The 2021 Legislative Session was Florida’s first full-time COVID-19-era Session, marked by restricted access to the Capitol and heated debates over protests and transgender student rights.
But deeply divided ideologies of Democratic and Republican legislators saw one shining light in the bipartisan efforts of House Minority Leader-designate Fentrice Driskell.
The Tampa Democrat saw a major victory in negotiating the passage of police reform bills aimed at greater accountability and transparency to improve relations between police and the public, especially within the Black community.
Driskell enlisted oft-conservative leaning Neptune Beach Republican Rep. Cord Byrd to help pass the measures.
Driskell, a Polk County native and Harvard grad, has shown a pension for reaching across the aisle that has elevated her to House Democratic Policy Chair. In 2024, she’ll become the first Black woman to lead House Democrats.
The offseason ahead of this week’s Session start was a busy one for Driskell, including being appointed to the Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries. The group was formed through Driskell’s own legislation to acknowledge, preserve and prevent further erasure of Black culture from Florida’s history. Driskell served on the group and has filed legislation based on its findings, similar to her Senate counterpart, Sen. Janet Cruz.
“We had amazing members serve on that task force with subject matter expertise and community leaders as well,” Driskell said. “I’m very happy with the work product. It was an incredible feeling, frankly. To be able to not just help design the task force, but be actually part of the process to see the changes we want implemented. That felt really good.”
Driskell has filed two bills to turn the work of the task force from the theoretical to the tangible. HB 1215 establishes a Historic Cemeteries office and advisory council aimed at updating and maintaining records of cemeteries, providing grants and empowering communities to preserve cemeteries. HB 4815 establishes funding for African American cemetery education in Tampa Bay.
That bill bridges a gap to Driskell’s next major priority: education reform. Driskell has already filed about a half-dozen bills related to education. One of her strongest, HJR 77, would change the Commissioner of Education position from an appointed position to an elected one.
Driskell, 42, said she was able to leverage her education in Polk’s public schools to Ivy League admission. But when she looks around today, she sees a lack of accountability in education eroding Florida’s education system to be almost unrecognizable. She argues change needs to start with accountability at the top.
“During the pandemic, Florida’s Education Commissioner was implementing policies that were popular with some parents — with respect to what school districts could do in terms of requiring students and personnel to wear masks. There were many parents and families who are not happy with those decisions and who were afraid,” Driskell said. “I think if there’s a position like that that’s going to be impacting so many lives, then the Commissioner should be held accountable at the ballot box.”
Other bills would require social media literacy education and allow Florida teachers more job stability beyond annual contracts.
But the soon-to-be Democratic Leader in the House is also watching Gov. Ron DeSantis as his 2022 re-election campaign remains a specter over the Session once again.
DeSantis used a tweeted video from a Tampa Bay Times reporter to justify his HB 1 protest law and supported the COVID-19 rules which kept direct public participation from the Capitol while assailing more widespread COVID-19 restrictions and bragging about Florida as a “free state.”
She said DeSantis seems clouded by his not-so-secret ambitions at a 2024 White House run.
“I think a lot of the trauma he has put the state through has been in furtherance of that transition. Everything from appointing a Surgeon General for the state who bases his medical advice on conspiracy theories and not in science to politicizing our public health system, to pushing for HB 1 — an anti-protest bill — in the midst of everyone’s broken heartedness over George Floyd.”
She said DeSantis will stop at nothing to energize his base without care for the negativity he leaves in his wake. She’s not looking forward to the “dark shadow” he’s cast over the Legislature and the furthering of culture wars. She said she would rather focus on policy that addresses real problems facing Floridians over manufactured outrage.
But another major area Driskell is watching is the redistricting process. Florida’s last go-round was an embarrassing example of gerrymandering and backroom dealings that led to Republican-drawn maps being deemed unconstitutional and the Supreme Court stepping in.
So far, she said she’s disappointed in the lack of transparency and engagement ahead of one of the Legislature’s most sacred duties.
“That’s the biggest ticket and item and the public should be paying close attention as well,” she said. “In the past, we would’ve done road shows. The Legislature would have ventured out throughout the state and held community meetings to really engage the public regarding the maps. I do lament that that can’t be a part of the process this year.”