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Legislature's redistricting plan changes the game in east Hillsborough County

Ten counties. Dozens of communities. One representative. Welcome to southeastern Hillsborough County's proposed congressional district. Spanning almost the width of the state and encompassing the shores of Lake Okeechobee, orange groves in Polk County and gulf views on the west coast, the district is vast and varied. And residents who live south of the Alafia River and east of Interstate 75, including Sun City Center and FishHawk Ranch, are tucked into the northwest corner of the sprawling district. It's a strong departure for voters accustomed to smaller districts being represented by congressmen closer to home: Tarpon Springs' Gus Bilirakis and Lakeland's Dennis Ross. "That's a bad break for Hillsborough County," said Tom Lee, a Republican and former state Senate president. "It is very difficult to represent a large geographic area effectively as a member of Congress or state legislature."

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The proposed district is part of the state's redistricting process. Once every 10 years, legislators are tasked with dividing Florida's residents into state House districts, state Senate districts and congressional districts to reflect population changes.

Each decade, the process brings new concerns.

"Crafting a map is a bit like solving a Rubik's Cube," said Lee, who was in the state Senate and helped with the redistricting process in 2002. "Every time you turn the cube, something else gets out of whack somewhere else."

One problem: neighboring communities divided into different districts.

"It's very difficult to keep communities completely connected throughout the state," Lee said.

• Interstate 75, which serves as a central corridor through the South Shore area, is used as a border between two districts on the proposed congressional map, dividing the region in half.

• On the state House map, Ruskin is cutoff from other South Shore communities and lumped into a district that includes South St. Petersburg and parts of Manatee County.

• Gibsonton gets scooped up by a Tampa district in the state Senate map, and Plant City is part of a district that is almost exclusively centered in Manatee County.

"I've always thought it should be communities of like interests so that you've got people representing you that you have more familiarity with," said Mark Proctor, a Republican political consultant and Brandon resident.

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Critics of the proposed maps say gerrymandering is often to blame for the splits.

"The Legislature was clearly focused on maintaining incumbency and keeping the majority rule," said Mitch Kates, a Democratic political consultant. "They paid little to no attention to the residents and their representation."

State voters approved constitutional amendments in 2010 that aimed to create more contiguous districts. The so-called Fair District guidelines prohibit lawmakers from protecting incumbents or political parties when drawing the maps. Districts are also required to be compact and protect minority voting strength.

But critics say the Republican-controlled Legislature didn't apply those new guidelines.

"I don't like gerrymandering for political purposes," said Claudia Davidson, a Ruskin resident and active member of the South Shore Democratic Club. "Districts should be contiguous, not spread way out or joined by tiny little slivers for purpose of electing one party or another."

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Another concern for Davidson: having a representative from another part of the state.

Congressman Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, has announced his candidacy for the open seat in the 10-county-wide congressional district. Rooney currently serves as the representative for District 16, which includes some of the same areas in the new proposed district.

He said he understands why some residents may be apprehensive about being part of such a large district.

"They are all legitimate concerns," he said. "My district right now is eight counties and I work very hard putting a lot of miles on my truck making sure the people I represent know me and have easy access to me."

Rooney says he plans to move to Charlotte County so that he resides within the district. He also plans to open several offices throughout the district.

That might not be enough, Davidson said.

"I would like somebody to represent us that understands the issues that schools like Wimauma and Ruskin and Gibsonton face," she said. "Someone who appreciates what goes on there."

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There are some positive aspects to the proposed changes.

In the state House map, a new district within the county boundaries would guarantee a representative who lives in the region. With county lines serving as the south and east border, the district will no longer stretch into Polk County, home of current representative Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

The change also makes the district of Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, more compact, but it could be more challenging for Burgin because it adds Democratic voters by picking up portions of the Progress Village area.

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Nothing is set in stone, however. Changes to the proposed maps could still occur.

The congressional map was approved by legislators and must be signed by the governor and survive a federal Department of Justice review.

The House and Senate maps were approved by the Legislature and have been sent to the Florida Supreme Court, which has set oral arguments for Wednesday. If it is determined that the maps do not comply with the standards, the legislature has until March 9 to redraw them.

With several groups, including the League of Women Voters and the Florida Democratic Party, filing lawsuits to reject the congressional, Senate and House maps, the redistricting process could last into the summer.

"We do this every 10 years," Proctor said. "And it seems like every 10 years we find a new way of messing this up."

Times news artist Darla Cameron contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Legislature's redistricting plan changes the game in east Hillsborough County 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 8:25am]

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