Jean Enright hopes to make the leap from an obscure job as a Port of Palm Beach commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives. She faces a big obstacle: The longtime incumbent, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, doesn't have any intention of getting out of the way.
Geography could leave voters' scratching their heads.
Boundaries of congressional districts changed with last year's election to reflect population changes uncovered in the 2010 Census. Neither Hastings, who lives in Miramar, nor Enright, who lives in Riviera Beach, is a resident of the 20th Congressional District. Living outside the district is legal. The Constitution requires a member of Congress to live in the state, not the district.
Enright said Friday in a telephone interview that she'd be "a congresswoman who is visible, who is there, and also they [constituents] are going to know what I'm doing." That sounds like a shot at Hastings, but Enright declined to amplify. "I'm not going to comment on that," she said. "I don't have anything against the congressman."
She also said she didn't have any policy differences with Hastings.
Hastings said he'd use the campaign to talk about issues important to his constituents and how his experience benefits South Florida. He declined to criticize his challenger – who he said has contributed financially to his campaign in the past. "I know Jean Enright," he said. "She's a pleasant lady."
Enright hasn't had a competitive race for the port commission since her first election in 2004. She returned to office without facing the voters in 2008 and 2012 when no one ran against her.
Hastings, first elected to Congress in 1992, hasn't had serious competition in years. But he's exceedingly well-known and popular among Democrats who would determine the winner of the August 2014 primary. The district is 66 percent Democrat, 13 percent Republican, and 21 percent independent/no party affiliation, virtually guaranteeing the primary winner the seat in Congress.
State Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, the Democratic Party leader in the Senate, called Hastings "a beloved figure in the community" who would be difficult to beat. "I would put my money on Congressman Hastings."
Enright, 58, said she expects to win. "If I felt that I was not going to win, I would not get in the race."
Enright hasn't made a formal announcement of her plans. Instead, she quietly signaled her intentions this month in a filing with the Florida Divisions of Elections.
Hastings' first line of defense: an endorsement of his re-election from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and all of Florida's Democratic members of the House. The endorsers include U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who typically avoids taking sides in party primaries.
His colleagues called him "a true champion for the people of South Florida, the state, and this nation as a whole."
Assuming Hastings, 76, wins re-election, other politicians are ready to run when he decides to retire.
The 20th District – with 68 percent of the voters in Broward, 30 percent in Palm Beach County and 2 percent in Hendry County – takes in all or parts of Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Sunrise, Tamarac, Lake Park, Riviera Beach, West Palm Beach and the Glades communities of Palm Beach County.
Under provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act, the boundaries were drawn to include as many black residents as possible. The goal is to increase the odds for a black member of Congress.
Smith and Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, a former member of the Florida House, are two African-American political leaders planing to run when Hastings retires.
"I see myself, when he decides to retire, on his terms, I see me putting my hat in the ring," Smith said.
Taylor said she also is eyeing a future campaign. "When he retires, I will do it at that time," she said.
Though Hastings, who recently had a knee replaced, said he has no plans to retire, he acknowledged his tenure is limited. "I can't live forever," he said.