Redistricting hearings revive disputes over how to divide Panhandle
On the homeground of the state Senate’s redistricting chairman, Christian radio portends the Second Coming, politicians refer to the “Yellow River Code” of being true to your word, and the age-old tension between city and countryside dominates talk of redrawing political lines.
As Florida lawmakers convened their second redistricting hearing a few miles from the Alabama line Tuesday, they listened to a steady stream of contradictory pleas.
There was Brett Ward of the local Florida Farm Bureau, which represents Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, who urged maintaining the line that now divides three western counties along Interstate 10 in order to keep the coastal communities on one side and the inland farm communities on the other.
“If the districts are put together we will lose our voice,” Ward said. “Let us keep the district where the rural area is represented.
Then Ellen Roston of Pensacola complained that by “effectively splitting the counties between the north and south’’ her county “loses fair representation.”
Others told the committee they pray that special interests do not drive the agenda, while others asked lawmakers to pray for wisdom.
And Vivian Faircloth of Pensacola was among the Escambia County residents who noted that while the county has a population that is 22 percent black, it has no African-American legislators.
The debate is one of many lawmakers will hear as they reset the state’s political boundaries to accommodate 10 years of population growth while giving each district equal population.
Because the Panhandle counties remain less populated than those in central and southern Florida, creating a single district out of Escambia County will mean that adjoining districts comprising the smaller counties between Pensacola and Tallahassee will have to be “gynormous,’’ said Jerry Evans, vice chair of the Escambia Republicans.
Robert Rolo of Santa Rosa County, a member of the local Tea Party, reminded legislators that his party was born out of discontent with the status quo.
He said he was disappointed that the committee held hearings without bringing proposed maps and warned them that if they hold hearings after the maps are drawn they better not hold them in Tallahassee.
“The pecking order of who gets heard in Tallahassee is not what it is in Pensacola,’’ he said. Lobbyists get the first say in Tallahassee, he added, while the public “is put at the end.”
Legislators faced much the same questions they had heard the day before in Tallahassee: Why didn’t they have maps, and why was their timeline so suspiciously slow?
Senate Redistricting chairman, Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it appeared that “some people may have had scripts prepared for them,” and asked co-chairman Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to answer their questions.
Weatherford said lawmakers started their listening tour before they began drawing maps because “allowing the citizens of Florida to start the conversation first about what you think, before we start drawing the first line, is of the utmost importance.”
And he suggested that if the legislators had shown up with maps, they would have heard complaints that they had made up their minds without hearing first from voters.
Weatherford also denied that the request by leadership to ask lawmakers to refrain from speaking during the hearings was a gag order. “We have not asked members not to speak. Simply, we have reminded them that this is a listening tour."
By the end of the day on Tuesday, the panel moved to Fort Walton Beach where three military bases dissect the county and a massive air field and bomb testing ground cuts no-mans-land through the center. There, the crowd of retirees was more hospitable with several offering specific suggestions for drawing maps.
"Always the general public brings more information to the table than a bunch of analysts sitting behind their computers,'' said Rep. Stephen Precourt, vice chairman do the House redistricting committee. "This is the beginning of it. This is the data collection phase.''
Rep. John Patrick Julien, a freshman Democrat from North Miami Beach, said he is determined to go to every one of the 26 redistricting hearings and, after the first two, he has already learned something new.
“I started playing with some maps but I’m going to scrap what I’ve done and start over because this has been such an eye-opener,’’ he said. “While some people have a problem with us listening first and then drawing I’m beginning to feel it makes sense.”
The hearings continue today in Panama City.