TAMPA — The Republican courtship of Hispanic voters may be making its way to the local government level, at least in Hillsborough County.
County commissioners voted 6-0 Wednesday to take the first step toward allowing voters to consider whether to create a voting district that would make it easier to elect a Hispanic person to the board. Commissioners have rejected that very idea twice in the past two years, generally along partisan lines, with Republicans voting against it.
"I know that my party has not always been supportive of the Hispanic community," said Norma Rena, a Republican member of the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, which is backing the measure. "All of a sudden they realize they have made a mistake. We're here, we're voting and they're going to miss the boat.
"Maybe the timing was right," said Democratic Commissioner Les Miller, who put forward the proposal but was surprised it passed let alone won unanimous support. Republican Al Higginbotham was out of the meeting room during the vote.
Commissioners effectively agreed to hold workshops and at least one public hearing on reconfiguring the makeup of their board. If the proposal continues to win support, it would land on the ballot in November 2014 and take effect in 2016.
Miller's plan would reduce from three to two the number of commissioners who are elected to countywide seats on the seven-member board. That at-large seat would be converted to a fifth district commission spot.
The at-large seat is now held by Democrat Kevin Beckner, who will have to leave office in 2016 anyway due to term limits.
Miller said the proposal would bring county government closer to the people by ensuring each district commissioner represents fewer constituents, making elected leaders more responsive to their needs. He said it would also bring Hillsborough in line with the state's other counties with more than 1 million people, as well as the school district.
By doing so, the board also would create a seat with a sufficient concentration of Hispanic voters to enable a better chance of electing one of their own. Few Hispanics have served on the County Commission despite being the fastest growing ethnic group by far, currently making up 25 percent of the population.
The result, says Miller, is a form of "taxation without representation.
"You know, we have a vast, diverse population in this county," he said. "I think we need to have that representation here."
The current configuration of the commission was put in place in 1983. The census from three years earlier put the Hispanic population at about 64,000 people. That number rose to more than 306,000 in the 2010 census.
At the same time, each district commissioner currently represents about 307,000 people. Under Miller's plan, that number would fall to about 245,000.
Commissioners noted that prior discussions about creating a so-called Hispanic opportunity district have gotten caught up in redistricting, with partisan operatives crafting the maps and pressuring board members to support lines that favor Republicans or Democrats. Miller himself opposed a Hispanic opportunity district in 2011 when it became clear he would lose key constituents in his district, drawn to favor African-American candidates.
"There are one or two issues where everyone seems to want to jump in and get involved," Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe, saying that redistricting is one of them.
Removing this discussion from the redistricting process that takes place every 10 years after the census may tamp down on some of the partisanship, said Republican Victor Crist. Asked later if Republicans' newfound interest in courting Hispanic voters helped passage of the Hispanic district concept Wednesday, Crist said, "I hope so.
"Political parties should be about inclusion, not exclusion," he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.