State Supreme Court ruling shakes up Florida's political landscape

By Mary Ellen Klas[ck_comma] Charlie Frago and Steve Contorno[ck_comma] Times/Herald Staff Writers | Tampa Bay Times | 07/10/2015

The Florida Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to Florida's political landscape Thursday, throwing out the state's carefully crafted congressional districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature and ordering a new map within 100 days.

In the historic 5-2 ruling, the court not only ruled the maps were the product of an unconstitutional political gerrymandering, it signaled its deep distrust of lawmakers and provided detailed instructions on how to repair the flawed map in time for the 2016 election.

Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said the court found that the initial maps drawn by state lawmakers "were tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents."

"This is a complete victory for the people of Florida who passed the Fair District amendment and sought fair representation where the Legislature didn't pick their voters," said David King, lead attorney for the League of Women Voters and the coalition of voter groups that brought the challenge.

The new maps are likely to reconfigure nearly all of the state's 27 congressional districts, open the door to new candidates, and threaten incumbents, leaving no part of Florida untouched by Thursday's decision.

Repercussions will be widely felt in Tampa Bay, where the court ordered a redo for District 13, which is now held by Republican David Jolly, and District 14, which is now held by Democrat Kathy Castor.

Both districts, the court mandated, "must be redrawn to avoid crossing Tampa Bay," spurring a rush of maneuvering among potential congressional candidates on both sides of the bay moments after the decision.

A new Democratic star, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, might be in trouble with a redrawn district, potentially forcing her into the U.S. Senate race. In South Florida, U.S. Reps. Ted Deutsch and Lois Frankel might end up in the same district.

The most significant change came in the North Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The court ordered District 5, originally drawn by a federal court in 1992 and which extends from Jacksonville to Orlando, redrawn in an east-west direction, potentially making room for a minority-access district in the Orlando area, endangering a seat now occupied by Republican Dan Webster.

The court also ordered revisions to South Florida districts 25, 26 and 27, currently held by Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The ruling puts incumbents at greater risk than normal in a mid-decade election, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and a redistricting expert, because any shift in district boundaries gives them less time to appeal to new constituents.

"All they can do is spend campaign dollars," McDonald said. "They can't do other things to endear themselves to constituents."

But until the actual maps are redrawn, it's not clear who the winners and losers will be. The court ruled that state lawmakers have to redraw the maps within 100 days.

The decision is a victory for the plaintiffs in the case, a coalition of voter groups and the League of Women Voters, who tried and failed to get the lower court to redraw the entire map because of violations to the Fair District amendments to the state Constitution.

"This has been a long, hard battle against what has been unbelievable devious political scheming and egregious behavior of our politicians,"' said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

In Tampa Bay, it's expected that lawmakers will draw new boundaries for District 13 that will include a swath of Democratic voters in the southern neighborhoods of St. Petersburg who are currently represented by Castor.

That anticipated influx of Democrats into District 13, which now covers north and western St. Petersburg, has already spurred speculation that Jolly would then jump in to the U.S. Senate race for Marco Rubio's seat.

Jolly's campaign manager, Sarah Bascom, said Thursday that the congressman hadn't made a decision about the Senate race. She didn't answer a question about when he might decide.

The lone announced Democrat in the 13th District, Eric Lynn, said he was excited by the ruling. He touted fundraising (more than $400,000 so far) and political support that he has garnered in the past few months.

"The lines of this district may change, but the contours of this race remain the same," Lynn said in a statement.

Meanwhile, plenty of other Democrats have started to eye the race. Former Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern, who plans to move to St. Petersburg, remains a likely contender. On Thursday, two Pinellas political heavyweights, County Commissioner Ken Welch and state Rep. Dwight Dudley, expressed interest.

"I'm absolutely going to take a look at it," Welch said. He said he would do his "due diligence" on a possible run over the next few months.

Lynn's political adviser, Bill Burton, said his candidate will be hard to dislodge, citing his big fundraising lead.

"He starts with a pretty big head of steam here," said Burton, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. "Had the court ruled this way months ago we'd be looking at a different situation."

In Hillsborough County, Republicans were rejoicing at the possibility of a likely more conservative voter base for District 14, which covers parts of Hillsborough and southern St. Petersburg.

"For a long time we have felt that District 14 was not fairly drawn and it did not represent the people in the district so we are very pleased that it will be more contiguous," Deborah Tamargo, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party.

Castor, now in her fifth term, said she agreed with the court ruling in a statement. She touted her "bipartisan support of her friends and neighbors" and announced that she would report around $800,000 in campaign cash on hand when reports are filed next week.

"Shifting district lines will only sharpen my focus," Castor said.

Castor has sailed to re-election since first winning her congressional race in 2006. But Tamargo expects some of Castor's more recent opponents, such as Evelio Otero Jr. and Mike Prendergast, might have interest again were the district to turn a lighter shade of blue. Still, it would be an upward battle in 2016 with a presidential election.

For his part, Otero said he is watching closely to see how the district is drawn.

"If they ask me, I would have to sit down and listen to folks and make a realistic decision," Otero said.

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

Congressional District 13, Florida

Total population: 699,288

Republican: 175,882

Democratic: 164,999

No party affiliation: 108,018

Male: 334,806

Female: 364,482

Median Age: 48.0

65 years and older: 164,138

White: 601,901

Black or African-American: 42,592

Hispanic or Latino (any race): 62,811

Dutch: 8,072

Civilian veterans: 66,585

Congressional District 14, Florida

Total population; 733,381

Republican: 103,153

Democrat: 210,010

No party affiliation: 100,396

Male: 352,663

Female: 380,718

Median age: 35.6

65 years and older: 91,773

White: 467,325

Black or African-American: 185,821

Hispanic or Latino (any race): 207,085

Dutch: 6,358

Civilian veterans: 47,468

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