POINCIANA – As Florida’s Legislature gets ready to deal with the contentious and controversial issue of redistricting, there are interest groups lining up to lobby for what they want out of the process.
And one of the strongest voices in the process has come from Latino organizations that believe Florida lawmakers have the ability – and should have the motivation – to create a district that reflects the rapid population growth in Central Florida, brought on in part by the large number of Latinos who have moved here.
Emilio Perez, an activist with LatinoJustice, a civil rights group based in New York, noted that Florida’s population grew by 55 percent in the past decade, and he said the Latino community helped fuel a huge part of that growth. Since Florida is expected to gain two new congressional districts to reflect the state’s increased population, and much of the growth occurred in Central Florida, it makes sense that a new district would be created in this region.
And the new Central Florida district, Perez said, should be designed so that a majority of the people living within it are Latino.
“Reward the community that made it happen,” he said.
If lawmakers agree, that could end up benefiting one of the communities in this region that not only grew solidly in the past decade, but also has one of Central Florida’s largest Hispanic populations – and, as it turns out, happens to be divided now between two congressional districts.
Keith Laytham, president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, noted that Poinciana is now divided between the state’s 12th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, and the 15th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge.
Ross’s district mainly covers parts of Polk and Hillsboro counties, and includes the Polk County precincts of Poinciana, while Posey – whose district is centered on the Space Coast – also represents a good chunk of Osceola County, including the villages in Poinciana located within this county.
Laytham believes the community should be united into a single congressional district, and as it turns out, so do the Latino activists who have proposed a new, Latino-majority district in Central Florida. As Laytham noted, it has the advantage of taking in all of Poinciana’s 10 villages and 84,000 residents under one roof.
“It crosses county lines and literally runs from Southern Poinciana north through Osceola County,” he said.
If Florida lawmakers decide to go down this path, Laytham said Poinciana would benefit by being united into one district, which should give local voters more clout. Right now, he said, the congressman from the 12th District is more likely to be looking after the interests of his constituents in the urban bases of Lakeland and Winter Haven, while the 15th District congressman is more likely to be paying attention to the needs of the Space Coast, than to what Poinciana’s voters want or need. The creation of a Latino-majority district that brings all of Poinciana together, he said, would help the community considerably.
“The community of Poinciana is young, and working class,” Laytham said. “There are two age demographics in Poinciana, young families and a significant number of retirees. Of that mix in the villages of Poinciana, you’ve got a pretty good percentage of the people that are Hispanic.”
Of the community’s 10 villages, Laytham said that in more than half – Villages 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8 – “Clearly, it’s a minority-majority group” between the large number of Latinos and African-Americans living there.
“About the only village with a majority of Caucasians is Solivita,” Laytham said of the retiree development on the Polk County side of Poinciana.
Whether the Legislature is likely to agree with the idea isn’t clear. The Florida Legislature is controlled by Republicans, who could be expected to draw lines for the state’s 25 existing congressional districts and two new ones that protect incumbents – the majority of whom are also Republicans – although GOP lawmakers have shown no aversion to creating minority-majority districts in the past. Dick Batchelor, a former Democratic state representative and now a political consultant, noted that Republicans created three African-American districts in Florida. Their reason was blatantly political, he said. By putting so many solidly Democratic voters in those three districts, it enabled the neighboring districts to lean in favor of Republican.
“The Republicans got together with blacks, and they packed Hispanics into districts in south Florida and blacks into districts in South Florida and Central Florida,” he said.
In addition to the three African-American districts, the GOP Legislature also created three Hispanic districts centered around Miami, which elect Cuban-American Republicans.
As long as so many reliably Dmeocratic voters in black communities are put into a small number of districts, electing Democrats to neighboring districts becomes a major challenge for the party, Batchlor said.
“It becomes very difficult,” he said.
Laytham said for Poinciana, the goal wouldn’t be partisan or one based on ethnicity, but simply to have a stronger political voice. But he knows that politics will dictate what happens to the district lines, not the needs of a single community.
“It is the hottest issue right now in Tallahassee,” he said of redistricting. “This is a big, big deal. There are special interest groups that are trying to protect their interests in this.”
The issue is more complicated this year, because in November 2010 Florida voters passed a referendum that requires lawmakers to set aside partisan concerns when redrawing the congressional lines, as mandated every decade to reflect population shifts. Voters approved a measure calling on lawmakers to instead work to unite communities that have shared interests.
Bachetlor said the Legislature’s Republican majority has set aside $30 million to challenge their right to control redistricting in a partisan way, and Laytham said he’s already spoken to state lawmakers who tell him it’s likely the courts will decide the issue, regardless of what the Legislature does.
“I’ve talked to representatives, and ultimately they’re saying it’s going to go to the courts,” he said. “Nobody has got a crystal ball on this.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.