Politics doomed Senate redistricting efforts

Gray Rohrer | Orlando Sentinel | 11/06/2015

TALLAHASSEE — In Florida's latest redistricting failure, the unstoppable force of politics smashed into the state's immovable constitution.

The problem was this: Senators of both parties couldn't prevent politics from seeping into the mapmaking process, something Florida's anti-gerrymandering rules prohibit.

"As hard as everybody tries to be objective, there's a certain subjectivity to it. What does Emerson say? A fish can't describe water because they're submerged in it," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who led Senate redistricting efforts.

As a result, the Legislature for the second time since the summer failed to redraw political boundaries. The Senate maps and those for the congressional districts now must be settled in the courts.

The courts are now likely to draw the maps themselves or accept one drawn by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the voters' rights groups that brought the lawsuit against the original redistricting plans.

The inability of lawmakers to redraw the districts has led Democrats to push for an independent redistricting commission. Republicans have chafed at that suggestion but also say the Fair District constitutional amendments that voters adopted in 2010 make redistricting nearly impossible.

"The amendments have brought chaos upon this process," said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Not everyone agrees, however.

"I certainly don't blame the constitutional amendments," said Carol Weissert, a Florida State University political-science professor and director of the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "Maybe it just takes a little while to get used to them."

The amendments require the Legislature to draw new districts that as much as possible are compact and follow geographic and municipal boundaries. They also cannot help or harm incumbents, political parties or minority groups.

The Florida Supreme Court threw out 27 congressional districts in July, ruling GOP leaders had deliberately gerrymandered them to favor their party.

After that, Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner took steps to insulate the Senate mapmaking process from politics. Three staffers were given the assignment of drawing draft maps, consulting only with legislative attorneys.

Lawmakers at first tried to stick to the resulting maps drawn by the staffers, but they soon noted the "imperfections" of the lines in their own backyards.

They groused about Sarasota, Pasco and Alachua counties being split into two districts, about minority districts in Jacksonville and Orlando being diluted or eliminated completely and about cities with common interests in Palm Beach and Broward counties being kept apart.

"Today is a sad day for the people of Florida," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who objected to Lake County being split into two different districts.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who is in charge of leading Senate Democrats' campaign efforts in 2016, said there was no way to keep political knowledge outside of the process.

"I'm not going to sit up and lie like everybody else and say I don't know where people live," Braynon said. "I know where people are. I've been to people's kids' birthday parties."

All during the session, a fight between Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, over who would take over as Senate president after next year's elections loomed in the background.

Latvala grumbled that the lines were being drawn in such a way to favor Negron's bid for power. Ultimately, though, they settled their spat with Negron claiming the presidency and Latvala slated to become the Senate's powerful budget chairman.

As Galvano tried in vain to get his Senate colleagues to vote for the map, he reminded them their local concerns wouldn't necessarily be viewed favorably by the courts.

"We were told to get out of the world where subjectivity matters," Galvano said.

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