Polk native Fentrice Driskell prepares to lead Florida House Democratic Caucus

Lake Gibson grad is first Black woman elected to role

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell first debated in the Florida House chamber when she was 17 and a student at Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland.

Driskell went to Tallahassee the summer before her senior year to participate in Florida Girls State, an educational program for selected rising seniors that simulates the functions of state government. During the weeklong session, Driskell met Florida’s governor, the late Lawton Chiles, a Lakeland native.

In an indication of what lay ahead, fellow participants elected Driskell governor of the student delegation.

“It completely changed my life,” Driskell said last week. “Before that, I thought I wanted to be an engineer. But after that experience, I fell in love with government. I decided to study it in college, which I did. I decided I would go to law school so that I could learn the language of government.”

Twenty-five years later, Driskell is serving in her second term as the Democratic representative for District 63, which covers part of Tampa and northern Hillsborough County. The popularity with peers that yielded the honorary governor’s role at Girls State has continued through her actual government service.

The Legislature’s Democratic Caucus unanimously elected Driskell last month as leader-designate for the 2024-26 term. She is the first Black woman chosen to lead the caucus.

The selection means Driskell would be the presumptive speaker of the House if Democrats were the majority party in 2024 — an unlikely occurrence, as Republicans now hold a 78-42 advantage.

Driskell, 42, has been accumulating firsts throughout her life. Born in Winter Haven, she spent her first years in Bartow before her family settled in Lakeland. Her father, Joel Driskell, worked as a dispatcher for Publix, and her mother, Terry Driskell, taught for Polk County Public Schools.

Driskell’s older sister, Sheritta Morris, was the first Black student elected as class president at Lake Gibson High. Morris is now a reading coach at Crystal Lake Middle School in Lakeland.

“So she gave me my first example of what it looked like to be a first, to be a Black woman and be a first and put yourself out there and go for your dreams,” Driskell said. “And so I carried that with me in high school. As you can see, I carried it with me in college and I continue to carry it with me everywhere I go, to try to do what I can to break down barriers and show others that it’s possible.”

Driskell served as class president all four years at Lake Gibson and was also a cheerleader and tennis player. She said she never considered a future in politics until she took an Advanced Placement American Government and Economics class in her junior year.

The teacher, Chris Taylor, recognized Driskell’s aptitude for the subject and encouraged her to apply for Girls State the following summer.

“I can remember in history classes where, before that, we would have to cut out articles and come to class prepared to discuss current events, it never interested me much,” Driskell said. “I just seemed detached from them. But there was something about having the hands-on experience and learning about government more up close and going to Tallahassee, walking around the chambers of the Senate and House, it lit a fire in me.”

Driskell graduated as valedictorian and became the first student from Lake Gibson to attend Harvard University. While there, she served as the first Black woman student government president of the Ivy League school. (A few years ago, she became the first Lake Gibson graduate inducted into the school’s hall of fame.)

After earning a law degree from Georgetown University, Driskell returned to Lakeland and lived with her parents while working as a law clerk in Orlando for Judge Anne Conway of the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida. She moved to Tampa to join the law firm Carlton Fields and became a partner in 2013.

Busy with work and volunteer activities, Driskell wasn’t intent on seeking elected office.

“I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe community service can be my path,’ ” she said. “And then, after the 2016 election, I just felt like — regardless of what your political affiliation is, I felt like the country was becoming more divided. I started thinking about, ‘OK, do I have something to offer?’ and I looked at the Florida House of Representatives, and at the time it was fewer than 25% women. We’re just a little bit over 30% now, and that seemed to me woefully out of balance.”

Back to Tallahassee

In 2018, Driskell upset the incumbent in District 63, Republican Shawn Harrison, by nearly seven points, making her the first Black representative of the district. Driskell earned a second term after facing no opponent in 2020.

Fellow Democrats chose Driskell last year as their House Policy chair. She is the ranking Democratic member on the Judiciary Committee and also serves on the Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee, Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee and Insurance and Banking Subcommittee.

Driskell’s mentors include former Florida Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a fellow Polk County native who says she became Lakeland’s first Black lawyer in 1970, drawing coverage from The Ledger. Joyner, serving a district in Tampa, was the first Black woman elected as Democratic leader in the Senate.

“I think it was just fortuitous that Polk County has produced two Black women who became lawyers and who were selected by their peers in the Legislature to be their leaders,” Joyner said. “I have high expectations of her, and I’m sure that she will exceed my expectations. She is well respected in this community, I can tell you that — in fact, around the state. She has just distinguished herself as a young woman lawyer, and Polk County should be proud of its native daughter.”

Driskell said the Polk County legislative delegation treats her as an honorary member, even though all eight lawmakers from her home county are Republicans. Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, said she was pleased to learn of Driskell’s election as future Democratic leader.

“She is smart, articulate; I think she’ll be a very good leader,” Bell said. “And she works great across the aisle. Her and I, we can sit down and discuss things and we may disagree but we’re not always at odds with each other. She’s just a good person and a good leader. She’s not just her-way-or-the-highway partisan.”

ell said Driskell has an “open door policy” regardless of party and has always been receptive to Bell’s pitches about bills she is sponsoring, such as a measure passed this year aimed at preventing the reassignment of teachers after the school year begins.

Driskell sponsored two bills that passed in this year’s session. One of them, co-sponsored by a Republican, Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, includes reforms to policing suggested by the Legislative Black Caucus, of which Driskell is a member.

The measure establishes basic training on the proportional use of force and de-escalation tactics, as well as limiting the use of chokeholds. The bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet signed, also strengthens the screening process for the hiring of law-enforcement and correctional officers.

Driskell also sponsored a bill that creates a task force to oversee the search for unmarked or abandoned Black cemeteries in the state. That measure follows the discovery of forgotten graveyards in recent years.

Seeking better balance

Despite those two success, Driskell said it is a supreme challenge to influence state policy as a Democrat in the Florida Legislature.

“I will not pretend that it’s not difficult being in the minority because the sweeping policy proposals that you want to see passed are out of reach,” she said.

As a product of Florida public schools, Driskell said she wants to see lawmakers support and bolster public education. She has watched helplessly as the Republican majority directed more money to scholarships for students to attend private schools.

This year’s session produced plenty of frustration for Driskell and other Democrats. She said she was disheartened to see Republicans devote so much time to contentious bills championed by DeSantis, such as HB 1, the “anti-riot” bill, and SB 90, a measure that adds restrictions on voting and a bill that bars transgender students from playing on girls and women sports teams.

Driskell said DeSantis should have called a special session to address problems with the state’s unemployment compensation that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This legislative session was a really tough one for Florida voters because I take my job as a lawmaker very seriously, and I expect us to do serious work when we come to Tallahassee,” she said. “And coming out of a global pandemic — or still really in the midst of it — to go to Tallahassee and see bills like HB 1 pass and see bills like SB 90, which was the attack on the election system, was very frustrating to me and I hope to many Florida voters.”

As a future designated leader of the Democratic Caucus, Driskell said she will help set the party’s political strategy heading into the 2022-2024 election cycle.

Starting in 2024 — assuming she remains in the House — Driskell will oversee the Democrats’ legislative policy. She understands that it will remain difficult to advance policies when her party is so badly outnumbered in the Legislature.

“I think that our House is out of balance — the Florida Legislature, but particularly the House is out of balance,” she said. “Democrats are so deeply in the minority, but when you look at Florida voters as a whole, the population is actually much more evenly divided. And I think you get much better policy when you have a chamber that’s more evenly divided because that’s when give and take has to happen, more negotiations have to happen. So I would love to see us have a Legislature that is more reflective of the voters in our state.”

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