TALLAHASSEE — A Republican campaign consultant testified Monday that he was given an early look at more than a dozen proposed congressional district maps merely to get the “lay of the land” — not because he was advising GOP leaders eager to maintain power.
Marc Reichelderfer said the once-a-decade redistricting process was “like a Rubik’s Cube” to him and other consultants, whom he described as “political junkies” fascinated with manipulating maps.
But David King, attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida, said Reichelderfer’s insider knowledge helped Republicans refine proposed boundaries and craft a plan for Florida’s 27 congressional districts that assured GOP dominance.
“You were looking at these maps to see how they would perform so you could advise your client, the speaker of the House, about what they should do with these maps,” King said, challenging the consultant.
The exchange occurred on the opening day of a trial, the lead-up to which already has riveted Florida’s political world.
The voters’ groups and a handful of Democratic-allied voters are seeking to overturn the district maps drawn by legislators in 2012. The plaintiffs accuse Republican leaders of violating a state constitutional ban on drawing boundaries that help political parties or incumbents.
In a courtroom across the street from the state Capitol, the judge, lawyers and witnesses are expected to spend about two weeks on the non-jury case based on thousands of pages of emails, proposed maps, voter data and depositions.
Scheduled to testify today is House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and a host of legislators, consultants and redistricting staff members also are expected to take the stand.
Republican leaders have boasted the 2012 redistricting process was the most transparent in state history, but a more shadowy process was revealed Monday during Reichelderfer’s seven hours of testimony.
A top House staffer used an online Drop-box account to steer proposed maps to Reichelderfer, sometimes weeks before they were made public, according to email records.
King said records showed the consultant was tasked with evaluating district boundaries, sometimes tweaking lines to assure that an overwhelming majority would elect Republicans.
Reichelderfer would later meet in private with then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, a frequent client, and his deputy chief of staff, Kirk Pepper, who provided Reichelderfer the maps, to share his evaluation, said King, although he failed to present immediate evidence of such encounters.
But Reichelderfer testified, “I did not tell them how to draw the maps, how to draw the lines on the maps or which maps to pick.”
Instead, the consultant said he was given a heads-up on proposed maps only as a courtesy from Pepper, an old friend also expected to testify today.
“It was helpful to me professionally to have a map ahead,” Reichelderfer testified.
King, however, tried to cast doubt on this portrayal. He said Reichelderfer was part of a “loose-knit confederation of mapmakers,” composed of Republican strategists.
A flurry of emails between Reichelderfer and other Republican consultants in late 2011 and early 2012 also raised questions about whether they were merely seeking a professional edge by peeking at the maps, or were actually helping legislators draw them.
At least one email suggested a deeper involvement.
After viewing maps days before they were made public, Reichelderfer described Orlando Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster’s district as “messed up” in one plan.
An email reply from Pepper sought to clarify whether the problem amounted to one that could threaten a Republican seat. “Performance, or geography?” Pepper responded, using familiar redistricting terms.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 500,000 registered voters, Republicans held 17 seats to 10 seats for Democrats after the 2012 elections based on the redistricting plan. Before redistricting, Republicans held 19 of Florida’s 25 congressional districts. Because of population gains, Florida gained two seats in redistricting.
Reichelderfer also testified that he met on Dec. 3, 2010, with other consultants, redistricting staff and Republican National Committee lawyer Ben Ginsberg for what was described as a “brainstorm” meeting at Florida Republican Party headquarters.
Reichelderfer said the consultants wanted “a seat at the table.”
But a month later, these consultants were told by legislative leaders and staff that constitutional amendments approved in November 2010 would prohibit them from playing the central role in redistricting they wanted.
George Meros was among those at the brainstorming meeting. Now he is the lead attorney for Republican legislative leaders defending the mapmaking as constitutional.
Meros, in cross-examining Reichelderfer, reminded him that, “You were told that you would not have a seat at the table.”
He also asked Reichelderfer repeatedly whether he shared any of his opinions about the maps with House and Senate leaders that Meros named in a litany.
“No, sir,” Reichelderfer said to each name.
email@example.com Twitter: @jkennedyreport