As Another Redistricting Session Begins, Florida Lawmakers Hope Third Time's the Charm

by | August 10, 2015 AT 4:00 PM

By Steve Bousquet and Jeremy Wallace

They look like simple lines on a map, but they will make and break political careers.

The lines will decide who speaks for every Floridian in Congress and who will be there to help untangle bureaucratic red tape or track down a lost Social Security check.

In a two-week special session starting Monday, the Legislature will assign millions of Floridians to new congressional districts as it obeys an order by the Florida Supreme Court to reshape the political landscape according to what voters want, not politicians.

After more than three years of court battles and $8 million in legal fees, legislators will try for the third time to get it right. The courts have twice ruled that Republicans drew "tainted" districts for partisan advantage in violation of the state Constitution's "fair districts" provisions that prohibit rigging the system in favor of politicians and parties.

"We've gotten pretty explicit instructions from the court," says Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a member of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. "We've had our hand slapped, so let's get the job done and do it right. I wish we'd done this two years ago."

Congressional and legislative districts must be changed every 10 years to reflect population changes. The U.S. Constitution prescribes that they must include the same number of people in each district and be as compact as possible.

The two-week session is scheduled to end Aug. 21. It will be followed by yet another special session in October to craft 40 new state Senate districts, which lawmakers have conceded also violate the Constitution.

As legislators try to steer clear of partisanship and secrecy that would only invite more wrath from the courts, they have been placed in a form of political quarantine.

They are under strict orders to avoid any contact with members of Congress, campaign consultants and party activists. They are required to retain "all emails and other documents," and promptly forward them to a single central address to be stored because the new map must be reviewed by the courts and more litigation is possible.

A new "base map" of all 27 districts, which staff members drew based on the Supreme Court's findings, seeks to fix flaws cited by the justices. Among its recommendations are creating separate districts for Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, keeping the city of Homestead whole and improving the compactness of a serpentine minority district that meanders from Jacksonville to Orlando.

The fix is jump-starting the political ambitions of likely candidates such as former Gov. Charlie Crist in a Democratic seat that would be anchored by St. Petersburg. But it's setting off political alarms all over the state.

The new map divides Tallahassee's Leon County in half, connects southern Hillsborough to a Sarasota-centered district and slices Sarasota County north and south.

"This plan is a bad deal for Sarasota County and appears inconsistent with the court's stated goal of maintaining existing political and geographical boundaries," says U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who has represented all of Sarasota County since 2006.

Under the new map, Buchanan would gain more than 150,000 south Hillsborough residents, including Sun City Center, a politically active retirement area that would get its fourth member of Congress in eight years.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, filed suit to prevent her District 5 seat from being redrawn in an east-west shape and, on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, accused the Legislature of trampling on the rights of African-American voters.

All districts must have the same number of people, so every tweaking of a line has immediate domino effects.

Brown's east-west district could derail the career of a rising Democratic star, first-term U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, whose new, more rural district would glow a brighter shade of red.

Further south, Republican Dan Webster of Orlando, first elected in 2010, would face a shaky future in a diverse district that would include many of Brown's current Democratic constituents.

The base map also has led to a scramble among Democrats on Florida's east coast.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, faces the loss of her political base to fellow Democrat Ted Deutch and dislocation to a new Broward-based district to the south. She fired off an appeal for campaign donations "to introduce me to the new voters."

More than a civics exercise, the new boundaries will have major implications for the 2016 presidential election ballot and beyond.

Republicans now control 17 of Florida's 27 seats in Congress, and the partisan balance could tilt in the Democrats' favor.

Just as important, millions of Florida residents will shift to a different congressional office for help with issues like resolving a claim for medical benefits or getting a letter of recommendation for an application to a law school or military academy.

The base map portends the likelihood that hundreds of thousands of residents in the state's largest populations centers of Miami-Dade, Broward and Tampa Bay will change members of Congress. That puts new burdens on Florida's county supervisors of election, who must realign voting precincts and sites and issue new voter registration cards to millions of voters.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she'll be among the first trying to change the map to make Sarasota County whole. "I will not stand for this version of the map," she said.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chaired a Senate committee that drew the original lines in 2012, still defends his work. He hinted that the Supreme Court abused its powers, a point also made by Justice Charles Canady Jr. in a sharply-worded dissenting opinion.

"Most respectfully, I believe the Supreme Court has gone far beyond what they should in requiring that these lines be drawn to the satisfaction of Democratic political operatives," said Gaetz, who predicts that a new map will be challenged in court.

"Some people will not be satisfied until they win in the courts what they can't win at the ballot box," Gaetz said.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the chairman of the Senate's redistricting panel, said senators proposing changes to the new map must do so in an open forum, not behind closed doors.

Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, in an opinion column in the Tampa Bay Times, said lawmaker-sponsored map changes must be "nonpartisan and incumbent-neutral," and citizens offering suggestions should attend upcoming legislative hearings in Tallahassee. Even "non-public" meetings must be recorded for preservation and all emails on redistricting saved at the Supreme Court's direction, both leaders told members.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, who led the successful legal challenge to the map, have called for increased transparency, including identifying all individuals who are creating the new map.

Gov. Rick Scott must approve the new map. Scott, who headed to France for a family vacation as legislators returned to a steamy capital, said he was optimistic that the Legislature would approve a map "that everybody will feel comfortable that we're complying with the law."

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.

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