Court order to redraw St. Pete's 13th District gives Democrats a chance

STEVEN GIRARDI | St. Petersburg Tribune | 07/19/2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Supreme Court’s order to redraw the 13th Congressional District has energized Pinellas County Democrats, who see their best chance at capturing that seat since Republican Bill Young won it in 1970.

The final district map is months away, but the expected infusion of a significant number of registered Democrats already is having an effect.

A number of Democrats are taking a look at the U.S. House of Representatives seat, and incumbent Republican David Jolly, who replaced Young after his death in 2013, has scheduled an announcement for this week regarding his intentions to run for the U.S. Senate in the November 2016 election.

The assumption is that a large chunk of St. Petersburg, from downtown to its southern tip, will be shifted to the 13th District. The area now is part of the 14th District that stretches into Tampa and is represented by Democrat Kathy Castor.

In its order July 9, the court told the Legislature to redraw eight congressional districts, noting specifically that the 14th District may not cross Tampa Bay — presumably leaving it for the 13th District. The court said the St. Petersburg area added more Democratic voters to the 14th, which already is a Democratic district, while ensuring that the 13th remained safely Republican.

Democrats make up more than 60 percent of the 67,000 voters in the St. Petersburg portion of the 14th District.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley, a St. Petersburg Democrat whose District 68 includes downtown St. Petersburg, said he is ready to jump in.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s the opportunity to do more, to serve on a larger stage. There’s no shortage of work to be done.”

Dudley said moving the 14th District area to the 13th District makes sense.

“What it does is it allows people with the greatest interest in that place the best representation,” he said. “All these areas have unique features.”

He said the court’s ruling did not surprise him and was necessary to correct the political gerrymandering.

“I was saying my prayers and hoping that would happen,” he said. “It’s crooked, it’s wrong, it’s undemocratic.”

In addition to Dudley, Eric Lynn, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, already has filed to run in the 13th District, and former Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern has said she plans to run, too.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who lives in the district, and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who lives in downtown St. Petersburg, also have been mentioned as potential candidates.

St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Darden Rice considered running, then changed her mind — but that was before the court-ordered redistricting, and she did not rule it out completely.

“It clearly makes it a seat where a Democrat would be favored,” said St. Petersburg Councilman Karl Nurse, also a Democrat. “So I think that means a half-dozen office holders are taking a look at it — not including me.”

However, Nurse said he might be interested in the county commission if Welch were to run for Congress.

Nurse, like several others, said Crist would be the biggest factor and likely could take the seat if he chooses to run.

The 14th District’s St. Petersburg area is a mix of upscale, downtown waterfront condominiums; quiet, tree-lined streets with 1940s-era homes; some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods just south of downtown; and the diverse Skyway Marina district and neighborhoods at the southeastern tip of the county.

Redrawing the district wouldn’t change much in those areas, said Jeff Cope­land, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a south St. Petersburg activist.

“We have Kathy Castor already,” he said. “The only people affected are the Republicans. Of course, they lose in the deal.”

But the switch would be a significant shift in the rest of the 13th District, which Republicans have controlled for 42 years under Young and for the past year and a half with Jolly.

Dudley said issues such as the Affordable Care Act, voting rights and even the redistricting process itself would be prominent.

“The most important thing we have to do is we have to change the process of allowing legislators to pick voters. We need to allow voters to pick legislators,” he said. “Legislators are the wrong people to redistrict.”

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the district lines drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature were gerrymandered to increase the chances for Republican candidates and are unconstitutional. The districts have undergone a series of legal challenges since they were adopted by the Legislature in 2012. Another lawsuit challenging the state Senate district maps is ongoing.

Still, political analyst Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida professor, said the new district wouldn’t guarantee a Democrat wins, no matter what the voter registration numbers are.

“Certainly, you have a better opportunity. But there are other Republicans who have done well there — Rick Baker,” he said, referring to the past mayor of St. Petersburg, who also has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the seat.

He said that historically Pinellas and Florida voters often have voted outside of their own party. For instance, since 1988, what is now the 13th District (it previously was the 6th, 8th and 10th District) has supported a Republican president only once, in 2004, despite having more registered Republicans.

In practical terms, Paulson said no candidate would have the clout Young had during four decades in office, including many years on the House Appropriations Committee. He secured billions of dollars for roads, defense industry contracts, high-tech jobs, beach restoration and other projects for Pinellas and for the state.

“It would be unwise to assume anyone, whether Republican or Democrat, would be as successful,” Paulson said.

Rather, the more competitive the district becomes, the more inclined candidates will be to find a safer and more politically central position.

“Young never faced any serious competition. He was pretty free to do what he wanted to do or what he thought was in the best interest of his constituents,” Paulson said.

Paulson, meanwhile, criticized the court’s ruling, which he said undermines the original goal in the 1990s ordered by the Justice Department, to draw districts where blacks and Hispanics could get elected.

“The rationale being that blacks held their last congressional seat in 1880. Clearly there was discrimination at play,” he said.

Paulson said the 5th Congressional District, represented by Corrine Brown, which snakes from Jacksonville to Gainesville and to Orlando, was drawn intentionally to make it possible for a black candidate to win. Paulson said the court’s order to redraw the district to extend west from Jacksonville toward Tallahassee would make it nearly impossible for a black candidate to win and was rejected by a federal judge in 1992 for that reason.

“Now they’re saying it was racial gerrymandering and unconstitutional,” he said.

“That, to me, is beyond rationality.”

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