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African-American legislators split on changing redistricting method

TALLAHASSEE — A citizens' initiative on the November ballot aimed at forcing the Legislature to draw political districts differently is meeting resistance from some African-American political leaders.

Fair Districts Florida.org has a bipartisan team of honorary co-chairs and is backed by an array of labor unions, interest groups and individuals usually aligned with the Democratic Party.

The group wants voters to set new standards that the Legislature must use in crafting new legislative and congressional districts, a once-a-decade process that begins in earnest when the 2010 census is completed.

It is a lengthy, politically-charged process involving raw power, racial politics and ethnicity and a thicket of laws and court rulings affecting political representation and the voting rights of minorities.

"The whole point here is to draw districts that make sense geographically, and that are not rigged to accomplish a particular political result," said Ellen Friedin, a Miami lawyer who chairs the initiative campaign.

The new districts, which will be in use for the first time in the 2012 elections, must not "favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party," the ballot question says, and cannot deny equal political opportunity to racial or language minorities in electing legislators or members of Congress.

The proposals will appear as Amendments 5 and 6 — one for state legislative boundaries and the other for congressional districts. Each must pass by 60 percent of the vote to take effect.

Republican legislative leaders are already considering legal action against the initiatives, claiming that the language would make it impossible for them to draw districts that would comply with federal laws and the U.S. Constitution.

But in what could be just as important politically, the ballot proposal has divided members of the Democrat-dominated legislative black caucus, with some members saying standards are needed to restrain a partisan Republican Legislature, and others openly disdainful of the idea.

The caucus has not taken a formal position in support of the Fair District initiative.

"I have an obligation to protect my membership," said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, chairman of the black caucus. "I would rather leave us in the hands of devising our districts rather than somebody else that hasn't been tested by the Supreme Court of the United States."

"How can you say you're going to draw a district that's not going to favor or disfavor Gary Siplin? I think it's virtually impossible," said Siplin, a lawyer.

Siplin's predecessor as caucus chairman, Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, said the schism within the caucus underscores the historic ability of Republican legislators to carve out safe seats for minority candidates in the previous two redistricting cycles in 2002 and 1992.

"I think the Legislature can do its job," Lawson said. "There is a lot of concern that African-Americans and Hispanics will lose ground by what is being proposed by Fair Districts."

Other black lawmakers expressed shock at their colleagues' views.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said the standards are needed to prevent Republicans from gerrymandering Florida for partisan political advantage. She noted that even though more Democrats than Republicans live in Florida, the GOP holds a dominant advantage in the House and Senate.

"If it's half and half in the state, it should be half and half in the Legislature," Wilson said. "That's how you have a true democracy."

"Are you kidding me?" said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, a black caucus member who supports the Fair Districts initiative. He said it was important to check the political motives of any African-African legislator who would be content to let Republicans create their new districts — including whether they might want to run for a redrawn congressional seat in 2012.

Gibbons said most of the existing minority access districts are "packed" with more black voters than are needed to let them elect their candidate of choice, which results in weaker Democratic voter registration in adjoining districts.

Gibbons himself is an exception to that, however. His district in Southeast Broward is predominantly white.

African-Americans currently hold 26 seats — 16 percent — in the 160-member Legislature, 19 in the House and seven in the Senate. All but one are Democrats. Blacks make up about 14.2 percent of the voting age population in Florida.

Times/Herald researcher Lee Logan contributed to this report Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fair Districts proposal

Here is the text of the ballot summaries for the two initiatives:

Amendment 5

Legislative districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.

Amendment 6

Congressional districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.

African-American legislators split on changing redistricting method 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 11:23pm]
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