Politics & Government

Florida Democrats urge state lawmakers to remove Confederate statue in U.S. Capitol

A statue of Confederate general Edumund Kirby Smith continues to stand in the U.S. Capitol when the Florida Legislature failed to agree on a replacement in 2016.
A statue of Confederate general Edumund Kirby Smith continues to stand in the U.S. Capitol when the Florida Legislature failed to agree on a replacement in 2016. AP

The entire Florida Democratic congressional delegation wants Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers to remove a statue of Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith from the U.S. Capitol.

On Wednesday, 11 House Democrats from Florida sent a letter to Scott, State House speaker Richard Corcoran and State Senate president Joe Negron urging the trio to call a one-day special session to replace the statue in September.

“No family visiting our nation's Capitol should have to explain to their child that the statue representing our state honors someone who fought for a philosophy built on hatred, inequality and oppression,” the letter said.

Last year, the state legislature agreed to remove Smith's statue but it remains in National Statuary Hall in Washington, where daily tours are conducted in the Capitol, because lawmakers couldn't agree on a replacement.

But with the recent violent protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere over the legacy of Confederate statues, and debates about streets named after Confederate generals in Florida, Democrats around the country are pushing to remove statues in public places.

A Confederate monument in Cornelius was vandalized Sunday, a day after violence between white supremacists and counter-protesters left a woman dead and dozens of people injured in Charlottesville, Va.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, asked state lawmakers to make the change.

“It's time to stop playing games,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Now, Wasserman Schultz is joined by her Democratic colleagues in Washington, including Miami Gardens Rep. Frederica Wilson.

Scott and Corcoran ruled out the possibility of a special session two weeks ago.

“Like most politicians in Washington, the Congresswoman is out of touch,” Corcoran said on Twitter. “We've already made this decision and are now having a conversation about which great Floridian we should honor. The Congresswoman should stop grandstanding and focus on balancing the Federal budget.”

Each state legislature has the power to change its state’s two statues spread across the U.S. Capitol in Washington. In addition to Smith, Florida has a statue of John Gorrie of Apalachicola, who is credited with inventing air conditioning.

What to do with statues and streets that honor the Confederacy has become a hot-button topic across Florida in recent weeks. Manatee County commissioners voted on Aug. 22 to temporarily remove a Confederate memorial in Bradenton; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning and Rays raised thousands of dollars within days to fund the removal of a statue in Tampa; and a statue in Gainesville was removed on Aug. 14.

Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee in mid-September for a series of committee weeks in advance of the 2018 session, so lawmakers would be in town for a potential special session.

“The Legislature meets in January, where they can take up this issue, and Governor Scott has no plans to call a special session,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email.

Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson appeared to differ from most Democrats when he said replacing Confederate statues is “up to the good sense of the communities involved.”

Nelson’s comments drew commendation from Florida Democrats, and he quickly revised his position to say Confederate statues do not belong in public spaces.

“This issue is not going away,” Nelson said in Little Haiti on Friday. “A Confederate statue should be in a historical museum or in a Confederate cemetery, not in a place of honor. What the statues and memorials ought to be are the honored position of people who fought for this country, not people who fought to tear it apart.”

Last summer, an independent panel voted to replace Smith’s statue with one of three people: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a champion for the Everglades; Mary McLeod Bethune, a Florida educator and civil rights pioneer; or George Jenkins, the founder of Publix supermarkets.

But another Florida lawmaker has another larger-than-life figure in mind for Smith’s replacement: Walt Disney.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

Herald/Times staff writer Kristen Clark contributed to this report