditional Black concerns like civil rights and voting access, he is actively hostile to them. He has inveighed against critical race theory in schools and is part of the Republican culture wars chorus. He plays to his extreme conservative political action committee donors and a hard-right Trumpist base. Minority voters weren’t getting much representation anyway, so they aren’t losing much if he doesn’t represent them in 2022.
By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Cindy Banyai, is already campaigning vigorously on behalf of those communities. However, she’ll be deprived of potentially supportive voters if the maps change as drawn.
Nor will North Fort Myers residents get any representation if Steube wins re-election again. If anything, Steube is even more extreme than Donalds and would likely completely ignore those communities.
Steube was opposed in 2020 by Allen Ellison, whom he defeated 64 to 34 percent. This year Ellison is running for the US Senate seat of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). To date, Steube has no announced opponent.
In the 25th District, Diaz-Balart is running against Democrat Adam Gentle. Last year Diaz-Balart ran unopposed. Changes in the district lines would not seem to make much of a difference in the demographic makeup of the district.
It’s worth remembering that these are just draft maps. In addition to the state Senate committee’s proposals individuals have submitted proposed drafts. Also, the state House committee is expected to shortly submit its proposals.
People who want to weigh in can contact their representatives and Southwest Florida is fortunate in that Rodrigues, who oversees the whole redistricting effort, is a local state senator. Also, state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples) will be serving as Senate president next year and has a disproportionate say in the final redistricting.
Do you think you can draw better political maps than the state legislators in Tallahassee?
Now you can get your chance.
A new website, Florida Redistricting, launched Monday, Sept. 20, gives anyone who cares to use it the opportunity to recommend re-jiggering the state’s political boundaries based on 2020 Census data.
It’s a remarkable experiment in citizen participation and a striking change from past redistricting done in dark, smoke-filled rooms out of public sight.
Of course, while citizens can make plenty of suggestions it will be the legislature that finally decides how the maps will be drawn.
Still, for a state that has increasingly pulled the curtain on its vaunted principles of sunshine in government, it is an exceptional departure from the past. It brings a bit of light to a process that is unglamorous but essential—and determines the partisan balance of power for the decade to come.
Redistricting actually consists of two processes: redistricting (redrawing district lines) and reapportionment (redistributing congressional seats among the states).
Next year Florida gets one new seat in Congress based on its increase in population since 2010. That new district is expected to be in the high-growth area of Orlando or somewhere along the I-4 corridor.
Traditionally, redistricting is colloquially known as the process whereby politicians choose their voters, so voters will likely choose them at election time. It has been manipulated since the beginning of the American republic—and even before, in colonial times. In 1812 it gave rise to the term “gerrymander” after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry so manipulated the state’s district maps to his political advantage that what emerged was a salamander-like creature immortalized in a newspaper cartoon.
Republicans have been past masters of drawing lines to favor their party. This was highlighted in January 2020, after the death of Republican redistricting consultant Thomas Hofeller. His daughter Stephanie made public the contents of four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives from her father’s office, revealing his detailed gerrymandering work. While he was based in North Carolina, he had clients all over the country and participated in Florida’s redistricting.
In 2010 two constitutional amendments, 5 and 6, were on the ballot in Florida. Amendment 5 covered legislative districts, amendment 6 covered congressional districts and both were known as the Fair Districts Amendments.
Both amendments required that: “districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”
In the 2010 election both amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote, despite vehement opposition from the state’s Republican lawmakers. (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) joined a lawsuit to block their implementation, which failed.)
Despite the amendments, Florida’s 2010 maps were drawn by consultants and political operatives who maneuvered behind the scenes to push Republican dominance. The lines were so elaborately gerrymandered when the maps were revealed that fair districts supporters sued to overturn them.
A “group of Republican political consultants did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” ruled Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 2014. “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan,” and “managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”
It took five years of litigation to finally end the disputes, during which two elections took place.
This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Estero), who heads the state Senate’s reapportionment committee, is promising that the process will be open, fair and transparent and meet both the spirit and letter of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments.
“We are taking steps to safeguard against the kind of shadow process that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said during the first meeting of his committee on Monday, Sept. 20. “We will protect our process against the ‘astroturfing’ that occurred in the past, where partisan political operatives from both parties wrote scripts and recruited speakers to advocate for certain plans or district configurations to create a false impression of a widespread grassroots movement.”
He added: “Fortunately, we now have the insight into both the judiciary’s expanded scope of review, and how courts have interpreted and applied the constitutional standards related to redistricting. I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law that developed during the last decade that is beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.”
How they break down
According to the 2020 Census, Florida gained 2,736,877 people over the last ten years and now has a population of 21,538,187.
In Southwest Florida, Lee County gained 142,068 residents, reaching a population of 760,822. Collier County gained 54,232 people to reach a total population of 375,752. Charlotte County gained 26,869 people to reach a total of 186,847.
The redistricting effort will try to bring the new districts into line with ideal population levels while meeting Fair Districting criteria. Since all of Southwest Florida gained population above the ideal, most—but not all—its districts are considered “overpopulated.”
Ideally, each Florida congressional district should have 769,221 people in it, a gain of 72,876 from last time.
According to the data from FloridaRedistricting.gov, in Southwest Florida the current congressional districts break down as follows:
District 17: With a total population of 779,955 people, it has 10,734 or .014 percent people more than the ideal number.
District 19: With a total population of 835,012 people, it has 65,791 or .086 percent more people than the ideal number.
District 25: With a total population of 771,434 people, it has 2,213 or .003 percent more people than the ideal number.
Once in, users can fiddle with the maps to their heart’s content and send recommendations to the legislature.
It’s a remarkable innovation in participatory democracy. Time, however, is of the essence. The legislative redistricting session convenes on Jan. 11 of next year and it must complete its work by the time it adjourns on March 11. Without a doubt, it will be a contentious session.
After that, there will presumably be newly-drawn districts. By June 11, candidates will qualify to run for office. Then the party primaries will take place on Aug. 23 and the general election on Nov. 8.
Can this experiment in popular participation actually result in fairly drawn, politically neutral boundaries?
Obviously, it remains to be seen. In 2010 the Fair Districting Amendments passed overwhelmingly but the maps that came out were gerrymandered anyway. Florida always seems to have a way of ignoring or circumventing its most popular constitutional amendments.
Coming out of the gate, though, Rodrigues’ intentions seem good if his words are taken at face value.
If this experiment works Florida could become a national model of fair districting. This time, if citizens are alert, engaged and determined, maybe—just maybe—Florida for once might abide by its own constitution and put to rest the gerrymander, or, in this case, the Republigator.
The most significant bill suppressing voting in Florida is scheduled for committee consideration tomorrow, March 10—and Florida residents can weigh in with their opposition.
Senate Bill 90 would require voters seeking to vote by mail to renew their mail-in request every year in the calendar year of the election rather than the current two years. That means that voters seeking a mail-in ballot for the 2022 election would have to wait until next year to request it.
Introduced on Feb. 3 by state Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-12-Sumter County), the bill has already been approved by the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
The Florida Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee, has scheduled a hearing on it for tomorrow.
The Miami Herald, editorialized that, “While not solving any real problems, it would force supervisors of elections to scramble to comply and notify voters, costing counties hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Further, it “smacks of a partisan attempt to confuse voters and catch them off guard in next year’s election.”
Florida Democrats have denounced the bill.
“Why do Florida Republicans want to limit vote by mail access? Well it all comes down to who has access to the franchise,” Marcus Dixon, Florida Democratic Party Executive Director told News4 in Jacksonville. “So even though the vote by mail system worked well here in Florida this past election, any time too many people have easy access to the ballot box, Republicans feel like they need to change the rules.”
Manny Diaz, Florida Democratic Party Chair, agreed. “This is not an issue of Republicans versus Democrats, but instead an issue of Republicans versus democracy,” Diaz said. “Florida Republicans keep showing us that when given a choice between defending the rights of voters, or suppressing voter access, disturbingly they will all too gladly suppress, harm and sacrifice our most sacred Constitutional right, on the altar of preserving power for the sake of power.”
Comment: What you can do
Florida residents can weigh in on this issue before, during and after it comes up for a hearing in the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee.
They can contact their state senators and urge them to oppose it.
To find your senator, go to Find Your Legislators and enter your address. Your senator will appear along with a button to e-mail that senator. Tell your senator to oppose SB 90 and keep the mail-in voting provision the way it functioned in 2020.
The members of the Government Oversight and Accountability Committee are:
Like many people, Rachel Brown’s politics and understanding of the world has evolved—but she’s had a lot further to go and started at an earlier age than most.
Born in 1994 and raised in Naples, Fla., Brown’s father made money selling guns at gun shows. She was raised in a house without air conditioning with Fox News blaring in the background. Until the third grade she was home schooled but then her mother, a teacher by profession, worked three jobs to afford the tuition to send her to private school at the Evangelical Christian School in Fort Myers.
It was an upbringing that might have produced a woman with narrow expectations, a limited perspective on the world and conservative political views.
Instead, today Brown is the progressive candidate for the Florida state Senate in District 27, determined to protect the district’s natural environment, ensure a decent life for its people and tackle the challenges that face them.
“I’m a liberal who comes from conservative roots,” she says. “I’m tired of my legislators ignoring issues like harmful algal blooms, the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, and the massive homeless crisis on the rise.”
Center of gravity
State Senate District 27 includes Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva. It is the center of population in Lee County. The Caloosahatchee River runs through it to its shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.
The District is currently represented by Republican Sen. Elizabeth Benaquisto, who is term-limited and stepping down.
Benaquisto’s retirement set off a ferocious primary battle to succeed her between state House Reps. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Fort Myers Beach) and Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers), a battle so bitter they appeared in dueling TV ads firing guns, with the barely disguised implication they would gladly turn those guns on each other.
By then, Brown was already a declared candidate for the seat. She was approached by state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-34) the designated Senate minority leader, who urged Brown not to run so that Democrats could vote in an open Republican primary and elect the more moderate Fitzenhagen.
However, Brown refused, saying “How can I tell people I’ve marched with that I changed my mind, I’m not going to run, and they should go vote for a mediocre Republican instead who’s just going to take their taxes and use it for corporate handouts? And how can I take a backroom deal that represents the behavior I’m fighting to end?”
On Aug. 18 Rodrigues decisively defeated Fitzenhagen.
Given the past Republican nature of the District, the conventional wisdom is that it will remain the same.
Brown is determined to prove that assumption wrong. As her campaign slogan puts it: “Defy the norm!”
After three years in private school, Brown attended Palmetto Ridge High School in Naples for a year and then began going part time to Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is still studying.
“I wasn’t planning to run for office before I got my degree,” she says. “But it’s incredibly urgent that I do it now.”
Brown is training as an environmental engineer and it was her sensitivity and understanding of the environment—and particularly the relationship of the District with its natural setting—that powered her run for office.
“Water quality is the big issue for everyone,” she observes. “Anyone in Southwest Florida has seen the degradation of our water and the algae blooms. My whole life I’ve heard folks that have been around longer than I have say that the water used to be a bright, beautiful crystal blue, not like the brown and black plumes we see today.”
“I believe every person should have a legal right to clean air and clean water; a right that citizens of District 27 do not currently have,” she says, adding that she’s ready to fight for that right in Tallahassee.
She’s also angry that important environmental legislation has repeatedly been put off or deferred by the state legislature.
“Every time they see an environmental group trying to do something good they try to stop it,” she says.
She’s particularly incensed by what she calls the deceptively named Clean Waterways Act, which has been signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
While the law puts in place a variety of water purity regulations and procedures, it also takes away the power of local governments to extend legal rights to plants, animals or bodies of water, so that their purity or health can be protected in court. Brown believes there needs to be an environmental bill of rights and says she will work to repeal the Act in order to pass a better alternative.
It’s mainly on these environmental issues that she most disagrees with her opponent. During the primary, Rodrigues was painted as a tool of the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee, earning him the nickname “Sugar Ray.” Water from the lake is blamed for much of the pollution that flows down the Caloosahatchee River and dumps into the waters of the 27th District, clogging the canals of Cape Coral with algal mats and causing blue-green algae blooms along the river’s shores.
“He’s everything I am not,” says Brown. “He doesn’t seem to put the people of Lee County first.”
While the natural environment is critical to sustaining life and the 27th District’s economy, that life is under stress from the pandemic and the economy has been badly battered.
Nonetheless, Brown is optimistic: “I truly believe that a combination of individual and community efforts can make everyone’s lives better,” she says. “There are so many positive changes to be made when we work together.”
She points out that in Lee County the average cost of rent has increased by 19 percent since 2001 while the average income has gone up by only 4 percent, meaning that working people cannot keep up. She favors increasing the minimum wage to a livable level of $15 over six years. “If people aren’t making enough to live they’re going to need help,” she says.
She has seen homelessness in Lee County in person while working food service jobs. With the pandemic and economic crash she fears that homelessness is likely to increase and the county has to be ready for it.
People also need their healthcare, which she vows to protect, and she wants to expand Medicaid in the state.
Will she be branded a “socialist” for all this? Ironically, she points out, Rodrigues himself praised socialized healthcare. It came during a League of Women Voters forum when he commended Sweden’s approach to the COVID crisis by trying to develop herd immunity—covered by its socialized healthcare.
Brown also supports mask mandates to protect people from coronavirus.
Given her father’s past gun dealing, Brown says she’s comfortable with gun ownership as long as owners behave legally and responsibly. However, she feels they should be held liable for the use of their weapons. She really takes issue with Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
“Stand your ground as it is doesn’t do the job it was intended to do,” she argues. “It shouldn’t be allowed to be used in an offensive way.”
One issue that is close to her heart is that of infrastructure—good public transportation and safe streets—and for a very personal reason.
In 2004 her 12-year-old brother Eric was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was riding his bicycle in Golden Gate Estates. Brown believes the culprit—who was never caught—was drunk or on drugs.
The incident made her determined to work for greater road safety. “We have a lack of city planning,” she notes. “A lot of the county is considered a rural environment but that’s just a way to excuse the lack of planning. We need better planning because then we’ll have safer roadways and fewer emissions.”
Her stance on infrastructure has won her an endorsement from Thomas Kanell, creator of ABetterLeeTran.com, a website advocating improved public transportation in Lee County. He called her “a courageous activist whose focus on the needs of everyday people and on preserving the environment is a fresh alternative from the money-driven politics that have characterized elections in our state.”
Her brother’s death also convinced Brown that alcohol and drugs need to be gotten off the streets. “Drug possession in and of itself is not the issue,” she maintains. “Driving under the influence of drugs and reckless driving in general is. Rather than busting people in their homes for drug consumption, we need to keep it off the roads.”
A public servant
Brown is fully aware that running as a Democrat in what has to date been a Republican district is a long, difficult battle against heavy odds. Her opponent is deep-rooted, backed by the Republican establishment and well-funded.
“At the start of my campaign, I innocently imagined a full paid staff; leaders of volunteer crews, managers, and social media people,” she recounts. “Now I realize that’s not going to happen.”
Instead, small donations have enabled her to order and distribute a hundred face masks and face shields. In addition to using social media she’s purchased yard signs and been able to produce a 30-second television advertisement. She’s planning to send out mailers.
In what she calls a game-changing development, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee organization called Red to Blue is helping her with software and text message campaigning.
She’s been endorsed by other candidates like congressional candidate Cindy Banyai and Anselm Weber, running for the Florida House in District 76.
Interestingly enough, she’s also getting Republican help from supporters of Heather Fitzenhagen who were disgusted by Rodrigues’ primary campaign.
“Many women are angered by Ray’s vicious campaign against Heather which ultimately lost her the primary,” she observes. “In order to win, I need support from all women and I’m delighted by those who have joined me.”
She acknowledges that “It’s hard being a grassroots candidate,” but adds, “I’m powering to the polls.”
Among the many promises and pledges that are made on the campaign trail, there’s one Brown is absolutely determined to keep: “My biggest celebration when I win will be to finally pay for air conditioning for my mother,” she says.
Nobody likes to be lied about. Whether you’re in kindergarten or elder care, it’s hurtful.
People who run for public office know that they’re going to be maligned; it’s part of the process. You put yourself out there and anyone can throw a rotten tomato; it comes with the territory in an electoral contest. In politics, if you can’t take the hit, don’t run for it.
But there are political lies, shadings of the truth and spins of the facts, and then there are lies, malicious falsehoods of whole cloth, entirely made up, untruths so stinging and painful they can even get under the skin of a thick-skinned politician. They’re more than lies, they’re smears.
In Southwest Florida the smears are getting smearier and penetrating Republican candidates’ skins, like chigger bites. The candidates are getting irritated and especially for the novices and amateurs, that burning itch just has to be scratched, as can be seen in their television ads. Everyone is accusing everyone else of lying. The Republican field has steadily descended into a mud pit so deep not even a swamp buggy could escape.
As one example, take the battle between businessman Casey Askar and state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee).
Donalds was so exercised by Askar’s advertising charging that Donalds once supported Barack Obama that Donalds was moved to retain a lawyer (Todd Allen of Naples) to send a cease and desist letter to Askar.
“There is nothing you could have discerned from Mr. Donalds’ social media activity or his political activities that indicates that he actually did vote for or support President Barack Obama. Despite having that knowledge, you proceeded with the allegation out of pure malice toward Mr. Donalds,” charges the Aug. 7 letter.
The letter goes on to point out that Askar has some thin skin of his own: He’s suing Andrew Duskin, a conservative activist in Naples, for $30,000 for alleging that Askar didn’t really earn the Harvard Business School degree he claims.
Stop leveling this terrible charge, says the letter to Askar. “If you choose to continue with these false statements, Mr. Donalds will follow your lead and protect himself from misguided and unfounded attempts to assassinate his character”—and we all know how terrible a crime it was to vote for Barack Obama, an offense committed by over 65 million Americans in 2012. But this is Southwest Florida and the two men are running in a Republican primary.
Chris Gober, Asker’s Austin, Texas-based attorney shot back on Aug. 10 with a 4-page letter of his own. In it he detailed all of Donalds’ Democratic transgressions, noting that he was a registered Democrat in 2003 and “did not register as a Republican until March 11, 2010, 484 days after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.”
“In summary, your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack than to rebut it”—a charge so grave that Mr. Gober was apparently unable to bring himself to type out the name “Obama.”
“In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not explicitly state the obvious: The truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim,” Gober wrote. “Thus, because your letter does more to confirm the reality that Mr. Donalds supported President Barack Obama than to rebut it, your client has no legal basis to demand that our campaign cease airing its advertisements.”
To the best of this author’s knowledge, this is the only time a cease and desist letter has been sent between political campaigns over so serious a charge.
And clearly, neither party is ceasing or desisting. The cost of those lawyers and letters might as well be banknotes burned in an ash tray.
Similar charges are being made against state Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral). He’s an endangered species, states a TV ad that puts him in a gunsight’s crosshairs, because he’s a “surprisingly liberal Republican” who supported former Republican presidential candidate and Utah senator, Mitt Romney—the only Republican senator to vote for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
This charge came out of an independent super political action committee (PAC) called Conservative Outsiders PAC, based in Athens, Ga., according to Federal Election Commission filings.
One interesting bit of hypocrisy comes courtesy of the campaign of Dr. William Figlesthaler, who has tried to transition from enraged, belt-wielding gonna give you a whuppin’ dad to genial barbequing paterfamilias in his latest TV ad, “Choices.”
“I’ve been focused on one thing: fighting for you and the conservative values we hold dear. Because tearing each other down is no way to build our country up,” he says as he benignly serves up lumps of charred flesh. That’s a laugh and a half considering that Figlesthaler has been a serial violator of President Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican”—in the 19th Congressional District race to date.
But no primary race has generated more heat and anger over lying than the one for state Senate District 27, which covers Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Sanibel, Pine Island and Fort Myers Beach. There, state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers) has characterized state Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Estero) as “Sugar Ray,” a lackey of the sugar industry, which is blamed for polluting Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River.
She in turn is being portrayed in TV ads as an abortion-loving, open borders-abetting liberal by Rodrigues and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Fitzenhagen is so mad about what she says are lies told about her that she’s grabbed a gun in a TV ad called “If you see Ray.” The ad is produced by something called In Florida we Trust, formed in June and located in Bonita Springs. It is aimed—literally—at Rodrigues.
“If you see Ray Rodrigues, tell him to stop lying about me and my record. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump,” she snaps, blasting away with a rifle—presumably what she’d do to Ray Rodrigues if she ever saw him on the street.
Commentary: The father of all lies
Why all this lying? And why does it seem worse than usual?
Every single Republican candidate in Southwest Florida has pledged his or her eternal loyalty to the Great God Trump and there is no liar in this or any other universe like Donald J.
Trump built his 2016 campaign on lies: he lies as president; he lied in his inaugural address; he lied about Ukraine; he lied about coronavirus; he lies about people close to him; he lies about his opponents; he lied about his marriage vows; he lied about his oath of office; he lies about Russia; he lies about America; he lies on Twitter; he lies incessantly, compulsively, daily, hourly—he even lies when truth might help him and he probably lies in his dreams.
This is the man all these Southwest Florida candidates “stand with,” praise, exalt and swear undying fealty to—and base their own behavior upon.
The Republican candidates of Southwest Florida can see that lying got Donald Trump elected. Since he’s elevated as the model of perfection and he lies constantly, his acolytes clearly feel no compulsion to tell the truth about themselves or anything else. Since lying is acceptable at the very pinnacle of the nation and there are no consequences for doing it, why not lie about their opponents to get elected?
What they did not take into account is the impact of being lied about.
It hurts. It’s painful to have your life and career and motivations and intentions and actions twisted and distorted and even completely fictionalized. In Trump, they all identify with the liar but have no empathy for the victims. So while it’s easy to fire outgoing lies at opponents and perceived enemies, it’s something else entirely to take incoming lies blasting you. Put another way, they can dish it out but they can’t take it.
While politics have always had an element of falsehood, Trump has lowered the bar to a whole new level. He’s dragged down all his adherents with him, even in places as remote and obscure as Southwest Florida. Most of these candidates have never run for office before and never experienced the slings and arrows of normal political brawling. When a lie punches you in the face, it’s painful and that’s a new and surprising sensation to them.
So lies and insults are the order of the day among the Trumplettes of Southwest Florida.
Voters and television viewers can take comfort that the primary ordeal is almost over: this coming Tuesday, Aug. 18, the ballots will be counted and winners will emerge. Then will begin a simpler battle for the general election, when a decision will theoretically be rendered on Nov. 3.
If you haven’t voted already, in person or by mail, make sure you do, whatever your affiliation.
Keep in mind as well that this year nearly every race will have a Democratic candidate who will provide an alternative to this madness.
And instead of imitating Trump, you can take as your model someone else and follow his advice—to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.