Special session on congressional lines starts today

Jeff Burlew | Tallahassee Democrat | 08/10/2015

Lawmakers kick off their special session today — their second of the year — to redraw congressional maps found by the Florida Supreme Court to have been gerrymandered in favor of the GOP.

The House and Senate will convene at 3 p.m. largely for house-keeping purposes. They’re expected to adopt procedures for the special session, including amendment deadlines.

The real debate on the Legislature’s redistricting plan, including a starting-point base map released last week, won’t begin until Tuesday, when House and Senate reapportionment committees meet to get a briefing on the Supreme Court ruling and a presentation on the base map. Members of the public, who have already submitted their own maps for consideration, also will get a chance to weigh in Tuesday.

That’s when the chorus will begin — from some Leon County officials and residents, anyway — to keep the county entirely in one congressional district. The base map, drafted by Legislature staff and lawyers, includes a proposal to split Leon County into two districts, newly configured versions of the 2nd and 5th.

It’s a controversial proposition because splitting the county could hurt Tallahassee’s ability to pick its own representative in Congress. The 2nd District could be controlled by Bay County to the west, and the 5th District by Duval County to the east.

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and one of seven members of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment, said he will push hard to keep Leon County within a single district.

“That makes sense in every respect,” he said. “I’m confident that if given the opportunity, Leon County and the surrounding counties will elect someone that will represent us very well in Congress. So my job is to make sure that my colleagues on the committee and in the Senate see the logic in my argument.”

Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said proposals to amend the base map will come forward if the concerns of Leon County residents aren’t met in the new map.

“I believe the interests of Leon County can be served by one member of Congress and not two,” he said. “We don’t find ourselves in the position of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach County or Duval County, where there is a need for multiple members of Congress representing those larger counties.”

The idea of keeping Leon County whole also has support from local Republicans, including party officials and County Commissioner Bryan Desloge.

“It kind of neuters Leon County’s effectiveness and our ability to get anything done,” he said of the split. “It’s a Band-Aid — you’re fixing what you think is the problem, but I think you’re probably creating more problems down the road.”

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that eight of Florida’s 27 districts must be redrawn because they violate the Fair Districts constitutional amendment forbidding partisan gerrymandering. In a 5-2 decision, justices found that lawmakers manipulated 2012 congressional district lines to favor GOP incumbents and candidates.

The Supreme Court specifically directed the Legislature to redraw the 5th District, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando to take in African-American voters, from a north-south configuration to an east-west one. The 5th District included in the base map runs from Jacksonville through Leon County into Gadsden. The proposed new 2nd District runs from Bay County through Leon County into Marion County.

Hal Lewis, a Tallahassee attorney, said Leon County will be rendered “essentially powerless” under the proposed new boundaries for Districts 2 and 5.

“The way the districts have been proposed, Leon County could be controlled 50 percent by all of the voters in Bay County in the west and 50 percent controlled by all the voters from here to Jacksonville to the east,” he said. “And when you look at the map of every other district, these two proposed districts stand out as the only two that stretch for 250 miles in either direction.”

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said keeping Leon County wholly in one district would give its voters “significant voice” in Washington.

“We would be as strong as any other part of the district,” he said. “So that would mean that we would be competitive. And that’s really all that you can ask for — having competitive elections.”

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