Senate earns bi-partisan support for its redistricting maps as critics complain

TALLAHASSEE _ A majority of Democrats crossed party lines Tuesday as the state Senate gave overwhelming approval to two redistricting maps that critics say protects incumbents despite new standards intended to increase political competition.

Seven Democrats joined 27 Republicans as the Senate approved its state Senate and congressional maps by a 34-6 vote. One Republican, Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, voted against the maps..

Senate President Mike Haridopolos called it one of the Senate’s “finest hours” and joined in the chorus of kudos for incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who shepherded the map-drawing effort.

The maps must adhere to the two new Fair Districts amendments that prohibit incumbency protection, preserve minority voting strength, and require lawmakers to keep cities and counties more compact. If passed by the House and validated by the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Department of Justice, they will reshape the state’s political lines for the next 10 years.

The Senate’s maps make way for two new congressional districts earned because of the state’s population growth — bringing the total Florida delegation to 27. They pave the way for new Hispanic-based congressional and state Senate districts in Central Florida. And while they make a handful of Republican seats more competitive, they also preserve the GOP majority in both the Congressional delegation and the state Senate.

“The plan before you is not a Republican plan or a Democratic plan,’’ said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican. “This is truly a non-partisan plan, blending the insights of both parties.”

But the Senate maps drew sharp rebukes from a bitterly divided Democratic caucus. Seven of the chamber’s 12 Democrats joined the Republicans to support their staff-written maps: Sens. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, Larcenia Bullard of Miami, Gwen Margolis of Miami, Jermey Ring of Margate, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Audry Gibson of Jacksonville, Gary Siplin of Orlando.

But Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston, Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale blasted the Senate maps for violating the intent of the redistricting standards and the a coalition of citizens groups that backed the Fair Districts amendments lashed out against the vote as an attempt to “protect the party in power.”

Rich chided lawmakers for drawing districts that “are tremendously familiar” to the 2002 maps that voters rejected when they imposed strict redistricting standards by a 63 percent vote in 2010.

“The only districts that I believe look tremendously different are the termed out seats, where there is no incumbent,’’ she said. “It certainly is odd that we, unlike the House, have no members who are not termed out who are not in conflict with each other or have not significantly moved their district.”

Joyner accused them of packing districts with more minority voters than necessary saying that “bleaches the surrounding districts and limits the influence of minorities overall.”

“The Legislature is poised to use the pretext of minority protection to advance an agenda that seeks to preserve incumbency and pack minority voting seats in order to benefit a particular party,’’ Joyner said.

But Gaetz and other Republicans firmly defended their maps and called the Democrats’ allegations “factually not true.” Gaetz countered that the maps proposed by Rich and the coalition of Fair District supporters would “do violence to existing minority opportunity districts.”

The volley of charges, answers and countercharges, continued throughout a six-hour debate until it was clear that both sides would agree on one thing: the courts will decide.

Under state law, the Florida Supreme Court must review the legislative maps and will be asked to determine if they comply with the new redistricting standards outlined in Amendment 5. Any voter in the state may also file suit to challenge the congressional map in state court to determine if they are in line with the standards of Amendment 6.

Senate leaders did not include voter registration information when they drew their maps, but the Herald/Times looked at how the proposed Senate districts performed in the past two elections and found that of the 27 congressional districts, 15 of them would strongly favor Republicans, based on the 2008 and 2010 elections. Five of the current Republican districts would become more Democratic, including one held by U.S. Rep. Allen West.

In the state Senate, the Herald/Times analysis shows that 24 of the 40 Senate districts are solidly Republican based on performance in the last two elections and 14 are Democratic — up from the current 11 held by Democrats.

Gaetz opposed Amendments 5 and 6 and voted against it, as did most of the legislature’s Republicans, but on Tuesday he said the amendments brought positive change. Because of the new standards, the Senate’s districts are now more compact, have preserved minority districts and were drawn “for the first time in history” without the intent to protect incumbents or political parties.

With the fear of having any backroom deal expose them to charges of incumbency protection, the new standards also led legislators to adopt a redistricting strategy that involved 26 public hearings and a process that invited the public to submit 157 proposed maps. An estimate 3000 voters provided input, Gaetz said.

“Your committee traveled farther, reached out to more Floridians, drew larger crowds of concerned citizens and heard more testimony than any redistricting panel in Florida history,’’ Gaetz said.

The strategy of Fair Districts proponents, however, was less engaged. They complained that legislators should have written their maps earlier – to allow for the inevitable court challenge and avoid interferring with the deadline for candidates to file for office on June 4. And they offered up an alternative to the Senate maps only at the last minute, when it was clear they didn’t like the Senate plan.

“We delayed because we hoped the Legislature would follow the letter of the law,’’ said Deirdre MacNab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida on Tuesday.

But the strategy clearly divided Democrats as well. While the NAACP proposed a map that retained many of the sprawling minority districts in the Senate and Congress, the maps proposed by Rich and the Fair Districts coalition diminished the number of black voters consolidated into Democratic districts but offered Democrats the opportunity to compete in more districts throughout the state.

“That last minute surprise proposal was so flawed that not even one democrat would introduce it,’’ Gaetz said.

The maps now go to the House, which has scheduled a workshop on its proposals for state House and congressional maps for Friday and does not plan to take a vote on its proposals until Jan. 27.


Source:  Miami Herald