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Candidates hoping to replace the late Alcee Hastings in Congress are trumpeting their connections with the venerable congressman, all angling for an edge in a tight race.
The most notable might be Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, who claims — without proof — that Hastings endorsed him. But “everyone is trying to figure out a tangential connection to Congressman Hastings,” said Mitch Ceasar, former Broward Democratic Party chairman.
Elvin Dowling emphasizes a tie to Hastings that goes back decades, to his work as a young constituent service aide early in Hastings’ time in Congress. More recently, Hastings wrote the forward to Dowling’s 2020 book “Still Invisible? Examining America’s Black Male Crisis.”
And Perry Thurston tells voters that his ties to Hastings go back to the 1980s. As a student at the University of Miami School of Law, “I had the pleasure of meeting Alcee Hastings when I clerked with him when he was a federal judge.”
Dowling, Holness and Thurston are three of the 11 Democratic candidates hoping to succeed Hastings, who served in Congress for 28 years. The Broward-Palm Beach County 20th Congressional District is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the winner of the Nov. 2 special primary is virtually guaranteed to win the general election in January and go to Washington.
In a crowded field, the candidates are trying to stand out, and one way is by invoking the Hastings name. “I think, to put it mildly, he’d be tremendously amused,” said Ceasar, who was a friend of Hastings’ for 47 years.
Political insiders have differing views about the effect of candidates selling themselves via ties to Hastings — or even if there will be any effect at all.
State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said candidates are using the Hastings name because of his longevity, name identification and long and deep support in the district — something none of the challengers can match.
“It’s great that you had a personal relationship with Alcee or believe Alcee endorsed you, but run on your own,” Powell said. “I’m not sure it will be enough to move the needle.”
Powell is supporting state Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, for the nomination, someone who isn’t using his Hastings ties as part of his campaign.
The special primary election is virtually guaranteed to be an exceedingly low-turnout affair. Greg Gayle believes the so-called super voters who vote in every election, including low-turnout contests, are knowledgeable about politics, the issues and the candidates, and likely have other ways to make up their minds.
Gayle, president of the Coconut Creek Democratic Club, moderated online candidate forums featuring the leading contenders, including one Wednesday night sponsored by the Broward County Presidents’ Council of Democratic Clubs & Caucuses.
“Alcee Hastings had such huge impression on South Florida, and I think they want to emulate that. And so I know several of the candidates have talked about their relationship to him. But I’m not quite sure these voters in particular are going to make a decision just based on someone’s proximity to Alcee,” he said.
Ceasar, however, said the nature of the 11-candiate contest means someone could win with 18% of the vote. In a low turnout primary, the shift of just a handful of votes could determine the outcome.
“You might have three or four people be separated by a point or two and therefore anything good or bad could change the result,” Ceasar said. “The key is when you may have five people separated by two points any factor will be impactful.”
Holness campaign signs across the district are aimed at leaving no doubt: “Endorsed by Alcee Hastings.”
The assertion is controversial.
Asked about it during a Sept. 24 video conference interview with Holness and five other candidates, Holness told the South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that Hastings “verbalized it to me” in a conversation about two weeks before his death. He said Hastings made the statements in the presence of his wife and son and told others he wanted Holness to be his successor.
But Holness has no written endorsement statement.
Holness said Hastings’ son, Alcee “Jody” Hastings II, “stood beside me and let the world know” that his father made the endorsement at the April 12 event at which Holness announced his candidacy.
But a Sun Sentinel audio recording of Hastings II’s comments that day show the younger Hastings praised Holness and expressed strong support — but did not say that his father had endorsed Holness.
“It’s an honor for me, my late father, Alcee Hastings, and my family to stand here and support Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness to succeed my father as the next member of Congress for the 20th District,” Holness II said.
“My family stands firmly behind Dale in his pursuit to carry on the legacy of my father, which of course is no small task by any means,” he said. “I support Dale with everything I got here in my heart as well as my intellect to be the next congressman for District 20.”
Jody Hastings couldn’t be reached this week by phone or text.
Ceasar said he couldn’t speak to the Holness claim. “I do know in the past Alcee enjoyed writing letters of endorsement. He was always over the top politically.”
The endorsement claim has generated skepticism and criticism from other candidates.
“I knew Alcee Hastings, and I don’t know him to be a person to be hesitant about saying what he feels and what he wants. I just happen to think that if that’s what he wanted he would have said that,” said Thurston, who said he has a signed statement from everyone who’s endorsed him.
State Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said: “the definition of endorsement means that’s not true. … The only reason why it’s relevant is it goes to the integrity of the person who is trafficking in this endorsement by hearsay. And it validates a narrative about this person as someone who is willing to do anything, say anything to come out on top in an election.”
On the day Hastings died, members of the Broward County Commission, including Holness, mourned his passing.
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Commissioner Barbara Sharief, who months earlier had declared her candidacy for the congressional seat, praised his service — and talked about the last time she had seen Hastings at a community sweet potato pie and politics event.
The organizer assigned paired her with Hastings to serve pie and ice cream. “I want to remember him being vibrant in our minds, the way he was standing there with that tray of sweet potato pie and laughing and joking around and enjoying life.”
Dowling uses a 2019 photo with Hastings to illustrate his ties. “Alcee Hastings was like a father to me. He picked me out of a crowd when I was 18 years old,” Dowling said at an April candidate forum sponsored by Hispanic Vote.
“When Congressman Hastings wrote the forward to my book, he said and I quote, ‘Don’t take my word for it. Go check it out for yourself. And as I reach the end of my life I’m heartened to know that my friend Elvin Dowling will pick up the baton and run the race for such a time as this.’ I’m not telling you something that’s hearsay.”
Thurston tells audiences that Hastings was “a friend. He’s a fraternity brother. And I too worked with Alcee Hastings.”