TALLAHASSEE — As the high-stakes battle over drawing political boundaries goes to the November ballot, two veteran Florida U.S. representatives joined with business groups Monday to launch a campaign to defeat the proposals that would upend the way their districts are drawn.
Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, both elected to Congress in 1992, said they will work to defeat Amendments 5 and 6 because they believe the standards will lead to less minority representation, not more.
"These amendments will have the effect of bleaching the state of Florida as it was before 1992 when minorities did not have the ability to elect candidates of their choice," said Diaz-Balart. "It's unworkable. It will have a devastating effect on minorities across the state."
The amendments, pushed by Fair Districts Florida, create standards that would make it harder for legislators to gerrymander political districts. Proponents say the standards will strengthen the rights of minorities under the 1965 Voting Rights Act by chiseling them into the Constitution, not weakening them.
"Reps. Diaz-Balart and Brown are sadly mistaken about Amendments 5 and 6," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "These constitutional amendments are the most important changes that voters can make right now that will strengthen minority voting rights and protect the right of minorities to elect representatives of their choice."
The anti-amendment effort, known as the Protect Your Vote campaign, has enlisted the help of former Secretary of State Kurt Browning and the public relations firm of Ron Sachs Communications. The committee is ready to raise and spend "at least $4 (million) maybe more'' to defeat Amendments 5 and 6, Browning said, and will place ads on television. Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce have lined up in support.
Browning warned the amendments would effectively "give the courts more influence in that process, which is unnecessary."
Brown and Diaz-Balart had hoped that a legislative countermeasure would also be on the ballot, but the Florida Supreme Court threw it out two weeks ago. They have also filed their own lawsuit seeking to keep Amendments 5 and 6 off the ballot, but have lost at every stop.
Florida's once-a-decade redistricting process has been riddled with court fights since 1992, when the court-drawn districts ushered in maps that concentrated minority voters into minority-majority districts.
Since then, the state has had three blacks and three Hispanics elected to Congress.
That year, the new maps resulted in diluting Democratic congressional districts and the Florida Legislature.
It also gradually allowed Republicans to control the Legislature and assume the majority in Florida's congressional delegation by the mid 1990s.
Supporters of the Fair Districts campaign argue that the amendment will impose standards that will allow for more geographically compact districts, increase competition for elected office and ensure that minorities are represented when districts are redrawn.
The group has raised $4.2 million to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot and defend the legal challenges. Much of the group's money came from trial lawyers, teachers, unions and out-of-state advocacy organizations.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.