Fabiola Santiago: Florida Supreme Court ruling on redistricting a return to the rule of law

Fabiola Santiago | Miami Herald | 07/17/2015

As scandalous as it has been in Florida, redistricting isn’t sexy enough for modern times, a blemish that condemns an issue to obscurity.

Nothing about the act of drawing congressional districts to reflect and represent Florida’s growing and changing population is going to elicit viral outrage from the wronged — clueless voters busy working, living and being distracted by the latest celebrity disgrace playing out on social media. No time and no interest in raising hell over illegal map-drawing by lawmakers.

But if you care about democracy, you should’ve been paying attention from the beginning to a process some of us suspected all along of being a sham perpetrated by the Republican leaders of the Florida Legislature.

Back in 2011, a Senate committee charged with spear-heading redistricting traveled around the state holding hearings in major metropolitan areas, including Miami-Dade. I watched the local hearing held at Miami Dade College — and it didn’t require sociologist credentials to recognize that this was mainly a perfunctory event.

Miamians engaged in civic life (and yes, some goofballs, too) turned out to testify about the need to have congressional representation in Washington D.C. that reflects all the people, not just the mainstream group, and to convey the message that the task of drawing districts needed to be politically balanced and fair. They pointed out the lack of common sense in the geography of some districts, where incumbents latch on to a seat for life simply because the political party numbers are stacked in their favor.

The lawmakers leading the hearings, however, couldn’t hide their lack of interest. Everything about them — from the body language to the curt way they worked through the line of speakers without showing any interest in understanding the testimony — was a clue to what was already cooking.

The maps were being drawn, not with the input of voters and population growth figures in mind, but with the assistance of GOP party operatives who were going to ensure that Republican congressional seats remained in the hands of Republican voters.

Lucky for us, the non-partisan League of Women Voters and other voter rights groups were watching, taking notes, and after the controversial new map was released, they challenged all the way to the Florida Supreme Court the legality of a Florida map that favored the Republican Party and incumbents.

Witnessing the attempts of the Republicans to cover up their misdeeds in court hearings was like watching a bad soap opera: scheming, deleting email, holding secret meetings, and wasting taxpayer money. There are still documents the lawmakers refuse to release, but on Thursday the state Supreme Court delivered a decision that shook up comfortable political worlds — and unmasked the charlatans.

And this is where, if anyone needs a little sexiness and a viral reference to keep reading, I suggest playing the sound track of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off.

The Supreme Court ruled that the maps were the product of unconstitutional political gerrymandering and ordered eight districts redrawn, including three in Miami-Dade held by incumbents Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and newly elected Carlos Curbelo. The court said the Legislature “needlessly” divided minority communities to benefit the GOP incumbents. Curbelo’s seat was held for a while by disgraced Republican David Rivera and held for one term by Democrat Joe Garcia.

And the court, fully displaying their mistrust of legislators, went as far as telling the lawmakers how to fix the map within 100 days — in time for the 2016 election.

Four districts held by Democrats also were ordered redrawn in Palm Beach County, Tampa and Jacksonville, along with one Republican district in Tampa. All of them had been challenged by the League and a coalition of voter groups. But almost all of the state’s 27 congressional districts will be affected by redrawn boundaries.

“Taking back our democracy one issue at a time,” was how Lourdes Diaz, a League vice president, described the court victory to me Friday.

She didn’t have to go far to see what’s wrong with at least one congressional district — her own.

Diaz lives in Pembroke Pines and her congressman is Diaz-Balart, a Republican who represents large swaths of northwest Miami-Dade. Broward congresswoman Debbie Schultz-Wasserman, a Democrat, lives five blocks away in another district.

“The way they drew this,” she said, “it’s mind-boggling, it doesn’t make sense.

“We never see him,” she said of Diaz-Balart. “Our issues are not his issues. His issues are Miami-Dade’s. And when we need something, the congresswoman next door can’t do anything.”

The redrawn boundaries are expected to draw fresh candidates and force incumbents settled into their comfortable partisan priorities to pay attention to what their voters think about issues like Medicaid expansion in Florida. The GOP-led Legislature refused to even negotiate this particularly bitter issue (and also violated the Sunshine Law in the process) despite the expansion and its billions in federal dollars having bipartisan support in South Florida. So yes, it does feel like some sort of vindication to see those legislators , for a change, get punished for not respecting the rule of law in a way that affects what they are about most — elections.

Drawing districts is not about securing a political strategy to remain forever re-elected, but about a citizen’s right to fair representation. It’s about the political party in charge — Republican or Democrat — respecting the rule of law and voters.

Voter rights groups had the courage to fight against the legislators’ wrong-doing — and that’s worth a viral shout out.

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