Editorial: Email exchanges raise questions about Republican leaders and Florida's congressional redistricting

Editorial | TC Palm | 03/14/2013

The musical chairs played out last year in the campaigns for Congress in South Florida and the Treasure Coast largely were in response to newly drawn state voting districts. Emails released this month raise questions about the openness and transparency of the process used in creating those districts.

Aides to GOP legislative leaders regularly exchanged information with consultants, including some hired by the Republican Party of Florida, and sought advice on how the lines should be drawn, according to The Associated Press. This was going on while GOP leaders were promising to make the process as open as possible.

The intervention, at best, skirted a ban on political favoritism in the redistricting process.

The emails were made public as part of a lawsuit claiming that Florida Senate-drawn maps for Senate and congressional districts were not done with the "fairness" required under the "Fair Districts" amendments to the state Constitution approved by voters in 2010. The plaintiffs — who include voting groups, some with connections to the Democratic Party — are asking the court to throw out those maps.

The new lines had a major impact on South Florida congressional campaigns. In hindsight, they did not necessarily end up helping Republicans.

Nearly a year before last year's general election, U.S. Rep. Allen West, who represented Palm Beach and Broward counties, visited Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers to introduce himself to the editorial board. When his aides made an appointment, they said it was because he would be serving the Treasure Coast.

One of the first items of discussion in the discussion with West was redistricting and the "possibility," in his words, that it could lead to his eventual representation of a portion of the Treasure Coast. He promised a "seamless transition" from representation by fellow Republican Tom Rooney, if he were to succeed him.

That same day in late November 2011, the Florida Senate released its proposed congressional redistricting map. Under that proposal, West's district became more heavily Democratic.

Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant, told the Palm Beach Post, "If there is a GOP loser in redistricting, it is West."

But, that assumed West might seek re-election in District 22. Instead, West chose to run in the new District 18 of Martin, St. Lucie and northern Palm Beach counties, which had a small Republican leaning-voter registration. And Rooney moved west to the new Republican-majority District 17. West was defeated by Democrat Patrick Murphy.

Shortly after the proposed congressional maps were released, Jonathan Blyth, a spokesman for West, told the Palm Beach Post, "I think it is beneficial to the citizens of Florida that Allen West and Tom Rooney serve in Congress. We're hoping the people drawing these maps also feel that having them both in Congress is in the best interest of Florida."

As a result of redistricting and the November elections, more Democrats were elected to Congress and the Legislature. Republicans held on to substantial majorities in the state's congressional delegation and in the state House and Senate even though Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama carried the state and there were more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.

The court will decide the validity of the Senate and congressional district maps drawn by state Senate leaders. But, the emails recently released seem to show the process was not as upfront and open as those responsible for drawing the maps have claimed.

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