TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators were greeted with both hostility and distrust Monday as they opened the first of 26 redistricting hearings in the state's capital, a company town where Republicans control government but Democratic voters are a majority.
From the "recovering civics teacher" who called the $30 million the Legislature set aside to defend its redistricting maps the "no-lawyer-left-behind act," to the resident who said he wouldn't be satisfied until every district mirrored the state voting registration numbers — 41 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican and 24 percent no party affiliation — the Republican-dominated committees were on the defensive.
A common theme was the decision by lawmakers to conduct the public hearings before they propose maps for the once-every-10-years redrawing of districts. The move drew allegations that legislators are intentionally dragging their feet, despite warnings that new constitutional standards approved by voters in 2010 will lead to an inevitable legal fight.
"It really looks like an incumbent-protection plan here, because you're delaying and prolonging the process to the last possible date,'' said Marty Monroe, a retired Leon County civics teacher. "This creates chaos for candidates and very little time for the education of campaigns. It is very highly unlikely that Floridians, the voters, will know their new districts before (candidate) qualifying.''
Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz of Niceville and his House counterpart, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, say the joint committee of House and Senate members is determined to listen first and write maps later as they embark on a summer-long series of hearings. They noted that the state Constitution prohibits a vote on the final maps until 2012 and said they have accelerated the process as much as possible.
"There certainly is no gag order, but we are here to listen first and, if there's time afterwards, (committee members) can speak,'' Weatherford said. "Politicians spend lots of time talking and very little time listening and we're going to change that."
Legislators took the punches from many of the nearly 60 speakers and, for the most part, stayed true to their self-imposed rule of refraining from speaking until public testimony was done.
They breached that rule once, however, when Linda Forster stood up to commend the lawmakers for their timeline but urged them to refrain from focusing on ethnicity and color in creating districts.
"I don't see your color here. I don't see your ethnicity. We're Americans,'' said the former teacher, who identified herself as a Republican. She said she "left Miami because it was chaos – because of Elian,'' referring to the 2000 federal custody battle of the Cuban boy who lost his mother at sea. "That is not America."
But Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, said he couldn't let the woman's comment go unchecked. "I represent Miami-Dade County and I am proud to represent the diversity that exists in my community,'' he said. "Unfortunately, you may have left, but I stayed there to fight and make sure we do things right."
Another common theme: Voters want their districts linked to the same communities where they live and work, and they want lawmakers to keep politics and personal ambition out of the debate.
Linda Williams noted how her congressman is U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville in Duval County — more than 120 miles away. Others complained that their state senator, Charlie Dean of Inverness, is more than 200 miles away.
"I don't know whether we're so important they need us in Duval or we're such bad people they don't want us,'' Williams said, then added a plea to the committees. "Before I die, let me vote in Leon County … Give us some local representation."
After the meeting, the committee chairmen promised to steer clear of the age-old practice of protecting incumbents when drawing maps.
Weatherford said he has told House members their previous districts exist no more. Gaetz said he has ordered senators: "Do not produce any map that shows where incumbents live. This can't be about individual political agendas."
Fort Walton Beach Tea Party chairman Henry Kelly chastised redistricting reform groups, such as the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and Common Cause for supporting the Fair Districts Now amendments but refusing to propose their own maps.
"I have found the software easy to use,'' said Kelly, who said he spent 15 minutes learning how to operate District Builder software from the House and Senate and created proposed maps for Congress and the state Senate. "It is my view that any group in the state of Florida, particularly those with paid staff, have no excuse not spending a few hours putting together a plan."
He admitted, however, that with 120 districts the process is much more tedious in the House.
The redistricting road show moves on Tuesday to Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.