Democrats could gain power in Florida as state faces redistricting

Jun 19, 2011

The following article was published in the Palm Beach Post on June 19, 2011:

Democrats could gain power in Florida as state faces redistricting

Florida Democrats puzzle and fume over the state’s political math, but they see this week’s opening round of redistricting public hearings as the start of something they’ve long awaited.

A comeback.

Despite holding a 600,000-voter edge statewide over Republicans, Democrats have been pushed to the political fringe in the legislature and state congressional delegation over the past 20 years.

Republicans hold veto-proof two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate, while commanding 19 of 25 congressional seats.

Even more is at stake next year, when Florida will add two congressional seats because of population gains reflected in the 2010 Census, which forces the once-a-decade redrawing of district boundaries.

Democrats are banking on a pair of constitutional amendments approved by voters in November to lead to the creation of district maps that would let them win additional seats in the legislature and congressional delegation.

How did Republicans acquire so much muscle in Florida? Gerrymandering, Democrats say, adding that the ability to draw boundaries favoring Republican candidates has amounted to a political steroid for the Florida GOP.

“You look at some of these district boundaries, and they’re just so blatantly bizarre,” said House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West. “They won’t last. They can’t last.”

Republicans dismiss such charges, instead crediting their success to more closely reflecting the thinking of state voters than Democrats do.

Redistricting will dominate next year’s legislature, which begins in January rather than the usual March start. The early session leaves more time to resolve expected legal challenges of the new boundaries before the 2012 candidate qualifying period in June.

The first of a scheduled 26-city round of hearings by legislative redistricting committees is planned today in Tallahassee. The road show’s only appearance in Palm Beach County is scheduled for 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 16 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

“Our goal is to follow the law,” said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee. “But first, we’re going to listen to the public.”

South Florida political lines are almost certain to shift dramatically next year.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties’ populations grew well below the statewide 18 percent spike of the past decade, suggesting they could lose seats to faster-growing counties north and west.

Although Palm Beach County’s 17 percent population rise is close to the state’s rate, far-reaching districts held by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican whose district includes Palm Beach County and four neighboring counties, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, who takes in eight counties, could change sharply.

Benacquisto, a Wellington Village Council member for eight years until her election to the Senate in the fall, has moved to Fort Myers, apparently in anticipation of her district shifting westward.

A fellow Fort Myers Republican, Rep. Trudi Williams, and one other Republican have filed as candidates in Benacquisto’s district.

Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, has filed to run in Rooney’s congressional district.

Such intraparty competition could prove more common if Republicans are forced to vie for a shrinking number of GOP-leaning districts.

“The kind of elected seats Republicans have now are just not sustainable, given Florida’s voter breakdown between Democrats and Republicans,” Saunders said.

U.S. Rep. Allen West’s district, divided between Broward and Palm Beach counties, has proved to be a battleground. That seat has been held by Republican Clay Shaw, Democrat Ron Klein, and now West since redistricting was last conducted in 2002.

But Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who was Florida Republican Party chairman during last year’s elections, said it’s way too early to forecast partisan outcomes.

“Republicans have won in Florida because voters want less taxes, smaller government, the fundamental principles Republican candidates run on,” Thrasher said. “It’s not because of district lines.”

Heading into public hearings that stretch until Sept. 1, even these carry their share of controversy.

Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, last week labeled the sessions a “charade,” since lawmakers have yet to draw up any proposed maps for citizens to review.

Macnab’s organization supported the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments approved in November .

Drawing most of their financial backing from Democratic-allied organizations during last fall’s campaign, the amendments are designed to minimize party politics when congressional and legislative districts are drawn.

Amendment 5 requires that state legislative districts be contiguous and compact, shaped largely by city, county and geographic boundaries. Amendment 6 would do the same for congressional districts.

Florida’s ruling Republicans fought the amendments, arguing that they were aimed more at giving Democrats grounds to sue over whatever maps are drawn by the GOP-­controlled legislature.

Critics said Democrats would rather take their chances with court-drawn legislative and congressional boundaries than any structured by the legislature.

“It’s hard to squeeze politics out of the redistricting process,” said Peverill Squire, an expert on legislatures at the University of Missouri. “But the new amendments clearly create a series of land mines that can be stepped on in the process.”

U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-­Miami, are suing to overturn Amendment 6, the new congressional standard, saying it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Brown, with U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-­Miramar, and former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-­Miami, were first elected in 1992, becoming the first blacks sent to Congress from Florida since shortly after the Civil War.

She represents a sprawling nine-county district from Jacksonville to Orlando with a 50 percent black voting-age population.

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has intervened in the Congress members’ challenge to Florida’s secretary of state, who oversees elections issues. Taxpayers are picking up the tab for both sides in the fight.

The legislature has spent more than $700,000 on redistricting legal fees, including the challenge to Amendment 6. The taxpayers’ cost of redistricting is likely to reach into the millions by next year.

But other numbers are driving redistricting.

Florida grew from almost 16 million people 10 years ago to 18.8 million in 2010. In addition to gaining two new seats, expected to be carved in Southwest and Central Florida, the state will see congressional district size grow from 639,000 people to 696,000.

State Senate seats will climb from 399,000 people to 470,000, and state House districts will grow from 133,000 people to 157,000 when redistricting is done.

Find this article here: