Judge approves plan to shuffle state Senate districts, affecting millions of Floridians

New districts put GOP political fortunes in question in the 2016 election.
Published December 31 2015
Updated December 31 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A judge on Wednesday approved new state Senate districts that will recast Florida's political landscape, giving millions of people new representation and bolstering Democratic chances in 2016.

The decision by Circuit Judge George Reynolds in Tallahassee was another victory for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the same voting rights groups that successfully struck down the Legislature's drawing of congressional districts for violating anti-gerrymandering provisions in the Florida Constitution.

"A great result for every voter in the state of Florida," said their attorney, David King, who predicted more competitive elections as a result.

Reynolds' ruling also was the latest defeat for the Republican-led Legislature and adds a wave of uncertainty in a year in which all 40 Senate seats will be on the ballot. As a presidential election year, it's likely to produce a much higher turnout than 2014 and could threaten the GOP's two-decade dominance of the Senate.

No appeal is expected.

"The maps are set," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the GOP's choice to be Senate president next November. "I am confident that voters will continue to elect strong Republican candidates."

But as news of Reynolds' decision spread rapidly, candidates and consultants scrambled, setting aside New Year's holiday plans to pore over the map and assess the impacts on their futures. Much of the uncertainty is in Tampa Bay, where shifts in boundary lines could alter the re-election prospects of Republican Sens. John Legg of New Port Richey and Tom Lee of Brandon.

Almost half a million people in east Hillsborough who are now represented by Lee would be split into two new districts. Either district could be represented by a senator from another county.

Lee said he's running for re-election, but isn't sure where.

"I have multiple houses in eastern Hillsborough," Lee said, noting his family's deep local roots. "It isn't so much where you live; it's where is your political base is."

Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, said he's considering running for one of those seats that links the corners of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

The map's new geography appears to strengthen the senatorial prospects of two Republican House members: Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala and Dana Young of Tampa.

Young said she's "seriously looking" at the new South Tampa seat that includes Westchase and Town 'N Country, areas now in a St. Petersburg-based district.

"I'm very favorably inclined at this point," Young said.

Pasco County is split three ways with 150,000 people shifted out of a district now held by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, into a Pinellas-based seat held by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. The map puts Simpson and Legg in the same Pasco-based district that stretches north into Hernando and Citrus counties.

"I have no desire to run against Wilton, but I will look at how it shakes out," Legg said.

In South Florida, the map puts two senators, Republican Anitere Flores and Democrat Dwight Bullard, in the same Miami district, which would force one of them to move to a new area or oppose each other.

Bullard is African-American and the new district is two-thirds Hispanic.

"I'm still sort of calculating that," said Bullard, who succeeded his late mother, Larcenia, in the Senate.

The new map, known in court as CPS-4a, was drawn by the plaintiffs and still must be ratified by the Florida Supreme Court. After that occurs, the Senate will have three days to randomly number all 40 districts, an arcane and critical step that will decide which senators will get the chance to serve for two additional years.

The long-running redistricting saga has already cost taxpayers more than $8 million in legal fees and forced two tense special legislative sessions that ended in acrimony and failure.

That failure figured directly into Reynolds' decision, as the judge dismissed a map offered solely by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, that had never been approved in any vote by the Senate.

The judge said Galvano's plan, called Senate Map I, failed to meet constitutional tests that districts be compact and that they were not drawn to favor an incumbent or a political party. He also expressed concern over Galvano's "conflicting roles" as chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, Senate majority leader, director of Senate GOP campaigns and a likely future Senate president.

"Those conflicting roles leave Sen. Galvano open to the charge that he was acting in a partisan manner," Reynolds wrote. "The court finds that in (Galvano) acting alone . . . the inference of partisan intent is reasonably supported."

Galvano did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans currently hold 26 Senate seats and Democrats 14, with six Democrats in safe districts drawn to favor African-American candidates.

Democratic data consultant Matthew Isbell noted on his web site, mcimaps.com, that President Barack Obama carried 21 of the 40 new districts in 2012, a sign that the new map favors Democrats. Under the current Senate map, Obama carried 17 districts.

Latvala, who also advises candidates on political strategy, cited several Republican senators who won in 2012 represent districts where Obama also won, including a St. Petersburg-based district represented by Sen. Jeff Brandes.

Latvala said the only Senate district that looks like a sure pickup for Democrats is in Orlando, which is now held by Senate President Andy Gardiner, who can't run again because of term limits, and whose wife, Camille, is a prospective Republican candidate.

"Anybody who expects a dramatic change in this map, at least in the first cycle or two, is mistaken," Latvala said.

Times correspondent William March contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him @stevebousquet.

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