Florida Senate rejects plan to alter Miami-Dade congressional districts

Tampa Bay Times Staff | Tampa Bay Times | 08/19/2015

Florida Senator Dwight Bullard’s attempt to redraw a pair of congressional districts in Miami-Dade did not get far on Wednesday.

Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, tried to change a proposed redistricting map that would shift 35,000 black voters from the 26th Congressional, represented by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, into the 27th District, which is not represented by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

Bullard specifically proposed shifting Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates, and West Perrine back into the 26th District.

The Senate voted down the amendment, which would keep those communities contained in the Ros-Lehtinen district.

Bullard’s amendment comes days after a coalition of voting groups sent a warning shot to Florida lawmakers, claiming that their proposal for revising Miami-Dade’s most competitive congressional district appears to have been designed to boost the chances of Curbelo, who is being challenged for re-election by Democrat Annette Taddeo in 2016.

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.

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.

Legislative map drawers have said they shifted the communities after being told by the Florida Supreme Court to not split Homestead, which was fully included into Curbelo’s district. Because of that, the area’s Bullard highlighted were shifted into Ros-Lehtinen’s district.

House Democrats call for independent redistricting commission

The day after House members from both parties expressed disdain over redistricting before passing new congressional maps, Democrats redoubled their call to take the process out of the Legislature’s hands entirely.

Speaking Wednesday morning, leaders in the minority party said the current system used to divvy up population among congressional and state legislative representatives is “rotten to the core” and “needs to be blown up.”

“Today, it’s crooked as a bucket of snakes,” Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. “There are way too many blind spots in the process.”

The solution? Democrats say it’s an independent redistricting commission. Experts say these have worked well in other states, as the Times/Herald has previously reported.

They anticipate two bills in the upcoming legislative session to create an independent commission. One, by Dania Beach Rep. Evan Jenne, hasn't been heard in the special redistricting session that ends this Friday in Tallahassee.

Jenne’s proposal (HB 21) calls for one person each appointed by the Senate president, House speaker, Senate minority leader, House minority leader and five from the governor, including a Republican, a Democrat and three third-party or NPA voters. The commissioners would have to be outside the normal realm of politics in that no elected official could be part of the redistricting process. Still, the Legislature would have final approval of any district maps.

“It’s become painfully obvious to everyone in this building that the folks one floor above us cannot do this,” he said Wednesday, referring to House and Senate leadership.

Dudley plans to file an alternative option, currently being drafted by House staff, which would go even farther to separate redistricting from the Legislature.

It’s very similar to California’s independent redistricting commission, which observers in that state say has led to more competitive and less gerrymandered districts since it was implemented before the 2010 redistricting.

Sixty possible members would be chosen by the state auditor, and majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate would have veto power over names. Then, the auditor would choose four Republicans, four Democrats and three unaffiliated or third-party commissioners.

Among Republican House leadership, there isn’t much support for an independent commission. Redistricting Chairman and likely future Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said on the House floor Monday that while he wants to see reforms happen, he doesn’t support a redistricting commission. The Legislature is in the best position to serve the people, he said.

“What stands above all of this is this institution and its ability to do the work of the people,” Oliva said.

That makes the Democrats’ chances of passing a redistricting commission in the legislature near-zero. So they’ve started thinking about other avenues, including pushing for a constitutional amendment on the ballot in an upcoming election.

They say voters would likely support them, as they did in passing the Fair District Amendments in 2010, which force lawmakers to keep their own partisan or political goals out of the process and led to the Supreme Court throwing out the congressional maps and mandating the current special session.

“There really seemed to be a lot of concern over the redistricting process,” House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said. “It’s a clear indication that what we’re trying to do as a legislative body isn’t what the people wanted.”

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