Weatherford: Political consultants wanted 'clarity' in redistricting

Aaron Deslatte[ck_comma] Tallahassee Bureau Chief | Orlando Sentinel | 05/20/2014

TALLAHASSEE – House Speaker Will Weatherford testified Tuesday that Republican political consultants had "sullen faces" when he and other lawmakers told them flatly they could not have a hand in re-drawing new congressional maps.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, led the House panel tasked with re-drawing legislative and congressional maps from 2010 to 2012 — the first time following the 2010 passage of the so-called Fair Districts amendments prohibiting political gerrymandering. He is also the first major policymaker to take the stand in the two-week trial in Leon CountyCircuit Court.

The League of Women Voters and other groups have filed suit alleging GOP lawmakers still drew the congressional plans to help elect more Republicans, and their lawyers have pointed to meetings between GOP consultants and legislative staffers in the months following the passage.

One such meeting, in December 2010, involved top House and Senate redistricting staff, the Republican party of Florida’s House and Senate campaign staff, and one GOP consultant, Marc Reichelderfer, has already testified the meeting was held in part because consultants wanted a “seat at the table” during the map-making.

But while Weatherford said he didn’t think it was “a good idea” for House staff to attend such a meeting, he defended the work product and said political operatives were simply trying to sort out their roles in the weeks following a “paradigm shift” in Florida’s redistricting process.

“Everything everybody knew about how to draw districts had changed. These people were seeking clarity,”Weatherford told lawyers for the plaintiffs.

“I think there were a lot of consultants who wanted to be part of the process that were disappointed that they couldn’t be.”

Weatherford and Senate counterpart Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, attended a subsequent January 2011 meeting where potential litigation against the amendments was discussed, Weatherford said.

But at the same meeting, Weatherford said he “made it clear” to the political consultants “we were the ones who would be drawing the maps and they couldn’t be involved.”

Weatherford also said he had made it clear to the National Republican Congressional Committee that Florida GOP congressional members should not hire lobbyists to try to influence the drawing of lines, a time-honored tradition in past rounds of redistricting.

Weatherford was also grilled over why the House ultimately had gone along with a Senate draft of the congressional maps that boosted the number of African-Americans in U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s winding, Jacksonville-to-Orlando district.

Republicans claim they boosted the black voters to make sure the map wouldn’t be ruled illegal under federal law for diluting black voting strength, while the plaintiffs have alleged the Legislature did it to make safer seats for Republicans like Reps. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, and John Mica, R-Winter Park.

Weatherford said they went with the Senate plan for that district because they made “a compelling case,” although he declined to elaborate on it.

“I think there is a legal argument, but I wouldn’t be the right person to explain it,” Weatherford said. “We wanted a legally compliant map. We believe that change made it more legally compliant.”

Copyright © 2014, Orlando Sentinel

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