TAMPA — Republicans on the Hillsborough County Commission have twice refused in the past two years to even discuss changing their district boundaries to make it easier for a Hispanic to win a seat.
Suddenly, most of those same commissioners voted to do just that last week, and some Republican leaders are saying the idea may have merit as a step toward making the board better reflect the county's diversity.
"My gut has always told me that there are a lot of minority groups, Hispanic, African American, that have the potential to be disenfranchised by the current system," said state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the chairman of the Hillsborough Republican Party, saying he was speaking for himself, not the party. "A different split is worth taking a look at given the diversity of the community."
Republicans and Democrats alike say the transformation may reflect the GOP's efforts nationally to become more welcoming to minorities after failing to appeal to non-whites in recent elections. But, perhaps strangely, some Democrats are waving caution flags, saying that with Republicans controlling the County Commission, new maps could strengthen the GOP's dominance.
It was just such an alliance between the Republican Party and minority groups starting in the 1980s that helped reverse decades of Democratic control of both chambers of the Legislature.
"I definitely support there being a Hispanic district," said Chris Mitchell, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Hillsborough Democratic Party, also not speaking for the party. "At the end of the day, they're going to make a political decision, and not necessarily one that's best for the county."
Democratic Commissioner Les Miller, who is pitching the redistricting proposal, sits in the District 3 seat carved out to increase the chances of electing an African-American to the board. He said his plan has nothing to do with partisanship. It certainly wasn't crafted to help Republicans, he said. Nor is it designed to help Democrats, who hold two seats on the seven-member County Commission.
"I would hope that we would keep the parties out of this if this passes," Miller said.
The County Commission currently has three members who are elected in countywide votes. The other four represent districts of the county, generally South and West Tampa (District 1), northern Hillsborough (District 2), Central Tampa and parts of eastern Hillsborough (District 3) and southern and eastern Hillsborough (District 4).
Miller's proposal would turn one of the countywide seats, the one held by fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner, into a district seat by 2016. Beckner loses the seat then to term limits.
Miller's argument: Each district commissioner would represent fewer residents, making the elected official more responsive to constituents. It also offers the potential to create a district with sufficient concentrations of Hispanics to give them a better chance, though not a guarantee, of electing one of their own.
In the past decade or two, Hispanics have been the fastest-growing demographic group in Hillsborough by far and now represent 25 percent of the population. Still, no Hispanics serve on the board.
If past proposals to create a Hispanic-leaning district are an indication, it likely would need to be centered on West Tampa and Town 'N Country, which have some of the greatest concentrations of Hispanic residents. It would also take in surrounding neighborhoods that are largely urban and Democratic-leaning.
While that might create a Democrat-heavy district, that would be made possible by shifting residents from Districts 1 and 2, Republican-leaning districts that would be made more so. Miller's District 3 would potentially lose residents to the new political seat and peel off some residents from District 4, which is solidly Republican.
That potentially would leave three solid Republican district seats and two Democratic ones.
The other political ramification of Miller's proposal is more subtle. The election for Beckner's at-large seat, the one that would be shifted to a district post, is held during presidential election years when Democrats tend to show up in greater numbers. The two remaining seats would be chosen during gubernatorial election years, when Democrats have tended to make weaker showings.
Of course, the biggest concern is how the maps would be drawn, and that had Beckner as the main voice of skepticism about the proposal Wednesday. He said his experience during the last redistricting effort following the 2010 Census revealed how much party operatives control where lines are drawn.
"That was the greatest display of public theater I've ever witnessed from the dais," Beckner said.
Republican political activist Sam Rashid acknowledged that crafting a Hispanic district could result in further cementing his party's advantage on the board by concentrating Democratic voters. He is widely credited as being one of the co-creators of the commission's current district boundaries, which already favor Republican victories in district seats even though Hillsborough has more voters registered as Democrats.
"I really don't believe that that's the reason this is moving now," Rashid said. "It's really not a bad idea. The county has gotten too big for these countywide commissioners."
Besides, said Vic DiMaio, a Democratic political consultant who is part of the group pushing for the change, Republicans already have a lock on the commission. That shouldn't be an excuse for denying Hispanics a greater voice, he said.
"I don't share the same concerns that other Democrats may have about losing any power here," DiMaio said. "We can't get any worse."
Miller noted that, under his proposal, he is simply asking voters to decide. He said his intent is to ask voters if they support the concept of "bringing government to the people and creating a Hispanic-access district." Any maps would get drawn afterward.
"I suspect the vote Wednesday was just the beginning of the race," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.