Alcee Hastings, pioneering civil rights activist, judge and politician, dies at 84

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Alcee Hastings, crusading civil rights lawyer, the first Black federal judge in Florida and dean of Florida’s U.S. congressional delegation during a tumultuous career that took him from the segregated lunch counters of the Deep South to Capitol Hill, has died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.

Hastings, fierce, eloquent, witty and beloved by his constituents, was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives 14 times since first taking office in 1992. It was a dominant political winning streak that followed his impeachment and ouster from the federal bench by the U.S. Senate in a bribery and perjury case that Hastings had earlier beaten in criminal court.

Hastings first represented northern Miami-Dade and Broward counties in District 23, and, since congressional boundaries were remade in 2012, he has represented Palm Beach County-centered District 20. Despite ethics controversies along the way, at his death he ranked as Florida’s longest-serving member of Congress and remained a consistent champion of Democratic Party causes.

“I have been convinced that this is a battle worth fighting, and my life is defined by fighting battles worth fighting,” Hastings said when he was diagnosed with cancer in January 2019. His longtime colleague and friend, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, confirmed his death on Tuesday morning.

Hastings “feared no man, no institution and was not shy about voicing his dissent on any issue,” Wilson told the Herald.

“I admired his spunk and his fearlessness,” Wilson said. “He basically didn’t give a damn what you said. You know that song ‘I Did It My Way’? That kind of speaks to Alcee’s life.”

Former Broward County Mayor Dale Holness said he will remember the bond between himself and the dynamic congressman, and said his loss is a blow to the community. He recalled speaking to Hastings a week ago, when he sounded “pretty up.”

“He fought for regular people, he was sincere and he was a real giant who took on whatever cause or issue he thought was right,” Holness said.

As a congressman, Hastings was a scathing critic of former President Donald Trump and twice voted to impeach him. But despite his seniority and sharp litigation skills, he was never in the spotlight asking questions. That was because of his own past, he said.

“There’s no way in the world that I would serve on an impeachment panel,” he said. “All the talk would be of how I got impeached.”

Worked through illness

Hastings tried to continue working through his illness. But in early January, he missed the Jan. 3 roll call vote to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and votes on Republican challenges to the election of President Joe Biden. In a statement, he said that on the advice of doctors he would remain in Florida but tweeted his support of Biden before Pro-Trump rioters swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Since then, on Jan. 8, Hastings introduced the “Build America Act of 2021” which would add $10 billion annually to federal infrastructure grant programs. The bill would expand funding for roads, bridges and public transit “so that we can start making the investments in infrastructure our country so desperately needs,” Hastings said.

He voted on legislation remotely despite his illness and the coronavirus pandemic, casting his last vote on March 19, the final vote before Congress went on a three-week break.

“It’s a huge loss because he was a spokesperson for so many, not just the Black community but the Jewish community, and he was able to resonate with so many people because he told the undoctored truth,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward Democrat whose district overlaps with Hastings’ seat. “He didn’t care who you were. It’s a huge gap that’s going to have to be filled.”

Hastings was a voice for the vulnerable and an advocate for Haitian-Americans, said Dr. Laurinus Pierre, a supporter and friend.

“He was always there for the Haitian people on immigration and empowerment issues,” Pierre said. “Despite his pain, he never stopped pushing. The man is a legend for all of South Florida.”

Born on Sept. 5, 1936, in Altamonte Springs, Hastings was the only son of a housemaid and butler.

Civil rights warrior

As an activist, he was jailed in a dozen civil rights sit-ins and demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s. He earned his undergraduate degree in zoology and botany from Fisk University in Nashville. He was thrown out of Howard University law school for lacking “seriousness of purpose” before getting his degree at Florida A&M University.

In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Biden noted Hastings’ civil rights work in South Florida.

“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,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”

As a young lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, he and partner W. George Allen, often in alliance with the NAACP, filed lawsuits against restaurants and hotels they were not allowed to patronize as Black men and against government entities such as the Broward County School District to force desegregation.

“When Alcee came here, this was a Southern backwater, a viciously white, cracker town where racism was oppressively palpable,” said Howard Finkelstein, retired four-term Broward County public defender who considered Hastings a mentor. “It was not only that Black people could not buy a hamburger at the drugstore or step foot on the beach, but if they stood up too tall they were beaten, killed or disappeared. No matter what you think of Alcee’s transgressions, he put his life on the line speaking loudly and righteously for change, and we can thank him for the diverse and progressive Broward we see today.”

In 1966, after civil unrest erupted in Pompano Beach, Hastings was widely quoted for his explanation about why race riots ripped through the country.

“Because no matter what they tell you, all is not right in colored town,” he said 55 years ago. “When you have people living in squalor and seething desperation, with poor housing, miserable, menial jobs and inferior schools, you have the exact same situation they have in Watts.”

In 1970, Hastings became the first Black Floridian to run for the U.S. Senate. He knew he was a long shot, and he received death threats during his campaign.

“This will help Blacks overcome their inferiority complex,” he said. “I think I will prove, to Blacks and to whites alike, that a Negro candidate can be just as seriously concerned with taxation, with saving our environment, with providing rapid transportation and with helpful programs for our senior citizens as any white candidate is.”

He lost — in fact, he lost the first eight races he ran in — but gave Blacks a political foundation to build on. He also raised his profile among state and national political leaders in the Democratic Party.

“We did establish credibility in this race,” he said. “We proved that a Black man can run for statewide office. A Black man with money can probably win.”

In 1977, Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Hastings as a Broward County Circuit Court judge — the start of a meteoric judicial career. Two years later, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Hastings to the U.S. District Court, making him the first Black federal judge in Florida. For his swearing-in ceremony, he chose Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High — a school he helped desegregate.

As a judge, the wise-cracking Hastings flexed his muscle to protect the poor and disenfranchised. He defied Ronald Reagan’s policies, calling the president “dumb” and “a dodo,” and blocked an Immigration and Naturalization Service order to deport Haitians.

Legal battles

But soon after his trail-blazing appointment, he was in trouble with the law himself.

In 1981, Hastings was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for soliciting a $150,000 bribe in return for reducing the sentences of the mafia-connected Romano brothers who had been convicted in Hastings’ court of embezzling $1.2 million from a Teamsters pension fund.

Finkelstein agreed with Hastings, who argued that his indictment was politically motivated.

“Black men considered a threat to the white power structure were being prosecuted left and right at that time,” Finkelstein said. “They had to be knocked down.”

William Borders, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who was indicted alongside Hastings, was convicted in 1982 in an FBI sting operation. Hastings was acquitted in criminal court in 1983. Patricia Williams, who later became deputy director of his office and his wife, worked as his co-counsel throughout the trial.

Despite the criminal acquittal, the House of Representatives in 1988 voted 413 to 3 to approve 17 articles of impeachment against Hastings — including perjury, evidence tampering and conspiring to accept bribes — the highest number of articles brought against any person to that point.

The U.S. Senate convicted him of eight charges and ordered Hastings’ removal. The Department of Justice said that Hastings was the first sitting federal judge to be charged with a crime and the first to be impeached since 1936.

Hastings was thrown off the bench in 1989, eight years after he was indicted.

“I have said it for public consumption before,” Hastings said. “In the time they have spent investigating me, they could have investigated Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Hitler. I find it incomprehensible that this matter has taken so long.”

Then, standing on the Capitol steps, the undaunted Hastings announced he would run for governor of Florida. He ran for secretary of state instead, and lost.

But it didn’t take long for the charismatic Hastings to recover and reinvent himself.

In 1992, he won a seat in Washington, D.C., to represent the newly created 23rd District. He joined the U.S. House that had impeached him and seemingly doomed his career three years earlier. He has been there ever since.

Even as he gained political influence, ethics questions swirled around Hastings and his inner circle.

Williams, his lawyer during his trial, his girlfriend and later his wife, was in trouble with the Florida Bar. Hastings represented her as she fought charges of collecting excessive fees and misusing money from a client’s trust fund. She was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court. Hastings immediately gave her a new job, appointing her to his congressional staff in 1993.

Their relationship came under scrutiny in 2019, when the House Ethics Committee stated it was investigating Hastings again. House rules bar members from having romantic relationships with aides or staffers, although they are allowed to employ a spouse.

“Patricia and I have been together for 42 years,” Hastings said then. “Everybody in my constituency knows that she has been working in the office for 27 years.”

Once the committee found out Hastings and Williams had married nine months earlier, the inquiry ended.

“During its review, the Committee became aware that Representative Hastings has been married to the individual employed in his congressional office since January 2019,” the committee stated. “Accordingly, Representative Hastings is not in violation of House Rule XXIII, clause 18(a), as its terms do not apply to relationships between two people who are married to each other, nor is he in violation of the House Gift Rule, which permits Members to accept gifts from relatives.”

The committee said it also reviewed Hastings’ conduct and compliance with nepotism rules prior to his marriage to Williams and decided to impose no sanctions. Williams’ daughter and the wife of his ex-legislative counsel — both husband and wife were convicted of money laundering — also worked in Hastings’ office.

Hastings defended his employment of Williams, who he said was particularly valuable given her expertise on immigration law.

“She’s worked with me from Day One,” Hastings told the Palm Beach Post. “It would be one thing if she didn’t work. But she’s working today, and she has continued to work. There is no prohibition against it whatsoever. However it looks, it’s been looking like that for 25 years.”

Hastings had faced controversy surrounding interaction with another staff member, but was never found to have violated House ethics rules.

The Treasury Department paid $220,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against Hastings in 2017, according to the publication Roll Call. Not only did Hastings deny any improper behavior, he said he wasn’t even aware of the settlement payment.

“I am outraged that any taxpayer dollars were needlessly paid to Ms. Packer,” Hastings said of the complaint by a conservative organization on behalf of 53-year-old Winsome Packer, who accused him of making crude sexual comments, touching her inappropriately and pursuing her for sex. Packer was a staffer for the Helsinki Commission, of which Hastings was House chair. A federal judge and the House Ethics Committee found no evidence to support her claims, but she was paid the settlement anyway.

None of the scandals dented Hastings’ popularity with voters. He won reelection every two years since 1992 by huge margins; five times he ran unopposed.

In Congress, Hastings was the lead Democrat on the Helsinki Commission, an independent arm of the U.S. government responsible for promoting human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental, and military cooperation among 57 partner countries in North America, Europe and Asia.

He also convened monthly meetings of Florida’s 27 U.S. House members with Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan as co-chair of the Florida delegation, often the only time all the state’s representatives would gather in one place. The meetings were open to the public, and discussed topics like shutting down cruises at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite his seniority, Hastings chaired no congressional committees - he was passed over to lead the House Intelligence Committee in 2006 - but was a powerful member of the House Rules Committee, the final stop for legislation before it is put on the floor for debate and ultimately a vote.

Hastings was influential in setting the rules for the first Trump impeachment inquiry.

“This man has degraded and debased the presidency,” Hastings said.

Wilson — noting that she, Hastings and the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia all attended Fisk, a historically Black college — said he was part of a generation of Black leaders who fought for civil rights in the streets before continuing their work in courtrooms and legislative bodies.

“I saw him as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type of legislator who just didn’t take no for an answer, who has been through a lot in his life and how he was hardened against adversity,” Wilson said. “He came prepared to fight, he came with an armor built into his body to fight and we saw that same kind of fight as he fought cancer.”

Wilson, who is known for wearing intricate hats, said she and Hastings bonded over their shared style in clothing — flamboyant but always matching.

I like hats and he prided himself in wearing matching socks and ties every single day,” Wilson said. “He had the most gorgeous, colorful socks that matched his ties. Everyday on the floor I would go to check him out, and up until the last day I saw him he was matching from head to toe. I said, ‘Where do you find these ensembles?’ He replied, ‘You know I have so many eventually something is going to match.’ He was a delight.”

Hastings, who lived west of Boynton Beach, is survived by his wife and three children.

“He lived a life of triumph over adversity and his brilliance and compassion was felt amongst his constituents, colleagues, the nation and the world,” Hastings’ family said in a statement released by his office. “He lived a full life with an indelible fighting spirit dedicated to equal justice.”

Details on services were not immediately available. The Broward County Commission on Tuesday will vote to name Northwest 7th Court, a county road, in his honor.

Miami Herald reporter Samantha J. Gross contributed to this story.

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