Miami Republican U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar was the only South Florida representative to vote “no” on a bill that would remove statues of Confederates and historical figures who defended slavery from the U.S. Capitol.
Salazar, a Cuban-American former journalist elected in 2020, was one of 120 House Republicans to vote against the bill. Miami Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Gimenez, along with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, all voted “yes” on the bill. The bill passed on a 285-120 vote, with all Democrats joining 67 Republicans to vote in favor.
The legislation now heads to the U.S. Senate for consideration. A similar bill passed the U.S. House in July 2020, before Salazar was elected, but did not receive a vote in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. Senate action is now more likely because Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, supports the bill.
Salazar’s office did not respond when asked to explain her reasoning for the vote.
The legislation would remove Confederate statues from public display within 45 days of enactment. And a bust of former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that people of African descent were not U.S. citizens, would also be replaced with a bust of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.
“The halls of Congress are the very heart of our democracy, the statues that we display should embody our highest ideals of Americans expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor ahead of the vote. “Monuments to men or people who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are an affront to those ideals.”
McCarthy supported the bill but argued that the Democratic Party was responsible for allowing the statues of racists and proponents of slavery to be sent to the Capitol in the first place. Many of the statues depicting Confederates or defenders of slavery were erected and approved by state legislatures in the early 20th Century, when the Democrats controlled southern states during a time when the Confederacy was being romanticized through the Lost Cause movement.
“What’s interesting is the statues that need to be removed were sent to the Capitol by states that were majority controlled by Democrats sent to a House that had a majority controlled by Democrats,” McCarthy said. “I think the bill should go further, maybe it’s time the Democrats change the name of their party.”
Georgia Republican Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who led opposition to the bill on the House floor, said he supported removing statues of Confederates but objected to the legislative process behind the bill. Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who objected to the bill, said the legislation was part of “continued attacks on American history.”
The bill defines the term “Confederate statue” as any individual who served voluntarily in the Confederate Army or a state army rebelling against the United States or any individual who served in the Confederate government or a state government rebelling against the United States.
It also names three other statues for removal who do not meet the criteria of serving the Confederacy: Charles Brantley Aycock, a former segregationist governor of North Carolina, John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and U.S. senator from South Carolina who defended slavery, and former Arkansas governor and senator James Paul Clarke, who espoused racist beliefs throughout his political career.
Each state has two statues on display at the U.S. Capitol. State legislatures have the power to determine who is depicted.
Four of Florida’s 16 House Republicans voted to remove Confederate statues: Diaz-Balart, Gimenez, Gus Bilirakis and Daniel Webster.
Florida’s Confederate statue to be replaced soon
One of Florida’s two statues currently in the U.S. Capitol depicts Edmund Kirby Smith, a Florida native and Confederate general. The Florida Legislature voted to replace Smith’s statue in 2016 after the racially motivated 2015 mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent Black educator and civil rights advocate, was chosen in 2018 as Smith’s replacement.
Nilda Comas, a Fort Lauderdale sculptor, began work on Bethune’s statue in September of last year. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, said Wednesday that Comas’ marble work, which was cut from the Italian quarry Michelangelo once used to sculpt the famous statue of David, is nearly finished.
The statue will be unveiled in Italy on July 10, Bethune’s birthday. Castor said a group of Floridians from Daytona Beach who helped fund the statue and Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black college founded by Bethune that now bears her name, will be on hand.
“Now, with vaccinations, folks can travel there and be safe and this ceremony will go on,” Castor said.
The statue will then head to Daytona Beach for a period of time before it is transported to Washington. Castor said the current plan is to unveil the statue in the U.S. Capitol in February 2022 to coincide with Black History Month.
In the interim, Smith’s statue continues to stand in the Capitol Visitor Center, a less prominent position than statues that sit in the Capitol Rotunda or Statuary Hall, the old House of Representatives chamber. Its fate, once removed, is uncertain after the Lake County Commission voted last year not to accept the statue at the Lake County Historical Society.
Castor confirmed that Smith’s statue will be removed before Bethune’s arrives if the law goes into effect, though she’s hoping that Bethune’s statue — which would be the first of a Black woman among the 100 statues allocated by the 50 states — will get a more prominent position than Smith’s.
“I think for someone of the stature of Dr. Bethune, she needs to be located in Statuary Hall,” Castor said. “There’s no final decision on that but I certainly think that’s what should happen.”
Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.