Lawmakers to try again on Congressional redistricting

Brandon Larrabee[ck_comma] News Service of Florida | News 4 JAX | 08/10/2015

Perhaps, as a critic of the Legislature's first two drafts of congressional districts has said, the third time will be the charm

Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday to once again draw a map for each of Florida's 27 congressional seats. It is a drama being watched in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., as shifting lines just a few miles in one direction or another could decide the futures of several members of the state's U.S. House delegation.

One of those, Congresswoman Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, is outraged by the court-ordered reorientation of her district. Currently, Brown represents a district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando. Under the Supreme Court's decision and the base map, the seat would instead represent an area that runs from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west.

On Thursday, Brown went to federal court to try to block legislators from reconfiguring the district that way.

"It's about drawing districts that put communities of interest together. Period," she said during a press conference in Orlando. "Jacksonville, Florida has nothing in common with North Florida."

The session follows a July 9 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that the state's existing congressional map violates one of the two anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" amendments approved by voters in 2010. Lawmakers drew the initial lines during the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2012, then tweaked them last year after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said Republican political operatives had managed to improperly influence the process.

But the Supreme Court — which has a relatively liberal majority and has generally but not always ruled against the GOP-controlled Legislature in redistricting cases — said Lewis' ruling didn't go far enough and that at least eight of the districts should be redrawn.

The rulings led lawmakers to agree to also redraw the state Senate map — another special session for that purpose is scheduled in October — and has also led some Republicans to question the justices' decision.

"Most respectfully, I believe the Supreme Court has gone far beyond what they should in requiring that these lines be drawn to the satisfaction of Democratic political operatives," said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who headed the Senate's redistricting committee in 2012.

Already, some dominoes have started to fall. Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly has announced he will run for the U.S. Senate, perhaps realizing that his Pinellas County congressional seat would likely become far more difficult to win.

Under a plan drawn by legislative staffers to serve as a "base map" for the upcoming session, President Barack Obama won what would become Jolly's district by almost 11 points. The proposed district also went for former Gov. Charlie Crist in his unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the governor's mansion in 2014; Crist, a Democrat, has said he will run for the seat if it includes his home, as it does under the base map.

Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham and Republican Congressman Daniel Webster also could lose if they run in their districts after the lines are reconfigured. Graham's Northwest Florida swing seat would become heavily Republican, while Webster's Central Florida district would become friendly to Democrats.

In all, most analysts have suggested that Democrats would likely net one seat under the new maps, shifting the balance of the state's delegation from 17-10 to 16-11. But the map also creates just 14 districts that were carried by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, to 13 that favored Obama, though one of those districts went for the president by 0.04 percentage points.

Even where partisan advantages aren't shifting, members of Congress could have decisions to make. Under the base map, Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch and Democratic Congresswoman Lois Frankel would be drawn into the same seat. The Palm Beach County lawmakers issued a joint statement Friday pledging not to run against one another —- while also making clear they will seek to return to Washington.

"We both believe in the concept of Fair Districts and that congressional districts should be drawn to serve the people, not for the pleasure of elected officials. ... We both fully intend to run for re-election and we look forward to serving in Congress together as long as our constituents give us this honor," the two said.

Those who sued to get the map overturned have also complained about the proposed districts being drawn by staff members in near seclusion.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause said keeping map-drawing sessions private "undermines the Legislature's assurances of an open and transparent remedial process" and could violate the Supreme Court's call for the redistricting process to take place in public. The court majority found fault with key lawmakers making some past decisions about redistricting plans outside of the public eye.

But legislative leaders said they have tried to protect the staff members' work from political interference, and Gaetz brushed off a question about the issue.

"No matter who drew it, no matter where they drew it, and no matter what happened to the doors — whether they're opened, closed or taken off the hinges — some people will not be satisfied until they win in the courts what they can't win at the ballot box," he said.

The base map could go through largely unchanged, in part because of the requirements facing lawmakers who want to alter it.

In a memo to House members, Speaker Steve Crisafulli said representatives offering amendments would have to reveal who was involved in drawing the maps, the criteria they used and any data they looked at that is not in the House's own redistricting software.

"The member should also be able to provide a non-partisan and incumbent-neutral justification for the proposed configuration of each district, to explain in detail the results of any functional analysis performed to ensure that the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice is not diminished, and to explain how the proposal satisfies all of the constitutional and statutory criteria applicable to a congressional redistricting plan," wrote Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Ultimately, the new map will return to the Supreme Court for justices to decide whether it meets the requirements of Fair Districts. But Gaetz had a simple prediction when asked what he thought would come out of the redistricting session.

"More lawsuits," he said.

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