On Monday, I was invited to join a panel discussion hosted by a civic group in Poinciana called Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, It was a forum with local journalists.
One of the subjects that had been listed as a topic for discussion was redistricting. As it turned out, the forum ran out of time and the subject never got raised.
That’s too bad, because it’s a fascinating issues, and one I have a lot of opinions on. So, minus the opportunity to discuss it at the Poinciana Public Library on Monday during the forum, I’ve decided to write about it now.
Redistricting, quite simply, is one of the great political activities of our time, and has been since the founding of our nation. We have 435 congressional districts in this country, including 25 in Florida, and every ten years the lines of those districts need to be altered to reflect population shifts. Districts that lose residents need to expand and take in new people, while districts with too many residents need to shrink.
As has been the case for the past century, Florida will gain congressional districts because the state grew at a faster pace than most others. It’s estimated that the Sunshine State will gain two new districts, bringing the state’s total to 27.
A year ago at this time, the outcome of the annual redistricting process seemed fairly predictable. Republicans holds the governor’s office and control of the state Legislature, which actually redraws the lines. Redistricting is about as a political a process as it gets. The proper term is “gerrymandering” – or designing districts that are likely to elect one party or another. Prior to the 1980s, when Florida was still a Democratic state in the days when it was part of the solid Democratic South, Democrats controlled the Legislature and made sure a majority of the state’s districts went to their party. Republicans got control of the governor’s office and the legislature by 1998, and did the same in the 2002 round of redistricting.
But everything got a lot more complicated last November. First, Floridians approved a ballot referendum to require lawmakers to create districts that unit communities of common, shared interests – in other words, the top priority can’t be to gain partisan advantage.
Second, 2010 was a very strong Republican year. Before election day, Democrats held 10 of the state’s congressional districts, and Republicans, 15 – not a bad divide in a state that had voted very narrowly for Republican George W. Bush for president in 2004 and then Democrat Barrack Obama in 2008.
But last November, Republicans had a phenomenal year and picked up four congressional districts: the 2nd District in Tallahassee, where Republican Steve Southerland beat veteran Democrat Allen Boyd; the 8th District here in Orlando, where Republican Daniel Webster defeated first term congressman Alan Grayson; the 22nd District in South Florida where Republican Allen West beat Democratic incumbent Ron Klein; and the 24th District on the Space Coast and Orlando suburbs, where Republican Sandy Adams bested freshman Democrat Suzanne Kosmas.
Quite frankly, the GOP doesn’t have very many solid targets left in 2012. Of the six congressional districts still held by Democrats, three are minority-majority districts that elect black congressmen: Corrine Brown in the 3rd District, Frederic Wilson in the 17th District, and Alcee Hastings in the 23rd District.
This is a central part of the reason why Republicans have so many districts in a state that’s closely divided in presidential elections. The districts that elect Democrats have huge Democratic majorities, upwards of 70 percent of the voters. On the other hand, the Republican districts often have a much narrower GOP majority. The idea is that if 54 percent of the registered voters in that district are Republican, they can be counted on to elect a GOP congressman.
It worked for most of the past decade, but not always. In the 8th District, which includes parts of Orange, Osceola, Lake and Marion counties, a slim GOP majority was put together in a district designed to elect a Republican congressman, Rick Keller. He won until 2008, when Obama carried the district and Grayson defeated him. The defeat of two incumbents in a row as the state’s economy continues to flounder doesn’t bode well for Webster’s re-election.
Likewise, in the 22nd District in South Florida, residents voted for Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 for president, always with 52 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, GOP legislators had designed the district in 2002 to elect a popular, long term moderate Republican, Clay Shaw, the former mayor of Fort Lauderdale. For a while, it worked …. until he was finally defeated in 2006 by Klein, a state legislator. West’s victory surprised a lot of political observers, who think his hopes for re-election depend entirely on redistricting.
It’s also clear that 2010 was a year when Republican voters, angry about the state of the economy under President Obama, turned out in force, independents also solidly backed the GOP, and Democrat turnout was badly depressed. No one knows what the economy will be like by November 2012, or which party will be most highly motivated to get to the polls. Everything seems up in the air.
That’s where redistricting comes in. Normally, the GOP-controlled Legislature in Florida could be counted on to craft districts that protect as many of the Republican incumbents as possible, while doing the Democrats no favors. But again, that ballot referendum complicates things.
Which is where Poinciana comes in.
Poinciana is divided between two counties, Osceola and Polk. The community is also divided between two congressional districts: the 12th District, represented by Republican Dennis Ross, and the 15th District, represented by Republican Bill Posey. Uniting communities of interest? It should be noted that Ross lives in Lakeland, about an hour from Poinciana, and Posey lives on the Space Coast in the town of Rockledge – ditto as far as distance goes.
Some residents of Poinciana worry that their community won’t get as much attention because it makes up such a small part of those two districts. The population base is somewhere else – and those larger communities, they fear, will get the real attention from their lawmakers. Poinciana has good reason to be concerned about that.
So if Florida lawmakers can’t design partisan district and are required to unite communities of interest, what will they ultimately do? My guess: pass a plan that is completely partisan, and then hope the courts accept it. Because it’s likely that whatever lawmakers come up will is going to get challenged in the courts.
For one thing, the idea of uniting communities of interest could eliminate Brown’s district, which starts in Jacksonville and ends in Orlando. Since those two cities are about three hours away from one another, what do they have in common? Not much, except the district was designed to have a black majority and cobbles together heavily black urban voting precincts from those two cities. Returning those black precincts to the 8th Congressional District would almost certainly wipe out Webster’s job – and probably Brown’s as well, an interesting trade off.
But Brown would likely challenge that move, arguing that it violates the Civil Rights Act by making it difficult, it not impossible, for a black candidate to win.
Considering that Obama carried several white majority districts in Florida, that argument may no longer hold up.
So what happens to communities like Poinciana that no longer want to be political pawns in the redistricting process, and want more political influence by uniting into one district? I doubt state lawmakers will pay much attention to their concerns, so the next question is, what will the courts think?
Talk about unpredictable.
Stay tuned. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.
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