How Fair Districts may lead to a whiter Florida Senate
Supporters of the FairDistricts redistricting reform repeatedly stressed that drawing fairer, more compact and competitive districts would not necessarily mean less diverse representation. But the close of candidate qualifying last week left an awkward landscape for Florida Democratic leaders: The very real prospect that Democratic-leaning districts drawn with the expectation they would be represented by Aftican-Americans or Hispanics winding up represented instead by wealthy or well-funded white candidates, who in several cases could benefit from Democratic primaries crowded with several minority candidates.
"We're looking at at it and we're concerned," said state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, Chairwoman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. "We need a diverse senate that looks like Florida, and we need a diverse congressional delegation that looks like Florida."
In Tampa Bay, white trial lawyer and political newcomer Augie Ribeiro of St. Petersburg was a last minute entry in the Democratic primary to succeed state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.(UPDATE: Ribeiro is Portugese-American and lists himself as Hispanic on his voter registation form). That heavily African-American district includes parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas, and has three other black Democrats running - state Reps. Ed Narain of Tampa and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, and former state Rep. Betty Reed of Tampa.
In Miami-Dade's Senate District 40, well-connected Democratic fundraiser Andrew Korge, who is white, last week switched race to challenge Democratic state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is black.
In Palm Beach County, white trial lawyer William Steinger last month jumped into the Democratic primary for Senate District 30, a seat many Democrats had previously seen black state Rep. Bobby Powell of Riviera Beach as the favorite. Within three weeks, Steinger had raised more than $200,000 and written a check himself for $200,000 - promptly dwarfing Powell's campaign account by more than four-to-one.
"There does seem to be a trend where you have white candidates running in these minority access seats - and they tend to be wealthy and able to self-fund," said Thompson.
Thompson is running for congress in the a minority-access congressional district against a white candidate, former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, has vastly more money raised than three minority candidates running, Thompson, former Police Chief Val Demings, and attorney Fatima Rita Fahmy.
UPDATE: We heard back from Ellen Freidin, a leader in the FairDistricts campaign:
Florida’s FairDistricts Amendments provide greater protection for minority voters than any other state or the United States Constitution. The numbers of districts where minority voters have the ability to elect members of Congress and state senators of their choice was actually increased by the enactment of the new maps for 2016.
Whether non-minority candidates have filed to run in “minority” seats has nothing to do with the way the districts are drawn and everything to do with the poisonous dominance of money in politics.
This situation is not a consequence of FairDistricts. The FairDistricts Amendments were not intended to control who runs in what seat. What they did do was to successfully ensure that the make up of districts did not interfere with the ability of minority voters to elect minority candidates if they choose to. The fact that others have thrown their hats into these districts does not detract from the fact that more minority voters now have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice than ever before.