ORLANDO – Last year, Florida residents approved a ballot referendum to require that before the Legislature redesigns the state’s congressional districts, they need to follow a new standard: uniting communities of interest.
What that means is state lawmakers can’t create districts in the traditional way: to boost the chances of one party having a clear advantage. Instead, partisan goals are to be put aside in favor of uniting communities that have shared regional interests. The measure passed with 62 percent of the vote.
And if anything thinks Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature will follow those guidelines, they’re dreaming, says Dick Batchelor, a former Democratic state lawmaker and political consultant who has worked on the redistricting process himself in past years. He expects Florida’s Republicans to do everything they can to ensure their incumbents get re-elected – regardless of that ballot measure.
“Reapportionment is going to be obviously very big,” Batchelor said. “What is more important than a legislator designing a district to protect incumbency?”
Florida now has 25 congressional districts, although the state is expected to pick up two more next year, based on the Sunshine State’s solid growth rate over the past decade.
Republicans control most of those districts, and normally, the Legislature could be expected to redraw the lines to protect their incumbents. But the ballot measure designed to take politics out of the equation complicates that mission, Batchelor said.
“The people said ‘We don’t want you to do reapportionment the way you usually do it, to protect incumbency,’ ” he said. “But the Legislature set aside $30 million to challenge it. It’s really an insult to the taxpayers that they’re doing it this way.”
What it means is that whatever new map the Legislature comes up with, it could end up in court.
If that happens, said Republican political consultant Tico Perez, the GOP might win by default. If the new congressional district lines are not known to the public until close to the filing deadline, that means challengers will be reluctant to jump into the race because they have no idea what district they’ll be running in, or what the lines will be.
“The longer this takes, the longer it takes to decide whether to run,” Perez said. “You can’t get together a race in one month.”
He noted as an example Florida’s 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of the city of Orlando, and precincts in Orange, Osceola, Lake and Marion counties. It was designed in 2002 to be a Republican district, and did in fact re-elect Republican Congressman Ric Keller for four terms. But Keller lost in 2008 to Democrat Alan Grayson, as Barack Obama carried the district in the presidential race.
But last year, the Republican wave swept Grayson out, and he lost to former state Sen. Daniel Webster.
Grayson is running again, and so is former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, a Democrat. But it’s not clear what district these three candidates will run in, since it’s possible that lawmakers will create an entirely new district in the Orlando area with no incumbent, while giving Webster a solidly Republican neighboring district.
“You have a good candidate like Val Demings who doesn’t know if she’ll be running in a brand new district or the existing one,” Perez said. “If Republicans are drawing the lines, Republicans are going to benefit.”
Batchelor agreed, noting “The party in power obviously has the influence to draw the district lines, and you don’t want the maps out now if you’re the party in power. You want the maps out at the last possible minute.”
He predicted lawmakers would wait until the filing deadline was coming up, release the new map, and hope the courts stay out of the process. If not, they have millions set aside to fight for the new lines.
“I’m so offended by the Legislature that they’re spending $30 million on this,” he said.
Another issue complicating redistricting: minority representation. Florida now has three congressional districts that have African-American majorities, and elect black congressmen who are Democrats, and three Hispanic-majority districts represented by Cuban-American Republicans. It’s not clear if the new mandate for creating communities of shared districts will conflict with the goal of creating districts designed to elect minorities to Congress, as mandated by the federal Voting Rights Act.
Perez noted that Democrat Corrine Brown represents a black-majority district, the 3rd Congressional District, which unites minority communities in Jacksonville and downtown Orlando – cities that are hours away from one another and don’t have any shared interests. Would the new requirements mean removing the Orlando precincts from the district that Brown, a resident of Jacksonville, now represents?
“This is an ugly process,” Perez said. “There is no easy way to do this. Corrine Brown said she is going to challenge this. She can’t get re-elected if her district doesn’t run from Orlando to Jacksonville.”
He said Republicans in the Legislature understand this, and know that if they can keep Democratic-voting blacks together in a single district, it makes it easier to elect Republicans in neighboring districts that have few if any black Democrats.
That’s why lawmakers will say a lot about wanting to make the process more democratic – even if that’s far from being their main goal, Perez said.
“There will be pageantry, there will be processes,” he said. “Don’t be fooled.”
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