TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House's first attempt at redrawing its districts would force dozens of incumbents to run against each other in Tampa Bay and South Florida next fall.
Such a scenario could end the careers of many lawmakers. For that reason, even Democrats dismissed the maps as a theatrical first step in a reapportionment fight they say is destined to be decided by the courts.
But Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee, says the maps show the House's commitment to create compactly drawn districts and maintain the rights of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice without protecting parties or incumbents, as two voter-approved redistricting amendments require.
"What the Constitution says is that we cannot show an intent to favor or disfavor an incumbent," Weatherford said. "The only way to do that is to look at the state blindly."
Of five map versions released Tuesday by the House, the one with the most potential incumbent showdowns has 24 such races, including 10 between Republicans, eight between Democrats and six between incumbents of both parties, affecting more than a third of the House membership. The maps are online at myfloridahouse.gov.
Pinellas, the state's only urban county that lost population in the past decade, stands to lose some representation. The initial House maps would place two Pinellas lawmakers in the same St. Petersburg district.
Democrat Rick Kriseman and Republican Larry Ahern are in a new District 69 that is also home to Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, but he's running for a yet-to-be-drawn Pinellas Senate seat. Ahern is a freshman and Kriseman is often outspoken in his criticism of the Republican agenda.
Kriseman said he sees it as inevitable that some incumbents are going to have to face each other next fall.
"We knew one district in Pinellas was going to go away," Kriseman said. "Somebody was going to be in with somebody, and in this version it's Larry and I. But ultimately, this isn't what they're going to look like."
The maps also put three black Miami lawmakers in the same district: first-term Democrats Daphne Campbell, John Patrick Julien and Barbara Watson.
In South Broward, Democratic Reps. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach and Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach would have to run against each other.
"They've destroyed my district," said Gibbons, an African-American lawmaker first elected in a majority-white district in 2006.
Gibbons said the first House maps are a starting point in the politically charged, high-stakes redistricting process and he isn't taking them seriously.
"In any negotiation, you go to the extreme, so you have something to negotiate with," said Gibbons.
The House maps also would create a new district to favor African-American voters in Orlando and two new majority Hispanic House seats in Kissimmee and Palm Beach County.
"We've seen Hispanic population grow in certain pockets around the state, like Central Florida. Our maps will reflect that growth," Weatherford said.
The House also released seven congressional map options, each of which follows a Senate plan by creating new Hispanic-dominated congressional seats in Central Florida.
The Senate redistricting panel on Tuesday moved a step closer to passing its plans for state Senate and congressional districts, with lawmakers having until Jan. 11 to offer amendments and a final floor vote set for Jan. 17.
The debate exposed intra-party struggles as Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, could persuade only three of the eight Democrats on the Senate redistricting panel to vote against maps she said were unconstitutional.
If the House can match the Senate timetable, lawmakers hope to complete maps in the first month of the 60-day session and send them to the Florida Supreme Court for review, giving legislators ample time to rework them if the court rejects them.
Thanks to technology and more than two dozen hearings statewide, Florida residents have had more input on reapportionment than ever.
More than 500 people sent email or phone responses to the Senate's website, flsenate.gov. Many people called to commend senators for keeping more counties intact than the current districts.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.