Drumbeat begins to keep Leon County whole

Jeff Burlew | Tallahassee Democrat | 07/30/2015

A move to keep Leon County whole in congressional redistricting got some bipartisan support on Wednesday.

Jon Ausman, the longest-serving Democratic National Committee member in Florida history, and Evan Power, chairman of the Leon County Republican Party, both endorsed the idea during a news conference at the Florida Press Center.

“When Leon County is (wholly) in a congressional district, it gets 42 percent of the vote in both the Democratic primary and the general election,” Ausman said. “And the more percentage of the vote that you have, the greater chance we have of electing a member of Congress most friendly to us.”

The Florida Supreme Court earlier this month found unconstitutional the Republican-led Legislature’s 2012 congressional redistricting plan because it was drawn with the intent of helping GOP candidates and incumbents. The justices in a 5-2 decision found the Legislature took part in gerrymandering in violation of the Fair Districts Amendment, which Florida voters approved in 2010.

As part of its decision, the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to redraw congressional lines for eight of 27 districts. And it specifically ordered an east-west configuration for the 5th District, which currently runs north-south, from Jacksonville to Orlando. Lawmakers will convene in special session starting Aug. 10 to redraw the maps.

The new configuration for the 5th District is expected to run from Jacksonville through Tallahassee, and one map proposed by plaintiffs who challenged the Legislature’s redistricting would divide Leon County into two districts. Right now, Leon County is located entirely within District 2.

Ausman, working with Democratic political consultant Matthew Isbell, proposed a map for a new District 5 that would run from Duval County to the east into Liberty County to the west. The map would meet black voting-age-population requirements of the Supreme Court, they said, and give the western part of the district — namely Leon County — a good chance of electing a local person to Congress.

Ausman and Power said keeping Leon County as a single jurisdiction would meet requirements of the Fair Districts Amendment, which calls for congressional districts to be drawn, when feasible, using existing political and geographical boundaries. Power, however, said he prefers keeping Leon County in a panhandle district rather than sharing District 5 with parts of Jacksonville.

“We feel the communities of interest between Duval County and Leon County aren’t quite the same as Leon County and some of the Panhandle counties,” Power said.

Last year, Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, unseated Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, becoming the first Tallahasseean in more than a half-century to win in the district. Splitting Leon County into two districts could hurt Graham’s chances of winning re-election in District 2, which could pick up more conservative voters once redrawn.

But Isbell, owner of MCI Maps and Data Consulting, said the map he and Ausman proposed wasn’t designed to help any specific candidate “because at the end of the day, there’s going to be a lot of shake-up here and anybody’s going to have to fight for this district.”

Ausman, who plans to submit the map to lawmakers by today, said the Legislature might go for a district that would pit Graham against the District 5 incumbent, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.

“This particular district has the unfortunate possibility of putting Gwen Graham and Corrine Brown in the same district,” he said. “So Republicans might be happy with a good mud-pie fight between two members of Congress.”

County Commissioner Nick Maddox said he’s hopeful lawmakers will keep Leon County in one district because the county “is a very unique place and has a lot of diversity here. And if you split us up, you take away the potential for us to be fully represented as a county.”

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