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Early agreements on Florida redistricting favor incumbents

TALLAHASSEE — Legislators have reached their first deal in the once-a-decade redistricting battle: Senators will draw Senate maps and House members will draw House maps.

It sounds like an obvious agreement — each chamber knows its own territory better than the other — but, in practice, it means that House and Senate leaders both have a better chance of making incumbents happy.

The first proposal for Senate boundaries is a good example. It's modeled after a redistricting map submitted by the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, packs Democrats into districts to strengthen neighboring Republicans seats and gives incumbents on both sides of the aisle a good shot at re-election, a Times/Herald analysis shows.

From the Panhandle to Miami, there have been few complaints from Senate Democrats or Republicans about the proposed map.

The only trouble spots are a handful of districts that could provoke a court challenge because they might not comply with requirements of the new Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution.

The Senate redistricting committee will discuss the map today, while the House plans to take up the NAACP plan in a workshop Thursday.

Sen. Don Gaetz, the Senate redistricting chairman and incoming president of the Senate, "has piloted the ship very, very well,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican whose district is shifted from southern Pinellas County northward under the Senate plan.

Both Gaetz and Latvala defended the Senate map as being in keeping with an agreement made by Republicans and Democrats last month to give top priority to the creation of minority seats.

The Senate reviewed the maps submitted by the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and then drew maps based on that plan's minority districts.

But the Democratic Party and proponents of the constitutional amendments that impose new redistricting standards say the maps protect incumbents, favor the party in power and permanently disadvantage minority voters who may not be in the protected minority seats — the opposite, they say, of what the amendments intended.

"These districts are packed,'' said Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "They've created enclaves of a disproportionate number of Democrats surrounded by largely Republican, or much more bleached, districts on either side."

For example, the Senate map includes only one district — out of 40 total districts — with more than 50 percent Republicans and the NAACP map includes only two.

But there are eight districts with more than 50 percent Democrats on each map. Neither map has districts with fewer than about 26 percent registered Democrats, but some have as few as 11 percent registered Republicans in districts packed with Democrats.

One packed Democrat district, No. 33 in Miami, would be 69 percent Democratic.

The Senate map also mirrors much of the NAACP's proposal for dealing with minority districts.

The NAACP's map was submitted Nov. 3 by Timothy Stallman, a demographer with the North Carolina-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

In an email to Senate staff two days later, NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze asked that Stallman's name be removed from the map and the name of the NAACP be substituted instead. Repeated efforts to reach Nweze were unsuccessful.

According to the NAACP and Senate maps, six of the eight districts that pack Democrats are so-called minority-majority seats.

Both maps also have eight districts with between 40 and 49 percent Democrats.

The Senate map has 21 districts that are between 30 and 39 percent Democrat, while the NAACP map has 22 districts with that percentage of Democrats.

But Gaetz defends the maps as necessary to adhere to the federal Voting Rights Act, which require that minority voting strength be protected.

Smith says the Senate map "permanently gerrymanders" minorities and disenfranchises those who are not in the selected seats.

"This is going to court,'' Smith predicted.

Here are some of the hot spots:

• Republican Sen. Joe Negron's Stuart-based district would stretch along the coast east of Interstate 95, slicing through Martin and St. Lucie counties, while a Polk County-based seat, District 17, would reach over to pick up the western edges of those counties.

• Polk County and the city of Lakeland are chopped apart to include a winding district that includes the home territory of former state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is hoping to replace Sen. Mike Bennett, a clear disadvantage to Galvano's expected opponent, former state Sen. Pat Neal. The map consumes the current district held by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and pushes him into a district being vacated by Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

• Most of Altman's former district would become the new District 24, which would wind from southern Orange County through Osceola and Polk counties and include a 50.5 percent Hispanic population. It is being eyed by state Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat.

• To make room for a proposed District 24, proposed District 19 must divide the city of Orlando to take in the home territory of Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

• In Jacksonville, the map appears to boost the candidacy of former state Rep. Aaron Bean, who is seeking to replace Republican Sen. Steve Wise in the Senate.

• State Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, would be the beneficiary of the new District 17.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

Early agreements on Florida redistricting favor incumbents 12/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2011 10:31pm]

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