Map of Miami congressional district is still a problem, voting groups warn

Mary Ellen Klas | Miami Herald | 08/14/2015

TALLAHASSEE - A coalition of voting groups sent a warning shot to Florida lawmakers Friday, claiming that their proposal for revising Miami-Dade’s most competitive congressional district appears to have been designed to boost the chances of freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

In a letter to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida suggested that shifting 35,000 black voters from Congressional District 26 into Congressional District 27, has a “partisan effect” that violates the anti-gerrymandering rules of the Florida Constitution.

The letter by League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman and Common Cause Chairman Peter Butzin didn’t name Curbelo but signaled out his District 26.

Curbelo’s re-election bid is being challenged by Democrat Annette Taddeo in 2016.

“This move obviously undermines both the letter and spirit of the Fair Districts Amendments, violates the prohibition of intentional partisanship and incumbent protection and constitutes a failure to follow the Florida Supreme Court’s holding,” Goodman and Butzin wrote. “We are confident you can find an alternative.”

The two groups successfully sued the Legislature claiming the congressional redistricting plan violated the Fair District amendments. The court ordered legislators back to the drawing board in July after it concluded that they had allowed partisan political operatives to “taint” the process by influencing the final maps in a way that was intended to strengthen Republican performance.

The court also ordered specific changes to eight districts, including a mandate not to split the city of Homestead. The proposal that emerged from the Legislature keeps Homestead intact in District 26 by shifting voters into District 27, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

But the voter groups claim that the change “shifts predominantly African American communities in Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates, and West Perrine into CD 27,” effectively “trading about 35,000 people” with a black voting age population of 52.3 percent from Homestead.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said he asked legislative staff to explain why they choose to shift black communities into the Democrat-leaning District 27 if it wasn’t an attempt to dilute their influence in electing a Democrat in District 26.

“Let’s just say, I didn’t get much of an answer,” he said Friday. “These communities not only vote Democrat, they vote at a high clip.”

When senators asked staff Thursday to explain how they handled the mandate to keep Homestead whole, Jay Ferrin, the director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, replied that when they moved Homestead into District 27, their options were limited.

“We were looking for widely recognizable geographical boundaries and to try to keep it as square — as tight as possible,” he said.

The letter came three days after the groups refrained from raising any concerns with the map when they were invited to speak at meetings of the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

“It would seem that their rationale echoes the view of a self-identified liberal Democrat consultant whose analysis was published by several media outlets more than a week ago,” said Gardiner spokeswoman Katie Betta. “The Senate Committee meets again on Monday, and would certainly welcome the attendance and testimony.”

Crisafulli said in a statement he considered the letter posturing because it “was mass distributed before it even reached my office.”

Matthew Isbell, the Democrat redistricting consultant to whom Betta referred, said he was surprised when he saw that of all the communities to shift from Curbelo’s district, they chose one that was one of the most strongly performing for Democrats in the region.

“It’s hard to prove exact partisan intent, but it looks awfully suspicious to me,” he said.

For the last several years District 26 has had one of the most turbulent election histories in the state.

Curbelo defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia by 3 percentage points in 2014 but Taddeo, who was then on the ballot as the running mate for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, was also popular. The Crist-Taddeo ticket won the district by 5 points over Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera.

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