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Florida Democratic congressman forced to run against GOP colleague after map battle

Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., left, and Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., join other lawmakers as they depart the House of Representatives for the weekend following final votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, June 15, 2018. Because of redistricting, the two are running against one another in the same district in 2022.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., left, and Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., join other lawmakers as they depart the House of Representatives for the weekend following final votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, June 15, 2018. Because of redistricting, the two are running against one another in the same district in 2022.

Updated July 31, 2022 at 4:01 AM ET

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis reconfigured Florida's congressional districts — there are now 28 — and eliminated two Black districts.

One of those districts was North Florida's only district where African Americans made up enough of the constituency to elect their preferred candidate. It was adopted by the state Supreme Court in 2015 to give African Americans in the region equal representation in Congress.

Now, Democrat Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee — who is Black — is running against Republican Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City — who is white — to represent more than a dozen Panhandle counties in the newly drawn district.

"Tallahassee needs a Democratic congressman," Lawson says. "We're not going to give it up to Panama City."

In the new map, some of those voters have been placed in a district that voted for former President Donald Trump by 11 percentage points. Lawson, who's now running in a Republican-leaning district, has his work cut out for him.

"I've been getting down in the counties," Lawson says. "Several of those counties, I've run in many times before."

That was more than a decade ago when Lawson was running for the state legislature. "I was able to pull in a lot of rural white voters who probably had never voted for an African American before."

Lawson's uphill battle

In solid red Panama City, local Democratic Party volunteers set up a voter registration table at the downtown farmer's market. Left-leaning voters are on the fringes here, says Matthew Bays, who leads the Bay County Young Democrats.

"It's going to be tough," Bays says. "But, you know, Al Lawson is very well-liked by his constituents. He's a very moderate, you know, mainstream Democrat that's been fighting for Florida for a very long time."

One of those constituents is Tallahassee resident Lisa Walker, an independent voter who says she plans to vote for Lawson in November and described him as "down to Earth."

"I kind of like Lawson better," she says. "He's been around for a long time. He knows about the changes and what people need."

In fact, Lawson represented Congressman Dunn's hometown of Panama City in the state legislature. The two have worked together in Congress on issues like Hurricane Michael recovery.

Less Republican, but still Republican

In a June interview with member station WFSU, Dunn admitted it won't be easy running against someone he knows and respects. "That's painful. It's a tough thing to do," Dunn said. "I've known Al for over 20 years. I like him. There was a time when he was my senator, state senator, and I supported him."

Even though the new 2nd Congressional District leans Republican, it leans less Republican than it did when Dunn was elected to represent it in 2018.

"I think it's going be a little bit tighter race," says Debbie Wood, who leads the Bay County GOP. "The Democrats are going to have, you know, a little bit stronger of a hold than what the district was before redistricting."

Wood says she's confident that Dunn will get reelected. That's largely because of voters' frustration with high gas prices and rising food costs, she says. "If that doesn't tank the Democratic Party, I don't know what will."

More than three months from the November election, voters across the district aren't paying much attention to the congressional race, says Juanda Beck-Jones, president of the Democratic Club of North Florida. "Unfortunately a lot of people don't know about it, we need to make them aware of it," she says. She and her group will do that by canvassing, tabling and meeting voters face-to-face.

Lawson has already started touring the district, with his campaign expected to pick up after the primaries. "He's real folksy, down-to-earth and he has a self-deprecating humor about him," says Beck-Jones. "If he could reach out to people and meet people, and remind them, I think he can win this."

Copyright 2022 WFSU

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Valerie Crowder
Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.