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Thursday, Dec 18, 2014
Politics

Identical redistricting maps moving through Legislature


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TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature is quickly moving through a rare summer special session called to redraw congressional districts a circuit judge last month ruled unconstitutional.

Panels in both chambers Friday passed identical redrawn maps. Those plans will be considered by the full House and Senate next week, with a possible conclusion to the session coming as early as Tuesday.

The Senate redistricting committee passed its bill on a unanimous vote, while House Democrats filed their own proposal and voted against the plan. Republicans, though, were able to use their majority on the panel to muscle out their map over Democrats’ objections.

During the House committee meeting, state Rep. Jose Rodriguez, D-Miami, made a motion to require those giving testimony to be sworn in, a move that was easily rejected by Republicans.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale was later asked by reporters if he was disappointed that his Senate colleagues weren’t putting up more of a fight.

After a pause, he grinned and said, “I love Senate Democrats.”

But Friday’s testimony also highlighted cracks in the coalition opposing the current map, with the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP at odds over a major change to one of the two offending congressional districts.

The state’s political districts were reconfigured by lawmakers in 2012 as a result of the 2010 census.

The special session was called by House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville after Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled two congressional districts were drawn to favor Republicans, which is at odds with Fair Districts, a set of amendments passed by voters in 2010.

Those provisions no longer allow map-drawers to favor a political party and require that, where possible, districts use factors such as geographic boundaries, like a river, for district borders.

Later on Friday, League President Deirdre Macab sent a letter to lawmakers, co-signed by Peter Butzin, who chairs Common Cause Florida, the nonpartisan good-government organization. The two said the proposed fixes “fail to address the constitutional defects.”

Much of the debate has surrounded the seat held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The seat snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando and was criticized by plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters, during the trial.

They argued that the GOP majority “packed” black voters in the seat to make surrounding seats more Republican-leaning. The League favors an east-west configuration of Brown’s now north-south oriented district, saying the change keeps counties whole and is more compact.

The district Lewis deemed unconstitutional had Brown’s seat at more than 50 percent black voting age population, a number that drops to 49 percent on the maps likely to become law. That decrease has been criticized by the NAACP, a group that intervened on behalf of the Legislature during a two-week redistricting trial.

“I know the frustration of black voters who are unable to elect candidates of their own choosing,” said Beverly Neal, the NAACP’s former state director.

It is one reason for “apathy in the African-American community in terms of voting,” said Neal, who testified in favor of keeping Brown’s district in place.

Across the Capitol, Dale Landry told the House committee that Brown’s district “offers black voters a fair opportunity to participate in the political process.”

But Landry, the Tallahassee-based vice president of the State Conference of NAACP Branches, said the east-west proposal for Brown’s seat “would diminish the ability of black voters to elect their candidates of choices.”

Landry explained that black voter turnout in the part of the state the district would absorb isn’t as strong or reliable as it is in the district’s current configuration.

Politically, the new seat remains heavily Democratic-leaning. President Barack Obama won the district with nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2012.

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