Under oath, Gaetz defends secret meeting to reach congressional map deal

Mary Ellen Klas[ck_comma] Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau | Tampa Bay Times | 05/21/2014

Florida’s precedent-setting redistricting trial is on its third day with Senate President Don Gaetz under oath, being grilled in detail about the deal he reached in secret with the House and Senate on the congressional map.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, who was in charge of the Senate redistricting effort in 2011-12, told the court there were two meetings between him and his counterpart in the House, current House Speaker Will Weatherford, in which they agreed to settle on the Senate’s map design for the final joint congressional map. The proposal boosted the number of black voters in the meandering congressional district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and is the subject a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters and a coalition of voters.

The groups contend that the congressional seats violate the "Fair Districts" standards added to the state constitution by voters in 2010 which says that says districts cannot be drawn in a way to favor incumbents or members of a political party.

Weatherford acknowledged during testimony on Tuesday that the map was the subject of an amendment introduced with no discussion by Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, chairman of the House’s congressional redistricting committee after Gaetz and Weatherford had reached the deal.

Gaetz told the court that there was no requirement for them to notify the public of the meeting but claims "the door was open" and anyone could have walked in. Under cross examination, he said the map received bi-partisan support of the committee 21-5.

“It was entirely proper, it was entirely ordinary that we would meet as two commitee chairs to work out differences,'' he said. While the House map split fewer counties and cities, the Senate felt it's map did more to preserve minority voting rights, he said. He added that his authority was "to work out differences" and not to finalize a deal.

He was asked about the Senate's decision to allow for the deletion of emails relating to redistricting, even though they knew the lawsuit was inevitable. "I'm not sure I know how to delete emails," he said, and if they were deleted it was "not by me."

Gaetz repeated claims by Weatherford that the process was the most "transparent" and inclusive in state history and that legislative leaders were not going to allow political consultants to influence the process.

They determined "it wouldn't be useful and could be tainting to the process to have political consultants [involved,]'' Gaetz said.

Plaintiffs attorneys David King and John Devaney asked Gaetz a series of questions that focused on what the Senate failed to do:

  • didn’t conduct a so-called “regression analysis” to determine whether the district would diminish the odds of electing minorities,
  • didn’t do a racial block voting analysis to see if white voters were voting cohesively with black voters,
  • didn’t draft a more compact alternative to the 20-year-old meandering District 5 – the district held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.

Gaetz was asked if he knew Ben Ginsberg, the Washington, D.C. lawyer who was instrumental in shaping the Republican strategy of 1992 that concentrated Democrats into minority-majority seats to comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act which had the result of “bleaching” the surrounding districts to make them safer for white Republicans.

As a result, Brown was elected to the district in 1992 and has held the seat since then. The district was redrawn along similar lines in 2002 and, while legislators revised it slightly in 2012, it continues to run through 10 counties from Jacksonville to Sanford.

Plantiffs allege that the district violate the Fair Districts standards of compactness and was drawn to benefit incumbents such as Brown, and the GOP.

Gaetz acknowledged meeting with Ginsberg twice in Washington, D.C. , including attending a lecture Ginsburg gave. He said he spoke with Ginsberg about redistricting “in a general sense.”

King asked why the Senate did not include any political data in its analysis of its maps.

“If we wanted to insulate ourselves from political consequences we shouldn’t have in our minds and in front of us political data that would color our [judgment],’’ Gaetz replied.

King asked if that “constrained your ability to examine minority districts to see if they could elect [minorities.]”

Gaetz answered: “It liberated us from looking at partisan political data and instead looked at socioeconomic data.”

King summarized: “It essentially required you to restate the core of the districts in the benchmark districts” which had the effect of preserving districts in a way to benefit incumbents and the Republican majority.

“It is true that some districts have a great deal of similarity to the districts that existed before,’’ Gaetz responded. “Some, but not all.’’

When Gaetz was asked whether the Senate attempted to find a way to preserve the voting majority by creating a more compact district, he replied that Senate Democrats supported their approach.

“We had a unanimous consent agreement that every Democrat and every Republican subscribed to,’’ he said. “It said we should have no dimunition [for minority voters] to elect a candidate of their choosing.”

He acknowledged the district was not compact "if you use traditional rules of geometry,'' but he was advised by the Senate’s redistricting expert, John Guthrie, that the meandering district was the best way to avoid a legal challenge under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Although Brown had been elected to the district for years and the black voting age population of the district was always below 50 percent, Gaetz said the reason the Senate wanted to raise the black VAP to 50 percent was not to pack Democrats in the district, but to strengthen its legal chances of avoiding a lawsuit.

He acknowledged, however, that the district had never been subject to a legal challenge under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and the Senate did not do any analysis to see if the district needed that boost.

“It was more important, in our judgment, to maintain a district that would make it likely that the minorities would be able to select a candidate of their choice [that it was to create a compact district],’’ Gaetz said.

When asked about the Senate's decision to allow for the deletion of emails relating to redistricting, even though they knew the lawsuit was inevitable, Gaetz replied: "I'm not sure I know how to delete emails" and if they were deleted it was "not by me."

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