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Florida House maps draw near to spirit of Fair District amendments

TALLAHASSEE — If a goal of the proponents of the Fair Districts amendments was to make legislative seats more competitive and diverse, the House redistricting maps released this week may inch closer to that ideal.

The House staff created five different maps for redistricting the House of Representatives, each designed to keep county and city boundaries together. In each of the maps, based on voter registration figures, 49 districts are solidly Republican, 33 are solidly Democratic and at least 21 districts could be considered swing districts.

But voter registration doesn't always determine who gets elected and, based on results of the 2008 and 2010 elections, there may be only 15 reliably swing seats, according to a Times/Herald analysis.

Nevertheless, that's a big shift from the current House, where 81 Republicans hold a super-majority over 39 Democrats.

Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, chairman of the House Subcommittee on House Reapportionment, dismissed the calculations as part of lawmakers' "duty" to follow the new law.

The Fair District amendments approved by voters in 2010 prohibit the lawmakers from protecting incumbents or parties and require them to draw compact districts when possible.

In an attempt to adhere to the new standards, the five maps create more attractive boundaries than Florida has seen in its legislative maps of the past and create 34 seats with no incumbent.

"You take an oath to protect and preserve the Constitution of the state and we've done that,'' Dorworth said. "That means that many of us are not going to live in the seats we had before and just because you feel like you should it doesn't mean that you can."

But the House's well-intentioned design has also created some serious heartburn for incumbent legislators of both parties.

According to the Times/Herald analysis, at least 24 incumbents are pitted against each other in the maps, including a three-way race in Miami that has three black lawmakers, all freshmen Democrats, in a potential face-off.

"This is like a baseball game and we're in the middle of the second inning,'' said Rep. Mack Bernard, a West Palm Beach Democrat. "We're a long way from the ninth inning. We'll get there by the end of session."

None of these political numbers was included, however, in the data-heavy packets released by the House redistricting committee.

The Times/Herald culled them from the House's website and the voter registration files that include home addresses of lawmakers.

Legislators in St. Petersburg, Broward and Miami were hardest hit by the new proposals. Because population in those regions has been stagnant or declined over the past decade, their political boundaries must expand.

In the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, Republican Reps. James Grant and Shawn Harrison would be merged into the new District 63. Republican Reps. Larry Ahern and Jim Frishe would be pitted against Democrat Rick Kriseman.

Staff director Alex Kelly told members of the House redistricting committee on Thursday that they drew the maps with no knowledge of the political repercussions, except to consider whether the minority districts would effectively perform to elect a minority candidate.

Preserving the voting strength of minority candidates was the primary goal of the redistricting, he said.

Each of the House maps creates two new minority districts: a Hispanic-majority district in the Orange County area of Kissimmee and another in Palm Beach County's city of Palm Springs. Four of the maps create a new district intended to elect a black representative near the Orange County city of Eatonville.

But the maps also follow the pattern established in 1992 of creating meandering districts through black neighborhoods that also pack the districts with Democrats and blacks, thereby bleaching the surrounding communities.

For example, each of the House maps includes black majority seats with Democrat registration of between 63 percent and 77 percent. Some Democrats argue, however, that those high numbers are not needed to elect a minority to office and point to a handful of existing districts, such as Rep. Dwayne Taylor's Daytona Beach seat, that have elected a black with just over 50 percent majority Democrat registration.

The House will take its first vote on the maps when legislators convene in an early special session on Jan. 10.

Florida House maps draw near to spirit of Fair District amendments 12/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 8, 2011 10:43pm]
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