By Mary Ellen Klas and Michael Van Sickler
Florida legislators completed their fix of a congressional redistricting map Monday, sending the plan to Gov. Rick Scott for approval as they scramble to meet Friday's deadline set by a state court.
In an attempt to address the concerns by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, who said the map violated a constitutional ban on partisan gerrymandering, the legislature ended a three-day special session by moving 368,000 voters in North and Central Florida into new districts as it changed the boundaries of seven congressional seats.
The House and Senate voted for the map along party lines, as a handful of Jacksonville Democrats voted with Republicans in solidarity with U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat whose winding district was invalidated because it packed Democrats voters into the district so that Republicans in surrounding districts would face less competition.
The new map makes the biggest changes to the districts now held by Brown, John Mica, R-Orlando, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. Lewis ordered the Legislature to fix Districts 5 and 10, held by Brown and Webster, by Friday, saying they were in violation of the state's Fair Districts rules.
No South Florida districts were modified.
"If that is a Republican map, I'm proudly and utterly guilty of doing that," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, the House Redistricting Committee chairman. "I have no doubt it will be found constitutional."
But while the GOP legislative leaders praised themselves for creating a map that followed Lewis' order, Democrats complained they were excluded and predicted the new map likely will be thrown out like the previous one.
"This was a dog-and-pony show, and unfortunately that's what we're going to send back to the judge on Friday," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, called the new map "window dressing" that "doesn't meet the goals again."
Redistricting experts said that, if approved by the judge, the new map will change little politically.
"A lot of furniture has been rearranged but it looks like the old house with the same rooms," said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and an expert on redistricting. "I would not think any incumbents will be defeated as a result of this plan."
The Democrat-leaning voters groups that brought the lawsuit said the new map perpetuates the flaws enacted by legislators in 2012 and said they will argue that the map should be rejected and redrawn by the court.
Lewis has scheduled an Aug. 20 hearing to hear arguments on the new map.
"We do not believe Map 9057 complies with Judge Lewis' order or the Fair Districts Amendments," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "We will continue to urge Judge Lewis to adopt a constitutionally compliant map for the 2014 elections."
Lewis ruled that GOP political consultants conspired "to influence and manipulate the Legislature in violation of its constitutional duty" by creating a shadow redistricting process run behind the scenes. He found that Florida's legislative leaders destroyed documents and allowed political consultants to "make a mockery" of their self-described transparency in the redistricting process.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Monday that GOP legislative leaders did not appeal the ruling and "took our medicine" but agreed to fix the map with the condition that it will not take effect until after the Nov. 4 elections.
Lewis left open the possibility that he might call a special election after the November elections, a decision legislative leaders say would violate federal election law.
The final vote underscored the 20-year-old feud that has divided Democrats: whether to create districts intended to favor blacks by packing them together into a single district and helping the neighboring Republican districts become more white, or create more competitively drawn districts that could elect more Democrats who represent blacks in office.
"I've never represented a black district and I think it's absolutely wrong to say we need to have a stacked district to be elected," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, a Hallandale Beach Democrat who is black. "When you give into that, you let them control you for the rest of your life."
Brown's district was first drawn in 1992 when black Democrats aligned with white Republicans to create two districts that elected the first blacks to Congress in Florida since Reconstruction. She has bitterly fought any attempt to change it since.
The Senate voted 25-12 for the new map, with Democrat Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Bill Montford of Tallahassee siding with Republicans. The House voted 71-38, with two Jacksonville Democrats, Reggie Fullwood and Mia Jones, joining Republicans. The Senate also rejected an alternative map by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, that would have created two Orlando-based districts that were equally competitive for both Democrats and Republicans.
GOP lawmakers say they sent the judge the best plan, but experts say it also continues a pattern of approving maps that do the least damage to the GOP congressional majority.
"Florida had one of the most pro-Republican congressional gerrymandering in the country," said McDonald who has studied congressional redistricting plans in every state. "If adopted, it will continue to be a strong Republican gerrymander."
Corcoran and Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairmen Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, made minor changes to the way the Legislature handled the map drawing this time. They banned political consultants from the process and ordered legislators to retain all documents and communications.
But despite their assurances of transparency, they met in a closed door session last Wednesday with staff and outside legal counsel and never invited Democrats.
"At the very least, we should have been invited to the table at the beginning of the process," said Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. "That's why we're skeptical."
The Fair Districts amendments gave the court new powers to check the Legislature when revising political boundaries after the decennial census. Supporters of the amendment say the court rulings have given them a lever they never would have had if left up to the Legislature, and the courts have provided a new bar that will tamp down future interference by political operatives.
The governor is expected to sign the legislation and send it to the judge by the Aug. 15 deadline.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he was confident there "would be no reason to appeal," but many others believe that an appeal to the Supreme Court is inevitable.
Legislators have spent nearly $4 million in taxpayer money so far hiring outside counsel to defend their redistricting maps and the special session cost an estimated $204,735.
"You're not going to end something this important at the circuit court," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.
Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.
(c)2014 The Miami Herald