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In Florida Panhandle, legislators defend political redistricting time line

PENSACOLA — On the home turf of the state Senate's redistricting chairman, Christian radio portends the Second Coming, politicians refer to the "Yellow River Code" of being true to your word, and the age-old tension between city and countryside dominates talk of redrawing political lines.

As Florida lawmakers convened their second redistricting hearing a few miles from the Alabama line Tuesday, they listened to a steady stream of contradictory pleas.

There was Brett Ward of the local Florida Farm Bureau, which represents Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, who urged maintaining the line that now divides three western counties along Interstate 10 in order to keep the coastal communities on one side and the inland farm communities on the other.

"If the districts are put together we will lose our voice," Ward said. "Let us keep the district where the rural area is represented.

Ellen Roston of Pensacola complained that by "effectively splitting the counties between the north and south'' her county "loses fair representation."

Others told the committee they pray that special interests do not drive the agenda, while others asked lawmakers to pray for wisdom.

And Vivian Faircloth of Pensacola was among the Escambia County residents who noted that while the county has a population that is 22 percent black, it has no African-American legislators.

The debate is one of many lawmakers will hear as they reset the state's political boundaries to accommodate 10 years of population growth while giving each district equal population.

Because the Panhandle counties remain less populated than those in central and southern Florida, creating a single district out of Escambia County — with its 1.2 million people — will mean that adjoining districts comprising the smaller counties between Pensacola and Tallahassee will have to be "ginormous,'' said Jerry Evans, vice chairman of the Escambia Republicans.

Robert Rolo of Santa Rosa County, a member of the local tea party, reminded legislators that his party was born out of discontent with the status quo.

He said he was disappointed that the committee held hearings without bringing proposed maps and warned them that if they hold hearings after the maps are drawn they better not hold them in Tallahassee.

"The pecking order of who gets heard in Tallahassee is not what it is in Pensacola,'' he said. Lobbyists get the first say in Tallahassee, he added, while the public "is put at the end."

Legislators faced much the same questions they had heard the day before in Tallahassee: Why didn't they have maps, and why was their time line so slow?

The Senate redistricting chairman, Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it appeared that "some people may have had scripts prepared for them," and asked co-chairman Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to answer their questions.

Weatherford said lawmakers started their listening tour before drawing maps because "allowing the citizens of Florida to start the conversation first about what you think, before we start drawing the first line, is of the utmost importance."

He suggested that if they had shown up with maps, they would have heard complaints that they had made up their minds without hearing first from voters.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com,

For more coverage, visit www.tampabay.com/redistricting

In Florida Panhandle, legislators defend political redistricting time line 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 10:20pm]
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