TALLAHASSEE — Slapped down by one court and facing years of partisan legal wrangling over the Legislature's redistricting plans, the Senate's top Republican quietly met with the head of the Florida Democratic Party last month to discuss a deal that could end the lawsuits.
It didn't work. Now, while both sides agree the meetings took place, each suggests the other is misrepresenting why the deal failed.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the Senate Redistricting Committee chair, told the Times/Herald Monday that he was approached repeatedly by former state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, who served as an intermediary for Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith.
Gaetz said he agreed to meet with Smith "because I will meet with anybody" but when Smith asked to meet him away from the Capitol, Gaetz said he refused.
"I told him I didn't have the authority to negotiate a deal,'' Gaetz said. "I felt it was inappropriate and I felt it was unethical."
Smith confirmed Monday that he met with Gaetz "two or three times" to find a way "to move the process forward more quickly, and get more finality."
The Florida Supreme Court had approved the House's redistricting map March 9, but rejected the Senate's map as "rife with indicators of improper intent."
Gov. Rick Scott called back legislators back into an extraordinary session March 15 to redraw the map. In the interim, Smith and Gaetz met.
Smith told the Times/Herald that if Gaetz thought the entreaties were unethical, "he didn't raise that point with me. If fact, quite the contrary, he said, 'let's keep talking.'"
Geller confirmed he gave Gaetz a map, drawn by the Florida Democratic Party, which he forwarded to Gaetz's private Google email account.
"He said, 'Can you send it to me? I said, 'Absolutely. Give me your email address," Geller recalled. Geller said he wrote it down wrong so Gaetz "called me back the following morning and said he didn't get it, so I re-sent it."
The map came with an offer: "He said he wanted to make a deal that could make Democratic opposition go away," Gaetz recalled.
Both Geller and Gaetz said the offer meant that Democrats would bring more House and Senate Democratic votes to support the Senate map; the Democratic Party would file a legal brief before the Florida Supreme Court supporting the plan; and Senate Democrats would agree not to challenge Gaetz's Senate presidency.
According to a Times/Herald analysis, a draft of the map sent to Gaetz would have created three more Democratic-leaning districts, including one in Smith's hometown of Alachua, bringing the total to 18. It would have pitted Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale against a potential Democrat in Palm Beach County and created a Democratic-based seat in Volusia and Alachua counties. It also would have created 22 Republican-dominated Senate districts. By contrast, the final map the Senate sent to the Florida Supreme Court includes 23 Republican-leaning seats, 15 Democratic-leaning seats and two swing districts.
Gaetz also suggested that while he did not know if Smith, a former state senator from Alachua, had plans to return to the Senate but if he did the Democrat's proposed map "would be a Rod Smith slam dunk."
Smith bristles at the suggestion by Gaetz and Republican political consultants who suggest that the Democrat's map was intended to benefit Smith.
"They asked me flat out if was a candidate for the Senate and I said no,'' he said. "I recruited a family friend to run for the seat with an understanding if the seat was cut more favorable he could be our candidate.'' The candidate, Brian Scarborough, has opened a campaign account and Smith said he's working to support him.
Geller said he believes Democrats ''did nothing wrong ... It was an attempt by Rod Smith to try to come up with a map that both the Florida Democratic Party and the Senate Republican leadership could live with – and hopefully avoid additional litigation."
Geller now questions the decision by Gaetz to talk about the deal. "They're trying to stir up dissension,'' he said. "They hope perhaps a Supreme Court justice might read this and give it some credence."
Gaetz strongly disagrees. He said that if Republicans accepted the map offered by Democrats, the Senate would have violated the constitutional prohibition against drawing a map that benefits a political party.
"The Supreme Court had already told us that result proves intent,'' he said. "…How could I enter into a deal that had political results and then stand in front of the court to say I had no political intent?"
Tampa Bay Times researcher Darla Cameron contributed to this report.