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Passionate, polite residents greet lawmakers at Miami redistricting hearing

MIAMI — State lawmakers made a stop in Miami on Wednesday to hear from passionate but polite residents on how the Legislature should redraw legislative and congressional seats in its once-a-decade redistricting.

Haitian Americans asked for a seat that would get one of their own elected to Congress. Hispanics urged that existing districts where they are a majority be preserved — and for new ones to be created.

And a string of speakers from a variety of ethnicities implored legislators to draw compact, diverse districts that will keep neighborhoods together and make it more difficult for any single political party to dominate.

"We are so tired of the kind of power-brokering and warfare that exists in politics in this country today," said Janet McAliley, a former Miami-Dade School Board member who lives in Coconut Grove. "I urge you to put personal power ambitions aside and draw your districts so that they will make us understand each other and appreciate each other."

Since beginning their statewide listening tour this summer, lawmakers on the Florida House and Senate's joint redistricting committee have faced crowds of voters who are sometimes skeptical that legislators keen on keeping their seats would be willing to significantly change any political boundaries.

Redistricting of legislative and congressional seats takes place every 10 years, after the Census, to evenly reapportion the state's population. This time around, lawmakers will have to draw two new congressional seats to accommodate Florida's growing number of residents.

They will also have to take into account a pair of constitutional amendments voters approved last year that prohibit districts from favoring an incumbent or party or denying minorities participation. Amendments 5 and 6, pushed last year by Fair Districts Now, also require that districts, when possible, be contiguous and compact and take into account existing municipal boundaries.

In the first Miami hearing, held before more than 100 people at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus downtown, speaker after speaker chastised House members for filing a lawsuit questioning the amendments' constitutionality. Two members of Congress, Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, are also challenging the language in court.

"You have every right to challenge them in court — that's what courts are for," Oliver Gilbert III, a Miami Gardens council member, told state lawmakers. "I would just ask that you do it with your own money. ... You're going to take money out of my pocket to fight something that I want."

Gilbert was one of a handful of local officials who asked for their cities to be kept together in districts so as not to dilute their political power.

"Why do we have two state senators in a town of 10,000 people?" said Jesse Walters, a Miami Shores council member paraphrasing a common question from his constituents.

Though Hispanics and blacks emphasized that they don't want to lose clout by being drawn out of districts, quite a few members of minorities said they would be better represented if they weren't packed into districts with people of their same ethnicity. More diverse districts would be more competitive politically, they argued, and their representatives would have to pay attention to all ethnic groups.

Other ideas from residents and interest groups included drawing Miami International Airport or the Port of Miami into Congressional District 17, one of the nation's poorest, to give it more political strength; splitting up Congressional District 25, which spans from the western Miami-Dade suburbs across the Everglades to Naples; and giving African-American communities in South Miami-Dade a district of their own.

One proposal lawmakers said was unique to Miami: cobbling together a district for South Florida's gay community.

"The citizens of Florida have never elected an openly gay person" to Congress or the Legislature, said C.J. Ortuño, executive director of SAVE Dade, Miami-Dade's largest gay-rights group. "The opportunity to right a wrong is before you."

Some three-dozen lawmakers attended the hearing, which lasted about three hours. An evening hearing was scheduled at Florida International University.

Republican leaders of the redistricting committee pledged to follow the constitutional amendments and defended their decision to hold public hearings before drawing any maps of the new districts. And legislators on both sides of the aisle praised speakers for their comments.

"The participation of this very diverse community today has been an eye-opener for my colleagues," said Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat. "I think the members here have understood that this is an extremely diverse community."

Passionate, polite residents greet lawmakers at Miami redistricting hearing 08/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:11pm]
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