Congressional-redistricting edict roils Florida politics

Gray Rohrer Tallahassee Bureau | Orlando Sentinel | 07/19/2015

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Supreme Court ruling last week throwing out congressional maps means districts are less safe for incumbents and the political ground less sure for both major parties, analysts say.

Sitting members of Congress don't know how new districts will affect their re-election chances, and state lawmakers responsible for drawing the maps are unsure how to draft new ones for a third time. Democrats and Republicans will have to grapple with internal tensions brought by redistricting.

"Some liken it to musical chairs with high stakes," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political-science professor.

The ruling was a sharp rebuke to Republican lawmakers in control of the Legislature, but it also brings to the forefront tension between squabbling factions of the Democratic Party.

Voters approved constitutional amendments known as Fair Districts in 2010 that prohibit the Legislature from drawing districts to favor or hurt incumbents, political parties or minority groups. Districts must also be contiguous and compact. In knocking down the maps, the court ruling cited the amendment and evidence that GOP consultants conspired with legislative leaders to pass maps maximizing Republican-leaning districts.

But for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, Fair Districts clashes with the 1965 Voting Rights Act protecting districts such as hers. Her skinny District 5 snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando, drawing in parts of Gainesville along the way to include more black voters. It was one of eight districts cited by the ruling as needing to be redrawn by lawmakers.

Her statement bashing the ruling recounted the state's history of Jim Crow laws and housing policies that led to black communities along the St. Johns River, she said, where much of her district runs.

"Segregated housing patterns … kept the African-American population together well into the mid-20th century, which is the central reason why these communities are segregated into those residential patterns across the state."

Until 1992, when the Legislature specifically drew minority access districts, Florida hadn't had a black member of Congress since Reconstruction.

But by packing minority groups into congressional and legislative districts, the 1992 maps reduced the number of majority Democratic districts, laying the foundation for the Republican Party to mount a comeback in Florida. The GOP currently controls 17 out of 27 congressional seats and 107 out of 160 seats in the Legislature.

But the provisions of the Voting Rights Act still need to be preserved, Smith said.

"As long as you have county commissioners voting to keep the Rebel flag, we're still going to need those protections," Smith said, referring to recent votes in Marion County and Panhandle cities to keep flying the Confederate flag.

Republican state lawmakers are in a quandary as well. A lower-court judge told lawmakers last week they have until Sept. 25 to draw new congressional maps, the Legislature's third attempt at redistricting since the previous redrawing of maps in 2012.

A similar legal challenge brought against Senate maps is set for trial in Leon County Circuit Court in September. If those are thrown out, lawmakers could be back for another round of cartography.

Even before the ruling, dominoes were starting to fall because of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's decision to run for president, opening up his seat. The clamor for that race has led to openings for elected officials at all levels of government.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, announced his bid for the Senate last week, and state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, jumped into the race for Grayson's seat Thursday. That leaves Soto's seat open.

Brown's district could be redrawn to run east-west from Jacksonville to the Tallahassee area, possibly pushing newly elected U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, to run for Senate. Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly's Tampa-area district also is affected by the ruling, and he is considering a run for the Senate as well.

Other Republicans already in the race include Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and businessman Todd Wilcox. Grayson is vying against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and attorney Pam Keith for the Democratic nomination.

All the U.S. House members jumping into the U.S. Senate race leave their seats open, but those looking to fill their shoes have no idea what the districts will look like.

"The time for partisan posturing is pretty much done with now because a court order is a different thing than trying to spin something after you've done it," MacManus said.

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