Republican-led Legislature get redistricting off to a rocky start

Editorial | Orlando Sentinel | 04/30/2011

Will state Republicans ever give up their fight against Fair Districts, the constitutional amendments voters overwhelmingly passed in November that could end the incumbent protection program known as gerrymandering?

We wish we could say yes. A few legislators like Will Weatherford, the House's next speaker after Dean Cannon, make us want to imagine that lawmakers could, actually, make peace and honor Amendments 5 and 6. Weatherford, tapped to head the House's redistricting efforts, said this month that he planned to follow the amendments' guidance regardless of whether his party considers them a good idea.

"They're very clear. They're in the constitution," Weatherford said.

They are clear. They require lawmakers to draw up legislative and congressional districts that are contiguous, compact, respect city and county boundaries and don't favor an incumbent or political party.

Lawmakers also can't compromise minority representation. The amendments say no districts "shall be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice."

Before the amendments passed, ruling majorities could draw the districts about any way they wished. They did so with abandon, and with predictable results. In 2004, for example, not a single legislative or congressional incumbent lost a bid for re-election.

But now, despite Fair Districts' passage, they're still trying to get what they wish. For all of Weatherford's pitch-perfect soundings, it looks like he'll be playing good cop to Cannon's bad cop.

Because they're the ruling majority, Republicans get to pack committees that for the next year will be working on the redistricting process. Democrats also sit on those committees, but Perry Thurston won't. Even though he's the Democrats' choice to lead their redistricting efforts in the House.

Cannon's office said that's because Thurston never asked to be on the panel. But the Sentinel's Aaron Deslatte reported that in November, Thurston wrote Cannon that the post was his "first choice" among committee assignments.

Given that gerrymandering historically has shortchanged minorities — a fact that understandably has heightened minority sensitivity to the redistricting process — keeping Thurston, who's black, off the committee was a blunder.

We're confident Cannon wasn't considering race when he chose to keep Thurston off the committee. Reports indicate Cannon instead wanted Thurston to deliver votes from his caucus for Cannon's judicial reform bill. Thurston refused, so Cannon refused Thurston his requested committee seat.

Cannon's reform bill would split the state Supreme Court into criminal and civil divisions.

The civil division would be packed with Republican appointees.

The Supreme Court ultimately gets the final say over the Legislature's redistricting plan.

Ah, sweet revenge. The judiciary previously had ruled against attempts by Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos to effectively neuter or keep Amendments 5 and 6 off the ballot.

For months, Gov. Rick Scott delayed seeking required federal approval of Fair Districts. For hours during a hearing, Haridopolos wouldn't let the leader of the Fair Districts movement sit. For the moment, Cannon is suing Fair Districts in federal court.

Their resistance to Fair Districts — most especially Cannon's treatment of Thurston and his plan to pack the Supreme Court — mocks the public that supports them.

And any concept of fair play.

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