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Alcee Hastings

Congressman Alcee Hastings, after career of triumph, calamity and comeback, dies at 84
By ANTHONY MAN
SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL |APR 07, 2021 AT 11:10 AM

Congressman Alcee Hastings, whose life was marked by perseverance, calamity and a comeback, has died. He was 84.

Hastings crusaded against racial injustice as a civil rights lawyer, became a federal judge who was impeached and removed from office, and went on to win 15 congressional elections, becoming Florida’s senior member of Congress.

He died Tuesday morning, a longtime friend said. His death was confirmed in a statement from his family.

In late 2018, Hastings was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. For much of the ensuing two years, he continued public appearances between medical treatments, but more recently he hadn’t been in public. In recent days, he had been in hospice care. “Alcee was a fighter, and he fought this terrible disease longer than most. He faced it fearlessly, and at times even made fun of it,” said Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness.

The Democratic congressman was a singular figure in South Florida politics; he repeatedly broke barriers and made history — not always positively.

Congressman Ted Deutch, another South Florida Democrat, described Hastings at a 2019 luncheon in his colleague’s honor as someone “who can stand up to a bully, who can represent people whose voices need to be heard, who’s unafraid to say what needs to be said.”

Howard Finkelstein, the retired four-term Broward County public defender, lauded Hastings as “one of the greatest men who has ever lived in Broward County.”

President Joe Biden said he admired Hastings’ “singular sense of humor, and for always speaking the truth bluntly and without reservation.”

“Alcee was outspoken because he was passionate about helping our nation live up to its full promise for all Americans,” the president said in a statement. “Across his long career of public service, Alcee always stood up to fight for equality, and always showed up for the working people he represented. And even in his final battle with cancer, he simply never gave up.”

Civil rights

As a newly licensed young lawyer, Hastings moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he partnered with W. George Allen starting in 1964. Broward was not a welcoming place for a young Black man in the early 1960s. When he arrived to join Allen’s firm, a motel wouldn’t rent him a room.

During much of the ’60s and ’70s, Hastings has said, there were parts of the county where it wasn’t safe for Black people. The many civil rights cases filed by Hastings and Allen, who died in 2019, included lawsuits against a restaurant popular with other lawyers and judges — which wouldn’t serve them because they were Black — and desegregating Broward County schools.

Speaking at a national gathering of Black elected officials at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Hastings recalled what it was like when he came to the community. “I couldn’t go to that beach that you all see now,” he said.

In the early days of his career, the justice system in which Hastings practiced was dominated by racists, Finkelstein said at the 2019 luncheon honoring him. Hastings was a “howling voice” attempting to change Broward from a “little cracker town that was racist and mean and vicious.”

Eager for attention for himself, his law practice, and the cause, Hastings made several unsuccessful runs for public office, most notably a candidacy for the 1970 Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. It wasn’t a race the 29-year-old expected to win. Rather, it was a campaign to show people of all races that a Black candidate could run for such an important job. It also brought him death threats.

Judiciary

In 1977, then-Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Hastings as a Broward Circuit Court judge. In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter nominated Hastings to the U.S. District Court, making him Florida’s first Black federal judge.

But that lifetime appointment lasted just 10 years — and turned into the lowest point of Hastings’ career.

In 1981, Hastings was indicted on charges of conspiring to solicit a $150,000 bribe from an FBI agent posing as a racketeer trying to buy his way out of a prison sentence. In 1983, Hastings’ criminal trial ended when the jury found him not guilty.

Six years later, Congress took up the issue. Concluding he lied during the criminal trial, the House impeached Hastings and the Senate convicted him on eight of 11 articles, removing him from the bench. The Senate did not vote to disqualify him from holding future office.

Decades later, that period of Hastings’ life remained controversial.

Many Republicans said it meant he couldn’t be trusted and shouldn’t be taken seriously; even after he’d been elected multiple times to Congress, some objected every time his views got news coverage.

Finkelstein, who became a lawyer at the same time Hastings became a federal judge, disagreed. He said the prosecution was retaliation for Hastings’ refusal to bow to the wishes of powerful, establishment interests.

“In the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the government only — only — only went after Black men that ascended to power,” Finkelstein said. “That is what they did, and they came after Alcee — all the king’s horses and all the king’s men — with everything they had to destroy this man.”

Congress

Three years and two weeks after the Senate convicted him, Hastings was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming one of three Black Floridians who went to Congress that year — the first time Florida had sent a Black representative to Washington since 1877, when the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction ended.

He was re-elected 14 times, making him dean of the Florida delegation. When he faced opponents from Democrats in primaries or Republicans in general elections, he typically won by margins of at least 3-to-1. Sometimes no one even came forward to run against him.

Hastings represented most of the African American and Caribbean American communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties, though the boundaries and district numbers changed over the decades, sometimes extending to parts of Hendry, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

His presence was precisely what was envisioned by drafters of early 1980s revisions to the Voting Rights Act, when they provided for districts with boundaries drawn to maximize the election chances of minority lawmakers.

“He made it his life’s goal,” said Mitch Ceasar, who met Hastings in 1974, “to fight for a group that had never been spoken for.”

Hastings sometimes used his influence in subtle and unseen ways. A few years ago, riding from one political event to another on a major thoroughfare in an African American neighborhood in his district, the car went over an unusually rough set of railroad tracks. Hastings turned to an aide with an instruction to get in touch with the railroad and lean on it to get the crossing fixed.

His agenda was broader than race. Hastings advocated on behalf of women’s rights and LGBT people, and he was keenly interested in world affairs, championing Israel and serving as chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission.

Hastings didn’t have a long list of marquee legislative achievements. He exercised influence internally, serving on the Rules Committee, a critical panel through which the majority party controls the flow of business on the House floor.

The events that led to his impeachment had a significant impact at least once during his time in Congress. When Democrats took control of the House in the 2006 elections, Hastings was in line to become chairman of the Intelligence Committee. But after Republicans attempted to use his background as a political cudgel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed over Hastings and picked a different chairman.

A decade later, when Democrats were in the minority, Hastings was among a handful of representatives who endorsed a candidate who unsuccessfully attempted to unseat Pelosi as leader.

In a statement Tuesday, Pelosi called Hastings “a trusted voice in the intelligence community” and said he “leaves behind a powerful legacy of activism and action on behalf of Floridians and all Americans.”

Starting in Hastings’ first year in Congress, critics complained that his staff included Patricia Williams, one of his attorneys from the 1980s criminal trial, with whom he was in a romantic relationship. After a 2019 rule change prohibited sexual relationships between members of Congress and their employees, the Ethics Committee investigated, but closed the matter in 2020 after learning the couple had been married since January 2019. (The rule doesn’t apply to relationships between married couples, the Ethics Committee said.)

In 2014, the government paid a $220,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim filed by a conservative advocacy group on behalf of a former staffer. She said he’d discussed underwear with her and told her he had trouble sleeping after sex. Records in the case included an email in which the staffer told another employee she had a crush on Hastings. He denied wrongdoing and said the settlement was made without his knowledge; had he known, Hastings said he would have objected to the payment.

Hastings didn’t shy away from political fights, but he practiced politics in a way that was much more common for his generation of elected officials than today’s.

He and the late U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, were on the opposite side of myriad issues. But they knew each other from the time Hastings was an attorney who appeared before Shaw, who was once a municipal judge, and remained close until Shaw’s death in 2013.

When national Republicans objected to Hastings becoming Intelligence Committee chairman, Shaw defended him. “Alcee is a good, patriotic American, and he’s a capable guy, and he’s a friend of mine,” Shaw said. “Alcee could certainly do the job.”

Hastings won his first term after defeating Lois Frankel in an astonishingly bitter Democratic primary. Yet when Frankel ran and won in an adjacent district 20 years later, Hastings endorsed her.

“We buried the hatchet. That’s what grown people do,” he said in an interview at the time. “I have a life to live, and I can’t go around being mad at people because we had political differences.”

Outspoken

Hastings was known for saying what was on his mind, and not pulling punches or talking in the scripted, cautious, diplomatic style used by so many politicians. Endorsing the politically touchy idea of a gasoline tax increase, he said, “When you mention taxes, everyone gets scared. I don’t feel that way. I think all of us have a responsibility to take some of the weight. We use these roads. We ought to pay for them.” Describing Texas as “a crazy state,” he refused to apologize. “You will wait until hell freezes over for me to say anything in an apology.”

He had the ability to capture and hold an audience’s attention, and a gift for delighting Democrats, outraging Republicans — and generating headlines. “The greatest fear that any politician in Broward had was being on a program — and following Alcee,” said Ceasar, who served 20 years as the county Democratic Party chairman. “I would describe his approach as electrifying.”

His sharpest comments were aimed at Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and — especially — Donald Trump. In 2016, Hastings described Trump as a “sentient pile of excrement.” Two years later, he said, “There is no question that something is tragically wrong with the president of the United States in his mind.”

Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies at Nova Southeastern University, said the congressman could do rhetorically what most politicians can’t.

“He’s got a wicked sense of humor and the rhetorical gifts to skewer people, and there are times I think Republicans don’t know whether to be insulted or complimented by what he says,” Zelden said. “It’s hilarious and wince-afying at the same time.”

Floridian

Alcee Lamar Hastings was born on Sept. 5, 1936, in Altamonte Springs. His parents, Julius C. and Mildred L. Hastings, were domestic workers.

Hastings had to attend a high school for Black students — much farther from home than schools for white students. Recalling his youth 70 years later, he said his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents weren’t allowed to vote and vowed: “I’m not going back to that era.”

Hastings received a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., one of the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) whose students played a major role in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th Century.

He attended law school at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., another preeminent HBCU. He received his law degree from Florida A&M, also an HBCU, in 1963.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia Williams, with whom he lived west of Boynton Beach; three adult children from a previous marriage, Alcee “Jody” Hastings II, Chelsea Hastings and Leah Hastings, and a stepdaughter, Maisha Williams.

The family has not announced funeral arrangements. Once a date of interment is set is set by the family, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office said Gov. Ron DeSantis would order flags flown at half-staff in his honor.

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