TALLAHASSEE — Florida's Republican-controlled state Senate won the support of most Democrats on Tuesday and passed two redistricting maps despite sharp criticism from opponents who accused them of protecting incumbents.
With seven Democrats joining 27 Republicans, the Senate approved its state Senate and congressional maps by a 34-6 vote. One Republican, Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, voted against the maps.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos called it one of the Senate's "finest hours" and joined in the chorus of kudos for incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who shepherded the map-drawing effort.
The maps are the product of the two new Fair Districts amendments that prohibit incumbency protection, preserve minority voting strength and require lawmakers to keep districts more compact. If passed by the House and validated by the Florida Supreme Court and the Justice Department, it will reshape the state's political lines for the next 10 years.
The Senate's maps make way for two new congressional districts — bringing the Florida delegation to 27 members. It paves the way for new Hispanic-based congressional and state Senate districts in Central Florida. And while a handful of Republican seats become more competitive, it preserves the state's GOP majority in Congress and the state Senate.
"This is truly a nonpartisan plan, blending the insights of both parties," Gaetz said.
The Senate maps drew sharp rebukes from a bitterly divided Democratic caucus. But Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston, Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale blasted the Senate maps for violating the intent of the redistricting standards.
Rich chided lawmakers for drawing districts that "are tremendously familiar" to the 2002 maps that voters rejected in 2010 when they imposed strict redistricting standards by a 63 percent vote. She accused Republicans of using the districts of term-limited members to reconfigure the districts of the members who want to return.
Joyner said Republicans packed districts with more minority voters than necessary, saying it "bleaches the surrounding districts and limits the influence of minorities overall."
But Gaetz and others firmly defended their maps and called the Democrats' allegations "factually not true." Gaetz countered that the Senate's maps include fewer Democrats in many of the minority districts than exist in the current district and, he said, the maps proposed by Rich and the coalition of Fair Districts supporters would "do violence to existing minority opportunity districts."
The volley of charges, answers and countercharges continued throughout a six-hour debate over both maps and it was clear that both sides would agree on one thing: The courts will decide.
Under state law, the Florida Supreme Court must review the legislative maps and will be asked to determine if they comply with the new redistricting standards outlined in Amendment 5.
The Times/Herald looked at how the proposed Senate districts performed in the past two elections and found that of the 27 congressional districts, 15 would strongly favor Republicans, based on the 2008 and 2010 elections. Five of the current Republican districts would become more Democratic, including one held by U.S. Rep. Allen West. In the state Senate, the Times/Herald analysis shows that 24 of the 40 districts are solidly Republican based on performance in the last two elections and 14 are Democratic — up from the current 11 held by Democrats.
The maps now go to the House, which has scheduled a workshop on its proposals for state House and congressional maps for Friday and does not plan to take a vote on its proposals until Jan. 27.