Editorial: New congressional map for new politics

Editorial Board | Sun Sentinel | 09/23/2015

Partisan gridlock frustrates and angers many Americans. Today, Florida has a chance to start changing that.

What could be a three-day hearing begins before Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis. At issue is the map of Florida's 27 congressional districts. In July, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature drew the new map in violation of state constitutional amendments that prohibit drawing districts to benefit a party or an incumbent.

Lewis will hear arguments for seven replacement maps. He can send one to the high court as his choice, or he can send several with thoughts on each. One of the seven comes closest to what the voters intended when they passed the Fair Districts amendments in 2010.

The best choice is the first of three maps from the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the coalition plaintiffs whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court ruling. CP-1, the map's shorthand label, aligns most closely to what the justices recommended to fix the eight most problematic districts.

Two of those districts are 21 and 22, which today overlap Broward and Palm Beach counties in vertical fashion. In the coalition's proposal, District 21, which Democrat Ted Deutch represents, would be contained entirely within Palm Beach County.

District 22, which Democrat Lois Frankel represents, would be 85 percent within Broward. Boca Raton and Highland Beach would remain from Palm Beach County

Only one proposed map, from a separate group of plaintiffs, would keep Districts 21 and 22 mostly as they are. Civic and political leaders in both counties have argued for the status quo, but we continue to disagree. True geographic boundaries matter more than keeping together coastal cities from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach.

Broward especially needs political unity these days, not a political divide between east and west.

Indeed, the point of the 2010 amendments was to create districts designed for voters, not politicians. The safer the district, the less an incumbent must appeal to a broad range of voters. The extremes of today, thus, can block compromise.

In Congress, the best example is immigration. Two years ago, the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill that had broad public support, including a proposed path to citizenship. But the bill didn't even get a vote in the House, where it would have passed, with a minority of Republicans. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wasn't willing to challenge the Tea Party Caucus, many of whose members are in those safe districts.

In 2012, Republicans promised Floridians "the most transparent" redistricting process in state history. Instead, as the lawsuit revealed, GOP legislative leaders hired consultants — for as much as $10,000 per month — to secretly create Republican-friendly maps. Many emails and documents were deleted and destroyed in an attempt to cover up the deception. Enough evidence remained, however, for Judge Lewis to find that the consultants "made a mockery of the Legislature's proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting."

But the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Lewis' proposed remedy was insufficient. Now the Florida House and Senate will argue before Judge Lewis for their newly drawn maps, but he should reject them.

The House map most resembles what legislative staffers drew after the court ruling. But David King, who represents the coalition plaintiffs, correctly points out that the House "allowed itself a bit of a partisan frolic" in one South Florida district.

That would be District 26 in southern Miami-Dade County. Republican Carlos Curbelo represents it. The amendments require the Legislature to keep cities and counties intact when possible. The invalidated map split the city of Homestead — to make Curbelo's district more GOP-friendly.

Testimony revealed the Legislature split the city after Republican consultants called an early version of District 26 "pretty weak," meaning that a Democrat might be able to win. So African-American voters, who tend to vote Democratic, were moved into District 27, where they would not threaten incumbent Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. CP-1 would move those voters back where they belong.

Another reason to reject the House and Senate maps is that neither passed the full Legislature. Indeed, the two chambers failed to agree on a map despite a two-week special session. Rather, each sent the court the map that it approved.

A second Senate map comes from the chairman of the Reapportionment Committee.

Staff members drafted it after the second session ended in failure. The map never had a committee hearing. As for the map from the non-coalition plaintiffs, it was drawn in consultation with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans argue that the Florida Supreme Court violated the separation of powers by striking down their map. So did two justices in the minority.

But as Justice Barbara Pariente noted in writing for the majority, with the voter-approved amendments came court oversight.

The Legislature invited this challenge by failing to comply with the amendments.

A map drawn for the voters can be Florida's contribution toward making Washington work better for the nation.

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