It’s rare that a politician in Florida is so popular that he’s literally on a first-name basis with almost everybody.
Alcee Hastings was that man. Instantly recognizable simply as Alcee, he was the senior member of the Florida congressional delegation, a folk hero and flamboyant trailblazer revered by his constituents for his perseverance of racial justice, civil rights and health care for all. The patriarch of Broward’s Black community for decades died Tuesday at age 84 after a long fight with pancreatic cancer.
The broad contours of Hastings’ remarkable political life are well-known. Before he went to Congress, he was Judge Hastings — the first black federal judge in Florida. He was accused of soliciting a bribe, impeached by Congress and removed from the bench by the Senate, but was still able to run for office. Far from being a political albatross, impeachment made him a martyr to those who viewed him as the wronged victim of the white power structure. It propelled him to Congress in 1992, where he won re-election 14 times in a row.
His political success is all about voter turnout. Such was the enormity of Hastings’ popularity that in that first race in 1992, more Black Democrats cast ballots in the second primary than in the first primary (Florida still had runoffs then). It was unheard of and a sign of the drawing power of Hastings’ charisma and his ability to inspire. In that highly combative race, Hastings defeated a fellow Democrat, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, who later joined him in Congress.
Hastings often wore his outrage on his sleeve and was easily outraged, often with good reason. In a column written for this newspaper, he assailed Republicans, including former Gov. Rick Scott, for their past efforts to “purge” non-citizens from the voter rolls.
“Never before have these voter suppression efforts been so blatant, widespread and systematic,” he wrote. “We cannot sit idly by.”
That column appeared in 2012 — nine years ago. At the time of Hastings’ death, in statehouses across the country, including Tallahassee, Republicans are creating new ways to discourage people from voting, especially poor, Black and brown people who were the foundation of Hastings’ loyal constituency. The GOP wants to make it harder for people to vote by mail and easier to challenge their signatures.
It naturally follows that one surefire way to honor Hastings’ life is for Floridians to never take the right to vote for granted and to fiercely oppose Republican schemes to control the ballot box. This is destructive to our faith in democracy and designed to rig elections. So don’t sit idly by. Do something. That’s what Hastings would have wanted.
As local leaders reflected on Hastings’ life Tuesday, County Commissioner Barbara Sharief offered poignant words. She recalled him laughing and enjoying life as he passed around slices of sweet potato pie and ice cream at a Westside Gazette candidates’ forum, before cancer overtook him. The event at Mount Hermon AME Church in Fort Lauderdale was more than two-and-a-half years ago, but Sharief described it as if it were yesterday.
“He had on a beautiful white suit, and he had a big smile on his face,” she recalled. “I don’t want to remember him as being sick. I want him to be vibrant in our minds.”
Vibrant doesn’t begin to describe him. After receiving his law degree at Florida A&M University in 1963, Hastings opened a law office in Fort Lauderdale, a rigidly segregated place that was openly hostile to Blacks. He became “a howling voice in a little cracker town” in the memorable phrase of former public defender Howard Finkelstein. He opposed segregation and racial injustice as legal counsel for the local NAACP, and made the road ahead a bit easier for many Black leaders who followed, such as Kathleen Wright, Chris Smith, Harold Pryor and Shevrin Jones.
In 1965, Hastings and three friends — W. George Allen, Jesse McCrary and Jim Hibbing — were humiliated and refused service at the Cat’s Meow, a restaurant popular with the courthouse crowd. The Fort Lauderdale News reported he filed suit and the owner dropped his whites-only restrictions. The next year, he became the first Black man to run for the state House in Broward. “Negro seeks post” read the headline on a tiny wire service story in Florida papers.
Hastings lost that race, and many others, but he persevered. He refused to quit, and in 1992, in a weirdly shaped district that stretched from North Miami-Dade to Fort Pierce and drawn by judges, he became one of three Blacks elected to Congress in Florida for the first time since Reconstruction.
But now he’s gone, and a special election will be held to elect his successor in Congress. All signs point to a crowded, intensely hard-fought election in the 20th Congressional District that spans many of Broward’s minority communities and stretches north through the Everglades to West Palm Beach.
Special elections are notorious for weak turnouts, but to honor Hastings’ life, voters should make this an exception. Get involved and vote, as Alcee would have wanted.
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