For years, the Sunshine State has been a regular stop on the circuit for Al Sharpton, affectionately known as “the Reverend Al” to his supporters.
The MSNBC talk-show host was one of a number of national civil-rights leaders who flooded the state Capitol during the prolonged 2000 Bush v. Gore recount.
Less than a year later, Sharpton returned to North Florida to shame bar owners after a black Maryland lawmaker was forced to drink in the back of a bar, a practice that went uncontested for years at the watering hole formerly known as the Perry Package Lounge, less than an hour from Tallahassee.
More recently, Sharpton fanned the flames after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old unarmed black teenager whose gray hoodie became an icon for civil-rights leaders.
The slimmed-down Sharpton and his pals this week again turned up the heat in Florida, this time lasering in on what many in the African-American community consider a racist vestige of Jim Crow-era efforts to keep blacks from casting ballots: the state’s beleaguered vote-restoration process.
Sharpton was the featured minister in a march and rally to drum up support for Amendment 4, a proposal on the November ballot that would automatically restore voting rights to most Florida felons who have served their sentences, completed parole and paid restitution.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat running for governor, was among those who joined Sharpton at the podium during Thursday’s event, which wavered between a Sunday service at Bethel Missionary Baptist church and a left-leaning call-to-arms.
“This is an issue that confronts all Floridians --- black Floridians, white Floridians, wealthy Floridians, poor Floridians. It disproportionately affects communities of color, but we need all of the citizens of this state,” Gillum, who is black, told a crowd of more than 150 people gathered at the Capitol steps. “All we are saying is that, once people have paid their debt to society, we ought to create a pathway for them to re-enter society and make a good living for themselves and their family. Let them have the dignity around the right to vote, but also let them have the dignity.”
Gillum echoed the sentiments of other proponents of the November measure who urge Floridians to vote with their hearts. They’re relying on what they hope is a common-shared belief that people who have paid their dues to society deserve to have rights restored.
But Mark Schlakman, of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said advocates might want to take a different tack. They instead might want to focus on inequities in the current vote-restoration system that prompted a federal judge to decide the process was unconstitutional.
“Part of the challenge is that so many people, understandably, don’t know about the process and don’t know about the implications. This is about fairness and respect for the rule of law,” Schlakman said.
Stanley Sims, a 52-year-old Tallahassee resident, showed up for the rally.
The convicted felon told The News Service of Florida he’s been recognized by a number of Republican leaders --- including former Gov. Jeb Bush and the late Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville --- for his leadership in outreach efforts in communities like Gadsden County.
But Sims said he hasn’t bothered to apply to have his rights restored.
“It’s legalized discrimination,” Sims said. “But I’d rather do something that is achievable.”
SCORE ONE FOR SCOTT
The Tallahassee rally --- weeks in the planning --- came less than 24 hours after a stinging defeat handed down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which late Wednesday blocked a federal judge’s order that would have required state officials to overhaul the process of restoring felons’ voting rights by Thursday.
The appellate court ruling was a decisive victory for Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the two other members of the Florida Cabinet, who serve as the clemency board, in a legal battle in which state officials had been on the losing side in a series of rulings by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.
“The Fourteenth Amendment expressly empowers the states to abridge a convicted felon’s right to vote,” appellate Judge Stanley Marcus wrote in a majority opinion joined by Judge William Pryor. “Binding precedent holds that the governor has broad discretion to grant and deny clemency, even when the applicable regime lacks any standards.”
Walker ruled the state’s vote-restoration process violated First Amendment rights and Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection rights of felons. Last month, he gave Scott and the board until Thursday to revamp what the judge called a “fatally flawed” process and rejected a request by Bondi to put his order on hold.
Scott and the board immediately appealed Walker’s decision and asked the appellate court to put a stay on what the governor’s office branded a “haphazard clemency ruling.”
In its 2-1 decision Wednesday, the three-judge panel not only granted the state’s request to put Walker’s decision on hold but indicated the judge’s invalidation of the vote-restoration process likely would not stand.
Echoing arguments made by Bondi’s lawyers, the majority found “there is wisdom in preserving the status quo” until the appellate court issues a ruling in the overall case.
The clemency board “has a substantial interest in avoiding chaos and uncertainty in its election procedures and likely should not be forced to employ a rushed decision-making process created on an artificial deadline now, just because a more thorough decision-making process could be employed later,” Marcus wrote. “We are reluctant to upset the system now in place --- particularly since the district court order creates so truncated a schedule --- when there is a good chance the district court’s order may be overturned, and the system would need to be changed again, potentially re-disenfranchising those who have been re-enfranchised pursuant to the district court’s injunction.”
CALLING KENNY ROGERS
A decision this week by House and Senate leaders to throw in the towel on gambling talks was met with frustration and anger by a handful of lobbyists and a sigh of relief from those more concerned about their vacation plans.
Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva conceded they were unable to reach a deal despite self-imposed pressure to come up with a gambling plan before the November elections.
“We’ve moved on. Will revisit next session,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in a text Wednesday afternoon.
The legislators wanted to head off a proposed constitutional amendment on the general election ballot that, if passed, would give voters control of gambling expansions, decisions now largely controlled by the Legislature.
The legislative leaders had also used a potential loss of revenue from the Seminole Tribe as a rationale for a hurried special session, after lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a gambling deal during the regular session, which ended last month.
But a new deal announced last week by Scott and the tribe and fears that a proposed expansion of slot machines could backfire put the kibosh on any gambling legislation, according to Galvano and Senate President Joe Negron.
Under the arrangement between Scott and the Seminoles, the tribe agreed to continue making about $300 million a year in payments through the 2019 legislative session. In exchange for the payments, which are rooted in a 2010 gambling “compact,” the tribe would continue to have exclusive rights to offer games such as blackjack at its casinos and would continue to be the state’s only slot-machine operator outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
The Seminoles would keep up the payments “provided the state does not enact legislation to expand gaming subject to exclusivity under the compact during the forbearance period.”
The deal --- and the guarantee that the incoming leaders could rely on another $300 million from the tribe, and possibly more, when they craft next year’s budget --- withered the prospect of a special session.
“That reduced the sense of urgency on behalf of Speaker-designate Oliva and President-designate Galvano. I could sense that, when it happened,” Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service of Florida.
PONDERING THE PURPLE DOTS
At their inaugural meeting, members of a commission probing the state’s most-horrific school shooting were given a stark introduction to the Feb. 14 massacre that resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three staff members.
A homicide detective led the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission through an animated re-enactment of Nikolas Cruz’s alleged assault on the Parkland school, using colored dots to represent teachers and students in different stages of the attack.
Broward County sheriff’s detective Zack Scott’s presentation relied on witness and video accounts to recreate Cruz entering Building 12 at the Parkland school at 2:21 p.m. on Valentine’s Day carrying a bag with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition.
In the animation, green dots represented students and blue dots represented teachers and staff.
As Cruz, depicted by a black dot, moved through the three floors of the classroom building, many of the dots turned yellow, signifying that they were wounded. Eventually 17 dots turned purple, representing death.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Siding with Gov. Rick Scott and the other members of the Board of Executive Clemency, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Wednesday blocked a federal judge’s order that would have required state officials to overhaul Florida’s process of restoring felons’ voting rights by Thursday.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The only thing black is you, your client and the judge’s robe.” --- Civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump, speaking about his early courtroom experiences as a lawyer in North Florida, during a rally focused on Amendment 4, a proposal on the November ballot that would automatically restore voting rights to most felons in Florida.