A Florida Democrat absent from Congress and his Jacksonville office for nearly two years may come to regret it, as newly proposed district lines imperil his once-safe seat.
Rep. Al Lawson, who has represented Florida's Fifth Congressional District since 2017, has not voted in person for the past year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, he cast 435 proxy votes and missed 3 altogether. This year, he's voted only by proxy so far. His district office in Jacksonville remains closed "out of an abundance of caution," according to images obtained this week by the Washington Free Beacon.
The longtime Florida lawmaker has won each of his three congressional elections by more than 30 percentage points. But that could change if Republican governor Ron DeSantis passes a district map that slices Lawson's constituency in half. The new district, according to a political analysis by FiveThirtyEight, will favor a Republican over Lawson.
Lawson's constituents, especially in the veteran community, said he has stifled their voice in Congress. Steve Adams, a retired Navy commander, told the Free Beacon the congressman's absence made it difficult for "any veteran trying to get any kind of help."
"When disabled or retired veterans need help navigating the Veterans Affairs' bureaucracy, their congressman's office can help get them past the red tape," Adams said. "They don't need even more government offices not returning their calls. Veterans are left high and dry without the assistance of their congressman."
The criticism was echoed by David Trotti, chairman of the Veterans Council of Duval County, which encompasses Jacksonville.
"We need representation in the Jacksonville, Duval County area," Trotti said during a hearing on redistricting. "It's like having a football team in the Super Bowl, but your defensive coordinator works for a different team. He's not at your practices."
Lawson served in the Florida legislature for decades before he defeated Democratic congresswoman Corinne Brown in the 2016 primary. Federal prosecutors charged Brown with corruption during the primary, and she lost her seat. In 2017, she was sentenced to five years in prison on fraud and tax charges. Lawson has not faced a challenger since.
The only members of Congress whose absence is on par with Lawson are Reps. Albio Sires (D., N.J.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D., Calif.), Rep. Kai Kahele (D., Hawaii), and Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.). All fill seats without a competitive Republican opponent.
Lawson's office did not respond to a request for comment.