Stakes are high for new Senate lines

Zac Anderson | Herald Tribune | 10/18/2015

The partisan balance of the Florida Senate could shift, political careers may be dashed and precedent will be set for future redistricting efforts as the Legislature kicks off a two-week special session today to redraw the Senate district lines.

Lawmakers are being forced to overhaul the Senate map after admitting in court that they violated a pair of constitutional amendments approved by Florida voters and drew the boundaries to benefit the GOP.

While a new map is not expected to dramatically alter the balance of power in a chamber that has 14 Democrats and 26 Republicans, even a slight shift could change the outcome on a host of issues.

And the new districts could realign state politics in other ways, from determining who leads the Senate to deciding the fate of individual lawmakers and influencing how Florida approaches redistricting for decades to come.

“I think it’s going to have some significant impacts short term and then longer term,” said New College of Florida political science professor Frank Alcock.

In Southwest Florida, the new Senate lines could force candidates out of the race for the seat being vacated by Sen. Nancy Detert by removing their homes from Detert’s district. There are three GOP candidates vying to replace Detert. Of the six draft maps released by the Legislature last week, three shift one or more of the candidates’ homes out of the district.

But much remains uncertain heading into the special session. Lawmakers likely will make their own revisions to the draft maps created by legislative staff.

Just agreeing on a final product could be difficult. A similar effort earlier this year to redraw congressional district lines ended in a stalemate between the House and the Senate. Each chamber submitted its own map to a judge, who ultimately selected a different map drawn by an outside group challenging the current Senate districts in court.

There is no indication that the relationships between Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who have been locked in a bitter power struggle over Medicaid expansion, the state budget and other issues for months, have improved.

Republicans in the Senate also are battling each other over who will lead the chamber after next year. The new district lines could help decide the leadership fight, creating a tense atmosphere.

“You have a leadership battle in the Senate coupled with a bad relationship between the Senate and the House coupled with some lasting bad feelings from the last redistricting session with which makes for a bad outcome,” said Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa-based Republican political consultant.

Yet lawmakers have no choice but to try to reach agreement. Their three-year legal battle to preserve the current Senate district lines ended in the summer in spectacular fashion with a highly unusual admission that they violated state law.

The Florida Supreme Court threw out the state’s congressional map in July after a coalition of groups — including the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida — presented evidence that Republican political operatives were deeply involved in the redistricting process.

The evidence of partisan tampering was even stronger in the Senate case, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs, and GOP leaders in the chamber decided to admit guilt rather than continue defending the current map.

The constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010 state that political districts must be compact, attempt to follow existing city and county boundaries and not favor political parties or incumbents.

Keith Fitzgerald, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Sarasota, said it will be “fascinating” to see if GOP lawmakers can produce a map that passes constitutional muster.

“The courts have certainly signaled they’re not going to give the Legislature any latitude,” Fitzgerald said. “The Legislature pushed the boundaries at every step of the way and the Supreme Court slapped them down at every step.”

Many political observers believe a constitutionally valid map will give Democrats at least one more seat and make others more competitive, although three of the six base maps released by the Legislature last week keep the current partisan balance in the Senate, with 23 seats that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney would have won in 2012 and 17 that President Obama would have won, according to an analysis posted online by Democratic data consultant Matthew Isbell.

Three of the maps increase the number of seats that Obama would have won in 2012.

Republicans are expected to retain a solid majority in the Senate when a new map is finally approved, but even a slight shift in favor of Democrats could change the political dynamic on certain issues.

Efforts to privatize prisons and allow parents to turn struggling public schools into charter schools failed in the Senate in recent years, but only by one or two votes.

Similar legislation might be less likely to advance to the floor at all if Democrats become more powerful.

“You might see the Democrats and the moderate Republicans really serving as more of a check on the right wing in the Senate,” Fitzgerald said.

Tallahassee insiders also will be closely watching to see how the new districts impact the leadership battle between Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The two have very different personalities and policy priorities — Latvala is considered more of a moderate — so the outcome of the contest could have a significant effect on state policy.

Negron appears to have an advantage in the contest, but Latvala could pick up pledges if the new district lines favor candidates aligned with him.

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson supports Latvala’s bid for the Senate presidency, while the other two Republicans seeking Detert’s seat — Sarasota state Rep. Greg Steube and former Sarasota state Rep. Doug Holder — are aligned with Negron.

The shadow contest for Senate president will add more intrigue to an exceptionally tumultuous election cycle. Shifting the boundaries could trigger elections in all 40 Senate seats, instead of the 20 that are up during a typical cycle.

“When you put all the dice back in the cup and shake it it’s going to create chaos,” said Steven Vancore, a long-time Democratic political consultant based in Tallahassee. “Everybody’s vying for voters’ attention. It’s just going to create more political noise than we’ve ever seen in the state of Florida by a long measure.”

Once the election turmoil fades, one long-term question will be the fate of Florida’s redistricting process itself. If lawmakers can’t agree on a Senate map it could amplify the growing chorus of political observers calling for an independent redistricting commission.

“It will add some fuel to the fire,” Alcock said.

The story so far

■ In 2010, Florida voters approved the "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments, which require political districts to be compact and not favor political parties or incumbents.

■ In 2012, during the redistricting process, the Florida Legislature crafted new boundaries for Florida’s congressional delegation as well as the 160 seats in the state Legislature.

■ In July, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the state’s congressional map after a coalition of groups presented evidence that Republican political operatives were involved in drawing the new boundaries.

Evidence of partisan tampering was so strong in the Senate redistricting case, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs, that after a three-year legal battle, GOP leaders admitted guilt rather than defend the current map.

Today: The Legislature begins a two-week special session to redraw the Senate district lines.


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