Redistricting hearing focuses on dispute over South Florida districts

Mary Ellen Klas | Tampa Bay Times | 09/25/2015

TALLAHASSEE — The latest chapter in Florida's redistricting saga played out Thursday in a Leon County courtroom as two Miami congressional districts emerged as the heart of the differences over which of seven maps should be the one chosen by the court.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis must decide which map, or pieces of maps, he will recommend to the Florida Supreme Court by the Oct. 17 deadline.

The court invalidated the map drawn by the Legislature in 2012 because it violated the constitutional ban on protecting incumbents and political parties. After the Legislature reached a stalemate in a special session, the high court ordered Lewis to choose from proposals from the House, Senate and the group of voters who successfully challenged the original map.

The hearing is scheduled to end Monday as House and Senate lawyers defend their separate plans while lawyers for the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and a group of Democrat-leaning individuals argue that the judge should accept their changes to the House and Senate proposals.

Although Republicans have been united in their defense of their maps until now, the arguments before the court revealed a broadening divide between Republicans in the two chambers — and a harbinger of the fight ahead over the redrawing of the Senate map.

The House argues that its map, drawn by three Republican legislative staffers as a base for the discussion, is the purer one and devoid of partisan intent.

"The evidence is going to show not a shred of proof that political intent affected any of the base map," said George Meros, lawyer for the House. "When the House made improvements to the base map in the light of day all it did was add to the metrics of the map."

The Senate argues that the map was "a starting point" and was in need of improvements. It also raised questions about the base map cutting up Sarasota County without any direction from the Supreme Court and suggested that its proposal was the purer alternative.

The July ruling from the Florida Supreme Court so broadly attacked the process as having been infiltrated by political operatives that the Senate leadership admitted guilt, conceded that its map violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution, and ordered a three-week special session in October to redraw the Senate map.

On Friday, the Senate is expected to call as witnesses Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the primary architects of the chamber's two maps.

They all agree, however, that the plaintiffs embraced the bulk of the maps drawn by both the House and Senate with the exception of Districts 26 and 27 in Miami-Dade County, held by U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Most of the hearing Thursday focused on testimony by lead map-drawer for the House, Jason Poreda, who said he "had no idea" that he was moving black communities out of Curbelo's district when he and his colleagues were attempting to equalize population in drawing the Legislature's base map.

Plaintiffs argue that the map was drawn in a way to help Curbelo win re-election by moving three African-American communities — West Perrine, Palmetto Estates and Richmond Heights — from Curbelo's District 26 and into Ros-Lehtinen's District 27, because she was a stronger incumbent.

Poreda, staff director of the House Select Committee on Redistricting, testified the change was made to follow the boundary of Florida's Turnpike and pick up population in order to abide by the Supreme Court ruling to keep the city of Homestead whole.

But under cross-examination Poreda conceded that while there are many options for redrawing that district to comply with the court requirement, he was not obligated to pick the best way, just the most compliant one.

Poreda testified that on the final attempt to redraw the congressional redistricting map, the work was done by three members of the House and Senate staff in a locked suite that had been re-keyed and where "no one else had a key to the room, not even the janitorial staff."

After the court ruled that lawmakers allowed political operatives to infiltrate the process in 2011-12 and invalidated the subsequent map, the court ruled that the Legislature now has the burden to prove that it drew a map without favoring or disfavoring incumbents or political parties. 

Poreda said staff drew the maps only checking for the population of those districts and not taking into consideration party registration or the number of black voters. He acknowledged the conversations were not recorded, even though the court had encouraged lawmakers to "record all public meetings."

Poreda also agreed with plaintiffs attorney Tom Zehnder that "many of those decisions made in private, closed discussions" had made it into the final map.

Then, in an unusual move, Lewis turned to Poreda and asked his advice on the plaintiff's alternative maps, particularly their configurations for Districts 26 and 27.

Poreda replied that he thinks District 26 was "so heavily Democratic that a Republican candidate would not be able to win." 

According to the data submitted with the court, the Hispanic voting age population for District 26, held by Curbelo, in the plaintiff's map known as CP1 is 68 percent, while in the House and Senate maps it is 70 percent. 

Lewis later explained: "I'm curious. These are people that draw maps. ... If you say the Legislature is drawing maps, then you all get to challenge it. Here, I've got your maps as well, and the Senate map, and I need to say to the Supreme Court which one is best."

David King, lead attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, said after the hearing that Poreda and his colleagues are map drawers "who work for the Republican majority."

"They also happen to be involved in drafting the maps that were held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. They've got their point of view," he said. "I don't think they are entitled to any more credibility than anybody else just because they are map drawers."

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