Redistricting karma in Florida for Democrat Brown, Republican Webster?

John Kennedy | The Palm Beach Post | 08/16/2015

When veteran U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Daniel Webster, an Orlando Republican, came to the state Capitol last week and blasted the latest proposed congressional boundaries, they were really talking about a political wave poised to sweep across Florida.

The partisan balance of the state’s 27 congressional seats – where Republicans currently hold a 17-10 advantage – isn’t likely to change much in the 2016 elections, using the new map. Some see Democrats picking up one seat.

But the future of some individual lawmakers, along with a host of political assumptions about Florida, could be in for big changes.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the 2010 constitutional amendments designed to reduce the role of politics and personality in redistricting are taking hold in the Legislature’s third try at drawing congressional district lines that meet court approval.

“As interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, Amendments 5 and 6 are a game-changer,” Lee said. “The manner in which these districts were drawn historically is no longer acceptable.”

Webster is endangered – a victim of what might be seen as political karma.

Twenty-three years ago, he guided outnumbered Republican legislators into an alliance with black lawmakers that led to court-drawn district lines resulting in Brown, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, and the late U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami, becoming the first black Floridians elected to Congress since Reconstruction.

Helped by court rulings that pushed for more minority representation, Webster also benefitted in 1996 when redrawn legislative districts cleared the way for him to become the first Republican House speaker in Florida in 122 years.

Webster was elected to Congress in 2010. But last week, he predicted that his political days are numbered – with the Legislature’s proposed congressional map converting his Republican-leaning Orlando seat into one where Democratic-voting black and Hispanic voters form close to a majority.

“It makes it uncompetitive for any one in my party, including me,” Webster told House and Senate redistricting panels.

Webster’s District 10 is sharply altered in the latest map, gaining more than 280,000 minority voters from Brown’s District 5, which is being reconfigured from a Jacksonville-to-Orlando shape into the one stretching far west from her home city.

Brown has already gone to federal court seeking to stop the redrawing. And last week she vowed to file a Voting Rights Act lawsuit claiming the new, still-minority-heavy District 5 violates laws designed to protect black voters.

Brown and Webster are the most outspoken critics of the Republican-led Legislature’s third attempt at congressional map-making – after its first two tries were thrown out by courts. But they are not alone.

Officials and civic activists from Palm Beach and Broward counties are demanding that lawmakers drop plans for reshaping Frankel’s and Deutch’s districts, although Frankel and Deutch themselves released a statement saying they would not object to the change.

The map being positioned for final House and Senate votes changes the shapes of their districts, which now run, side-by-side, from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, with Frankel representing the coastal region and Deutch the interior.

Instead, Deutch’s District 21 would be solely contained in Palm Beach County and Frankel would take in a large swatch of Broward, along with Boca Raton and Highland Beach.

Following the Florida Supreme Court’s order, the map also eliminates Hendry County from Hastings’ District 20, while retaining the district’s majority of black voters in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Changing the vertical orientation of two districts that have ranged across Broward and Palm Beach counties since redistricting in 1992 has alarmed many.

State Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, unsuccessfully proposed a map Thursday that would’ve left Frankel and Deutch alone. Testifying in support were Palm Beach County Commissioner Steve Abrams, Broward County Mayor Tim Ryan, Palm Beach County Economic Council President Daniel Martell, and Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio and Town Council President Richard Kleid.

While some lawmakers said they were sympathetic, there seemed to be no interest in altering a map that supporters say makes the two districts more compact – a goal the Supreme Court sought in its ruling last month that rejected the map drawn last summer by lawmakers.

Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said political reshuffling in Florida will be a certain outcome of redistricting.

But it may be time for a change, he added. The state’s legal landscape and demographics have changed significantly in recent years.

“These districts don’t belong to the incumbents or a certain group of people that support them,” Levitt said. “They belong to the voters. Things change and sometimes the politicians have to, too.”

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