TALLAHASSEE — Racial divisions in Florida's increasingly diverse state have become a tense undercurrent coursing through the redistricting debate in Tallahassee as lawmakers decide how far to go to carve out new districts for Florida's growing ethnic minorities.
Last month, Republican Sen. Alan Hays angered his Cuban colleagues when he suggested the citizenship of every Hispanic resident be verified before legislators draw any Hispanic majority districts. Two weeks ago, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich criticized a proposal by the NAACP for not reflecting the new standards approved by voters in November 2010.
At the center of the debate are new constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, which prohibit legislators, as they embark on the once-a-decade reapportionment process, from making it more difficult for language and racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
Known in redistricting terms as "retrogression," it means that minorities end up in worse shape after redistricting than before.
There is no clear definition in the amendments or in federal law for how to avoid retrogression, and legislators are reluctant to come up with a definition in writing. So House and Senate redistricting committees are proceeding cautiously, expecting the courts to resolve the conflicts.
Absent more guidance, the issue will be debated by lawmakers for months and "has the potential to deepen schisms that are already there,'' warned Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida and a co-author of a book on Florida redistricting. The expectations people have of the new amendments "will be clashing with reality."
Minority districts are a pivotal concern of Florida legislators. Today, the Florida Senate will release the first staff-drawn maps that are expected to be voted on in early weeks of the legislative session that begins in January.
Unlike maps of the past, however, these must adhere to the new standards imposed by voters in 2010 when they adopted the amendments advanced by a coalition of Democratic-leaning groups known as Fair Districts Florida.
In addition to protecting the ability of racial and language minorities to elect candidates of their choice, those standards prohibit lawmakers from doing what has been commonplace for Florida's redistricting in the past: protecting incumbents or political parties. A lesser priority of the amendments is to draw maps that follow existing political boundaries and make districts relatively compact.
Florida's population grew 18 percent in the last decade, enough to give the state two new congressional seats — up to 27. The fastest growth has come within the Hispanic population, which exploded 57 percent and now makes up 22.5 percent of the state. Blacks make up the next minority group at 14 percent.
Half of Hispanic growth came in the Orlando region, where the population of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans surged.
If lawmakers carve districts to help advance candidates from the growing ethnic and racial groups, the new maps would inevitably pit incumbent white politicians from either party against newcomers that lay claim to representing more minorities.
The conflict is potentially strongest in the congressional maps. Florida now has three Hispanics and three blacks in Congress, but the growth allows for as many as six Hispanic districts, half of them representing non-Cuban Hispanics, and one black district representing those of Caribbean heritage.
Conflict between these competing groups emerged at a redistricting hearing in Orlando, MacManus said. There, the Hispanic group Latino Justice urged lawmakers to draw a congressional district that would elect a Hispanic, but to do that, the district would have to rope in sections of the black community, "and blacks don't want that,'' she said.
Other flash points exist in South Florida, where Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera's Hispanic majority district, for example, stretches from west Miami-Dade County to Collier County. Drawn in 2002 by Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who left the seat to switch to the district vacated by his brother, Lincoln, the district is expected to be redrawn this year to accommodate the population growth in southwest Florida. That could pit Rivera against Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Diaz-Balart.
Meanwhile, partisan fault lines are quickly forming over how to interpret retrogression. Republican legislative leaders said this month in committee that they believe that new districts must include the same percentage of minority voters of existing districts to avoid backsliding.
"If a particular district is at a percentage, I think it's very important, across the minority district, that it stays within that percentage,'' said Sen. Andy Gardiner, the Senate Republican leader from Orlando.
But Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a black Democrat from Tampa and one of a handful of lawyers on the redistricting committee, disagrees with Gardiner and other Republicans who shared his views. She believes keeping districts designed to pack minorities into districts that exceed the minimum needed to elect them is an attempt to give an advantage to Republicans and violates the Constitution.
"We haven't gotten to the point where his opinion is law,'' she said of Gardiner. Joyner said she was elected to Senate District 18 with a black voting-age population of only 39 percent. "I don't need a district with 60 percent black registration to win."
Twenty years ago, black lawmakers joined with white Republicans to push through a series of redistricting plans that capitalized on the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act. Florida had not elected a black to Congress since Reconstruction, and the result was three black majority districts in Congress, 17 in the state House and six in the state Senate.
But it also had the effect of creating fewer diverse districts, because many sprawling districts were packed with minority voters, and the surrounding districts were "bleached" and made more Republican.
"That was the whole reason why we got (Amendments) 5 and 6,'' Joyner said. "To make it possible for other Democrats to be elected so that (blacks) won't continue to be in the minority."
The maps released today will offer the first glimpse of what the Legislature's Republican leadership has decided to do with minority districts. Do they use the two new congressional districts to create additional minority seats? If they leave the number of minority districts the same, how do they justify protecting access to minority voters in other parts of the state? Or do they avoid retrogression by creating new minority districts but shift the existing ones to other parts of the state?
"Nobody knows how the courts are going to view retrogression,'' said USF's MacManus. "Everybody knows that it is the most important aspect to getting plans cleared through the courts, and yet it is the issue with the least clarity.''
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Sen. Nan Rich's comments in a meeting.