The Democratic primary for U.S. House District 20 pits an octogenarian, veteran politician with a controversial past against a working mother with a law degree, a lot of ideas but no political experience.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, 81, has represented the district, which covers both rural and urban areas in Palm Beach and Broward counties, since 1992. The many causes Hastings says he has championed over the years include voting rights, Head Start, abortion rights, services for juvenile offenders and fighting against offshore drilling along Florida’s coast.
Most recently he has fought against the deportation of nearly 60,000 Haitians who emigrated to the U.S. after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000. In November, the Trump administration revoked their temporary protected status, or TPS, and gave those Haitians 18 months to return to Haiti.
In June, Hastings proposed an amendment that would have created a pathway to citizenship for long-term TPS holders. Many now work and pay taxes or have had children born in the U.S., Hastings said.
In addition to the earthquake, Haiti has suffered a cholera outbreak that killed thousands more and also took a devastating hit from Hurricane Matthew.
The morning after his amendment died in committee, Hastings issued a press release blasting GOP leaders for blocking his amendment.
“In its wisdom, the Trump Administration has decided to end TPS for Haiti and many other countries,” Hastings said. “Allowing those in our country who are here under TPS and who would like to become citizens the opportunity to do so is not only morally right, but also the right thing to do for our communities and our economy.”
As for Trump’s proposed border wall, Hastings pointed out that most of the foreigners in the country illegally overstayed their visas and did not illegally cross the Mexican border into the U.S. Equally nonsensical is the president’s recent threat to shut down the government when funding expires in September if he does not get funding for the wall, Hastings said.
For Trump to do so, he would need support from fellow Republicans — including those facing re-election — who are fighting to keep control of Congress, Hastings said.
Hastings has also taken a strong stance over the years in opposition to drilling off Florida’s coast and vows to be the “last man standing opposed to it.”
Hastings has been equally committed to women’s rights. While in college in the 1950s, he knew of three women who died of botched abortions, he said. If the Democrats take over the House in November, Hastings said he would lead the restoration of funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Abortion should be in the hands of a woman and the physician of her choice,” Hastings said. “Men need to butt out of this subject.”
Most recently, Hastings is a co-sponsor of the Democracy Restoration Act of 2018, which would expand the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences, allowing them to vote in federal elections.
Hastings readily admits that he has not been successful in getting his own bills passed. But he attributes that to the Republicans’ dominance of the House and the hostility between parties.
Asked why he is running after all these years: “The thing I enjoy most is helping people.”
A graduate of Howard University School of Law, Hastings made history in 1979 when he was appointed Florida’s first black federal judge. The distinction quickly wore off when he was charged in 1981 in a bribery conspiracy case that involved an FBI sting.
Hastings was acquitted of the criminal charges in 1983, but after a complaint from two federal judges, the House investigated the case and, in 1988, voted 413-3 to impeach Hastings. After a yearlong Senate trial, a special panel voted 7-5 to remove him from the bench and the Senate convicted him on eight of the 17 articles of impeachment.
While Hastings was removed as a judge, the Senate did not vote — as it could have — to bar him from future federal office. He was elected to Congress in 1992.
Hastings has also been the target of sexual harassment allegations.
Winson Packer, a staffer on the congressional Helsinki Commission that Hastings once chaired, claimed she was forced to endure unwelcome sexual advances, crude sexual comments and unwanted touching from Hastings while he was chairman of the commission.
Hastings at the time called the allegations “ridiculous, bizarre (and) frivolous” and accused Packer of trying to promote a self-published novel dealing with sexual harassment and other topics.
Although Hastings was cleared by the Ethics Committee, its report said Hastings “admitted to certain conduct that is less than professional.”
His opponent, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, 39, says Hastings has become complacent. Hastings has not solely sponsored and passed a bill since 2009, she said. Having been in office for 26 years, Hastings has lost touch with the community, she added.
Despite her inexperience, Cherfilus-McCormick said she is not afraid to take on Hastings and points out what she sees are his shortcomings.
“More of what I take from him is, ‘I’m entitled to this position until I die,’” she said.
Cherfilus-McCormick said she never intended to go into politics. She was content with performing public service in the community. But Hastings, she said, wasn’t at the forefront of many of the issues directly affecting S outh Florida, especially health care.
As the CEO of a home health care business and daughter of a doctor, she couldn’t stand by and watch the continued chipping away at the Affordable Care Act and inaction on other health care issues. Cherfilus-McCormick reached out to some people she thought might consider a run but no one was willing to go for it. So, she decided to run.
“I was hoping someone else would step up,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “Right now we can’t continue to allow people to reform health care without the voice of South Florida. We have to be in control of that change.”
The candidates agree on many liberal issues: Neither would be willing to accept a path to citizenship for Dreamers in return for full funding of a border wall; lifting the ban on recreational marijuana; banning assault weapons and barring gun sales to those under 21. They disagree on raising the retirement age for Social Security, with Hastings supporting a minor increase of a year or two and Cherfilus-McCormick opposed to upping the age limit.
As for the 42-year age gap between the candidates, Cherfilus-McCormick says her youth gives her one advantage: she is familiar and comfortable with technology and could not have succeeded in her career without keeping up with technological advances, she said.
“Within the last 26 years we have had a lot of changes and one is from a paper to paperless society,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “If you don’t understand tech changes, how could you propose laws based on these changes or all the new tech at our fingertips?”
Cherfilus-McCormick is a first-generation American. Her mother was 16 years old when she emigrated from Haiti. She worked as a maid at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to put herself through college and her father moved from the Dominican Republic after completing medical school.
As a single mother, she completed courses for an MBA and put herself through law school. She is married and has a blended family of two teenage children. Although religious, she supports abortion rights and paid family leave.
“Part of my platform is really equality. A lot of our women who are overqualified and over-educated must insist on that,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “We know his history with women.”
Alcee Hastings (incumbent)
Personal: 81, Boynton Beach.
Professional: Attorney. Member of U.S. House of Representatives, 1992-present.
Education: Law school, Florida A&M University.
Key quote: “Congress today is dysfunctional and partisan. It didn’t used to be this way. I remember the days…when compromise wasn’t considered a bad word. I am proud to say that I will work with anyone willing to work with me.”
Personal: 39, Miramar.
Professional: Attorney. CEO Trinity Healthcare, 2010-present.
Education: Law school, St. Thomas University
Key quote: “Healthcare is my baby. Right now we cannot continue to allow people to reform healthcare without the voice of south Florida. We have to be in control of that change.”