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Florida's political climate caused lawmakers to stop push to ban forced prison labor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Several states have started to ban forced prison labor through laws that abolish slavery or involuntary servitude. In Florida, Black lawmakers thought they had a chance to pass such a ban as well. But as the political climate there shifted, they aborted the effort. Wilkine Brutus, with member station WLRN, reports.

WILKINE BRUTUS, BYLINE: In the November elections, voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont and Oregon amended their state constitutions so forced prison labor would no longer be allowed. In Florida, State Representative Dianne Hart felt encouraged by those votes.

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DIANNE HART: Alabama is a red state. And if they can do it, surely we can do it here in Florida.

BRUTUS: She thought she had momentum. She had tried to pass such an anti-slavery bill last year in the state House, to no avail. And so did State Senator Bobby Powell, who was also encouraged that anti-slavery measures had passed in other states. Hart and Powell, in November, said they would refile the bill in this year's legislative session.

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BOBBY POWELL: So I do believe this is something that we've got in the pipeline, and there's a good probability that I'll file this legislation again this year.

BRUTUS: That was in the fall. But now, just as this year's legislative session is underway, Powell and Hart, who are both Black Democrats, decided not to move forward with their bill. In a statement, Hart cited the recent attacks on Black history by Governor Ron DeSantis as the reason. In January, DeSantis defended his decision to reject parts of an AP course in African American studies and revved up the culture war.

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RON DESANTIS: Florida is where woke goes to die.

(CHEERING)

BRUTUS: Several leaders within the multiethnic Black community say DeSantis' bullhorn surrounding culture wars and race issues has made it difficult for legislators - especially Black leaders - to move an anti-slavery bill through the committees in the legislature. The bill's had support from white Democrats, but no Republican co-sponsors, and Republicans do hold a supermajority in Florida state House.

Sharon Austin is professor of political science at the University of Florida. She says the political climate of fear in the state is real.

SHARON AUSTIN: The governor likes to retaliate against people who either criticize him or do anything that he opposes. And so I think that's a part of it. It's just not wanting to be retaliated against or targeted.

BRUTUS: Austin says the governor's anti-diversity efforts and the elimination of two Black congressional districts highlight the lack of political power of Democrats. Austin notes Black voters are a big concern and points to the fact that only 40% of Black registered voters turned out in last year's election and contributed to DeSantis landslide victory.

AUSTIN: I think a lot of people, especially in the African American community, are not satisfied with the things that he's doing. But if you didn't vote, you basically have yourself to blame because you can't complain about the things that he's doing if you are not willing to vote.

BRUTUS: Republican leaders in the Florida legislature did not respond to requests for comment on the anti-slavery bill. Meanwhile, realizing the political climate, Democrat Dianne Hart said she will instead focus on legislation with a greater chance of creating positive change in her community.

For NPR News, I'm Wilkine Brutus in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Wilkine Brutus
Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.