Longtime Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings dies at 84

Florida Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, October 2019. Credit: By OSCE Parliamentary Assembly - Wikimedia Commons.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Alcee Hastings, a longtime South Florida Democrat who broke several barriers in a career that spanned decades, died Tuesday.

He was 84 and announced in early 2019 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but didn’t plan to step down. He was reelected last November with 79 percent of the vote in the 20th Congressional District, which covers portions of Broward County, Ft. Lauderdale, Miramar and West Palm Beach.

His passing leaves Democrats with a 218-211 majority in the House, with six vacant seats.

Hastings was first elected to the House in 1992 and was the first African American federal judge in Florida, as well as a civil rights lawyer in the Sunshine State. He was the first African American elected to Congress from Florida since the post-Civil War era.

“He lived a life of triumph over adversity and his brilliance and compassion was felt amongst his constituents, colleagues, the nation and the world,” his family said in a statement posted to his official U.S. House website. “He lived a full life with an indelible fighting spirit dedicated to equal justice.”

President Joe Biden commented on the passing of Hastings, saying: “I had the privilege of getting to know Alcee Hastings during the years when he served in the House of Representatives and I served in the United States Senate and later as Vice President.

“I greatly admired him for his singular sense of humor, and for always speaking the truth bluntly and without reservation. A trailblazing lawyer who grew up in the Jim Crow South, Alcee was outspoken because he was passionate about helping our nation live up to its full promise for all Americans.

“It was a passion he forged as a pioneering civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, fighting tirelessly to desegregate hotels, restaurants, and public spaces in south Florida — a trailblazing spirit to advocate for what is right that guided him throughout his life.

“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. Jill and I are saddened to learn of his passing. May God bless Alcee Hastings and his family.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that Hastings was a champion of vulnerable people. “As an icon of the Congressional Black Caucus, he was an historic force in our nation’s politics.  His passing is a great loss for America,” she said in a statement.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Hastings to the bench in 1979. But in the late 1980s he was impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, and removed from his position over his role in a bribery scandal.

Hastings had been indicted in 1981 of conspiring to solicit a $150,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent trying to buy a lenient sentence.

He made an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state of Florida in 1990 but completed his comeback with his election to the U.S. House in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, where he served until 2012, when redistricting placed him in the 20th and he won election there.

Hastings was given a full pardon by former President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Hastings held several leadership positions including co-chair of the Florida congressional delegation, senior Democratic whip and vice chair of the House Rules Committee, and he was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement that Hastings was “one of the most effective advocates in Congress” and worked “tirelessly for those who needed a voice.”

“I have lost a friend, this Congress has lost a giant, and those who all too often go unseen in America have lost a champion,” he said.

Hastings’ colleagues in the Florida congressional delegation delivered their own tributes.

Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat, praised Hastings for his leadership in the Sunshine State and commended his work to bring the Black and Jewish communities together in their shared goals.

“Alcee was a leader in the South Florida community and did all he could to protect the vulnerable and those who knew he would champion their cause when others looked away,” he said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, said in a statement that Hastings was a mentor and someone she leaned on for advice.

“Florida has lost a brilliant, fearless, giant-hearted advocate for this state that he dearly loved, and Congress has lost a wise, patient and compassionate statesman,” she said. “May his memory be a blessing.”

“Alcee was a civil rights champion who fought tirelessly for desegregation from his years as a young lawyer, and continued his fight in the People’s House as Florida’s fiercest defender,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, another Florida Democrat. “My heart goes out to Congressman Hastings’ family, friends, staff, and constituents during this painful time.”

In the Florida Legislature, State Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., representing part of Broward County, said in a statement:

“I join with a heavy heart the community in South Florida in mourning the passing of Congressman Alcee Hastings.

“He was a mentor, a friend, and a fraternity brother, and I extend my deepest condolences to his family.

“Our political dean for South Florida for the past three decades, Congressman Hastings served our community, our state and our nation, and we are all the better for his dedicated commitment to public service, and his impact on countless lives.

“His legacy will forever live on and live with us. Rest in peace, my brother.”

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz said about Hastings:

“As a respected attorney, civil rights activist and judge, he taught me to use the power of the law to improve the cause of human dignity, to right wrongs, to give a voice to those who can not speak, and to give a chance to all who would take it.

“As a public servant, he led by example, championing the rights of minorities, women, the elderly, children, and immigrants while challenging the government to fulfill its constitutional promise of equality and opportunity for all. Today we pause to express our deepest sympathy to his family, colleagues and friends.”

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado and Washington, D.C. bureau chief Jane Norman contributed to this report.