Florida lawmakers resist tinkering with proposed congressional district lines

STEVE BOUSQUET AND MARY ELLEN KLAS | Miami Herald | 08/13/2015

State lawmakers delved into the trenches Thursday in a battle over how to redraw congressional district lines to comply with a Florida Supreme Court mandate, and it wasn’t pretty.

Amid accusations of racism and trampling voters’ rights, members fretted that any change to a proposed base map of new district lines would cause problems elsewhere.

By the end of the day, leaders in both the House and Senate said the only workable solution may be to toss out all proposed amendments and accept the staffers’ base map, which had been unveiled last week as a starting point.

“I’m not sure we will have support for anything but the base map,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who faces opposition to his plan for a major reconfiguration of Hillsborough County’s district lines.

Legislators already moved in that direction in the other chamber. A House panel voted 9-4 to accept the staffers’ base map, fending off challenges from a long-time member of Congress and leaders of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The Senate adjourned without a vote on its maps as members prepared proposals to reconfigure a controversial east-west district across the top of the state, as well as changes to districts in Tampa and Sarasota and vote on those changes by Monday.

In the fourth day of a two-week special session, the debate over the new lines touched on broader themes, from Jackie Robinson to Trayvon Martin to prison inmates. But the common theme was race, which is at the heart of Florida’s latest redistricting controversy.

A passionate U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, urged lawmakers to reject the court’s order to realign her district from its elongated north-south shape stretching to Orlando to a 200-mile-long east-west design that hugs the Georgia border across North Florida.

The court said the north-south design of Brown’s 5th District was a partisan Republican ploy to pack Brown’s district with more black voters than needed to elect the candidate of black voters’ choice, which would make it harder for Democratic candidates in nearby districts.

Brown said the pockets of black voters that make up her existing district need a single voice — regardless of the district’s shape.

“We have these areas in Florida that have not been taken care of,” Brown told senators. “That’s what the 1965 Voting Rights Act is all about — putting these communities together so they would have a voice.”

Brown, 68, has been in Congress since 1992, the year that a map drawn by federal judges sent her and two other Florida African-Americans to Congress for the first time since after the Civil War.

Brown said the east-west redesign of her district would silence the voices of voters in Sanford, where “Trayvon Martin was killed” and where a young Jackie Robinson faced overt racism as a minor league baseball player in the 1940s. She also said her new district would include 17,000 prison inmates, who count for population purposes but can’t vote.

After Brown’s 20-minute speech, the Senate Reapportionment Committee discussed various options to the base map, including the reconfiguration of Hillsborough County proposed by Lee, the senator from Brandon.

Hillsborough is now split among four districts, but has only one hometown member of Congress, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. The others live in Polk County, Pinellas County and the far-flung farming county of Okeechobee.

Lee said he has lost patience with Hillsborough’s being carved up to help balance out populations in districts in other parts of the state, but he voiced doubt that it’s possible to move the lines without antagonizing other senators and losing support.

Meanwhile, the House Select Committee on Redistricting stood pat, approving the base map with no changes.

“Given the current structures that we have and the time constraints, I believe we are working in the best interests of all parties,” said the chairman, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who said legislators should not defy the state’s highest court.

Five of the court’s seven justices found that lawmakers, including former House Speaker Dean Cannon, now a lobbyist, drew districts that relied on advice from partisan operatives, which violated the constitutional ban against having the intent to protect incumbents and parties.

But some lawmakers say the court went too far.

“I believe at my core that the Florida Supreme Court has grossly overstepped its boundaries,” House Republican Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, said before voting for the map. “The Florida Supreme Court is forcing us, the Legislature, to decide between potentially violating them, the Florida Constitution, or potentially violating the U.S. Constitution.”

One Republican voted against the map. Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, favored an alternative map that would keep all of Lake County in one district.

House members also rejected appeals by Broward County Mayor Tim Ryan and Palm Beach County Commissioner Steve Abrams.

Joined by two town of Palm Beach officials, they backed a proposal by Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, to restore the vertical shapes of Districts 21 and 22 to unite coastal areas of both counties, rather than the more horizontal east-west designs of those districts in the base map.

Whichever map the Legislature passes must be approved by the courts for the 2016 elections — and more lawsuits are likely.

As Brown left the Capitol, she told reporters: “I will see you in court. It’s as simple as that.”

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