Alcee Hastings, the longtime U.S. Congressman who represented South Florida for decades, fighting for civil rights and marginalized members of the community, has died at 84 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
First elected in 1992, three years after he was impeached as a judge, Hastings was in his 15th term in Congress representing District 20, which includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. He convincingly won re-election in November.
“It is with profound sadness and the deepest sense of loss that we announce the passing of the Honorable Alcee L. Hastings,” his family said in a statement Tuesday morning. “He lived a life of triumph over adversity and his brilliance and compassion was felt amongst his constituents, colleagues, the nation and the world. He lived a full life with an indelible fighting spirit dedicated to equal justice. He believed that progress and change can only be achieved through recognizing and respecting the humanity of all mankind. He was never afraid to speak his mind and truly loved serving his constituents and his family. He will be dearly missed but his legacy and fighting spirit will forever live on.”
Hastings was known as an advocate for minorities, a defender of Israel and a voice for gays, immigrants, women and the elderly.
Hastings’ Congressional colleague Debbie Wasserman Schultz echoed that his legacy will be remembered on the local, national and international stages.
“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,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Alcee Hastings’ life was devoted to righting wrongs and he wasn’t afraid to use a little shame to press for change. From the halls of Congress to Broward County and as far as the Parliamentary Assembly in Europe, Congressman Hastings leaves an immense political legacy.”
President Joe Biden was among the countless others offering tributes to Hastings, saying: “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.”
Jared Moskowitz, the state’s outgoing emergency management director, wrote on Twitter: “There will never be another Alcee Hastings. He was honest, he was direct and he gave a s--- about what mattered.”
Hastings, the first African-American elected to Congress from Florida since the post-Civil War period, announced in January 2019 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I have been convinced that this is a battle worth fighting, and my life is defined by fighting battles worth fighting,” Hastings said at the time. “Should it become clear that this cancer which has invaded my body cannot be defeated, I will tell you so.”
The Sun Sentinel first reported his death Tuesday morning, saying he had been in hospice care in recent days.
Fellow Rep. Frederica Wilson said despite the illness, the Tamarac-based Hastings continued to work “hard and long hours until he was no longer able to,” noting that he then instructed his staff on a daily basis “about how to help his constituents recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure they had the resources they needed.”
Under Florida law, Gov. Ron DeSantis will call a special election in the coming months to fill the vacancy. Hastings’ district is overwhelmingly Democratic — he received 80% of the vote in November.
Hastings’ death lowers the Democrats’ majority to 218-211 in the House.
‘Be your own Bossman’
A fifth-generation Floridian, Hastings was born in Altamonte Springs, north of Orlando. The son of a maid and a butler, he graduated from Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, and earned his law degree from Florida A&M.
“My dad used to say to me: ‘Boy, be your own bossman,’” Hastings said in a 2007 interview with Local 10 News.
Hastings set out to do just that, starting a law practice in Fort Lauderdale in 1963. He made a name for himself fighting a hotel that wouldn’t rent him a room because he was Black.
He worked in private practice until 1977, when he was chosen as a circuit judge in Broward County.
“If I look at periods in my life, the state court period was the period that I think, as an individual, I was most productive for this community of South Florida,” Hastings said.
Appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, he became the first African-American federal judge in the state of Florida, and served in that position for 10 years.
Bribery charges, ethics probe
In 1981, Hastings was indicted on charges of soliciting a bribe, becoming the first sitting U.S. judge tried on criminal charges.
Although acquitted in 1983, a separate judicial investigation led to his impeachment and removal from the bench in 1989.
Hastings felt redeemed by his election to Congress in 1992, though his impeachment remained a nagging footnote. It was repeatedly invoked in news stories and seen as derailing his ambitions for a greater leadership role.
“That seems to be the only thing of significance to people who write,” Hastings told The Associated Press in 2013, predicting that the impeachment would be in the lead paragraph of his obituary.
In 2019, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Hastings citing allegations of a “personal relationship with an individual employed in his congressional office.” The individual was not named. Hastings, however, admitted to being in a long-term relationship with his aide, Patricia Williams.
Hastings responded to the inquiry, saying: “I have cooperated with the committee since May 14, 2019. As they continue to conduct their work, I stand ready to fully cooperate with their inquiry.”
Humble beginnings to global impact
Hastings most recently served as Vice Chairman of the House Rules Committee, was a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission (which works with other countries on a variety of multinational issues) and Dean and Co-Chairman of the Florida Delegation.
He enjoyed his travels around the globe as part of the Helsinki Commission but never lost sight of his humble beginnings.
“I’m still that little boy from Altamonte Springs that had the best damn upbringing that a child could have, and didn’t know he was poor, and didn’t care,” Hastings said in the 2007 Local 10 interview.
In November 2020, he won a 15th term in Congress, defeating Republican challenger Greg Musselwhite.
I am humbled & honored to take the Oath of Office & be sworn in for the 117th Congress. I join my colleagues in looking towards our journey ahead, where we will continue to work vigorously to fight to end the COVID pandemic & to restore our great nation. #117thCongress pic.twitter.com/6t4jpJJsaA— Alcee L. Hastings (@RepHastingsFL) January 5, 2021
Tuesday, he was being mourned in South Florida and far beyond, with colleagues remembering him as a friend and mentor.
“I had the honor of working side by side with Alcee for more than a decade, seeing first-hand his passion and drive for standing up to injustice and fighting for our community,” Rep. Ted Deutch said. “Alcee devoted his career to advancing civil rights for all Americans and human rights around the world. His leadership on racial justice issues brought together everyone committed to a more just and equitable society.”
Said Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz: “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.”
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.