Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Florida Legislature opens special session with plan for modest redistricting map changes

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators opened their special session to rewrite the congressional redistricting map Thursday and moved quickly toward a fix not intended to take effect until 2016.

Legislators halted their campaigns and fundraising, and canceled family vacations, for the rare summertime session convened after Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled last month that they drew an invalid map and had violated the Fair District provisions of the state constitution.

Lewis ordered legislators to fix two of the state's 27 congressional districts by Aug. 15 and said he would consider ordering a special election after Nov. 4 for the affected districts.

"We are here because we have to get the congressional map right,'' said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, at the start of the special session.

Hours after the gavel fell, House and Senate leaders filed a proposed rewrite that makes minor fixes to the two districts the judge ruled as unconstitutional.

Two other proposed maps emerged as well, one by State Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, and another by the coalition of left-leaning voting groups who filed the lawsuit and successfully persuaded Lewis to invalidate the congressional map.

In a letter to Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz on Thursday, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida warned that the Legislature's plan for "slight alterations will not correct the constitutional defects Judge Lewis identified'' and urged them to adopt their map as an alternative.

Partisan tensions quickly emerged as Senate Democrats agreed to waive the rules and pass out a proposal as early as Monday, while House Democrats said they would require their chamber to wait until Tuesday for a final vote.

"You've got a Legislature that corrupted the process and it caused this special session that's costing money,'' said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. But, he said, legislative leaders are complaining about "the cost and confusion" of conducting special elections to have the maps take effect before 2016.

"We have to find a way to build a plan that allows for elections before 2016, but corrects an unconstitutional map that the Legislature created," Pafford said.

The judge said he will decide Aug. 20 whether to go forward with a special election for the new districts or not, but legislators are moving forward with the assumption that no election will be held before Nov. 4.

Lawmakers also heard testimony from Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel. He told them that conducting a special election after the Nov. 4 general election is logistically impossible for his county because a majority of his polling sites rely on churches that are booked during the holiday season.

"Legally there would have to be a variety of (state and federal) laws changed to get polling places available,'' he said.

House Redistricting Chairman Richard Corcoran and Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano filed identical maps that attempt to fix the flaws in congressional districts 10 and 5, held by U.S. Reps. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. Lewis ruled each was invalid.

The GOP proposal preserves most of Brown's meandering district, but takes out the black Democrats added in what Lewis found was an effort to bleach neighboring districts to favor Webster and Mica.

The proposal also revises the boundaries of seven surrounding districts, removes Sanford from District 5 and attempts to make the district more visually and mathematically compact by adhering to county and geographical boundaries, like the St. John's River.

Galvano, in a memo to senators, said his proposed map reduces the black voting-age population in Brown's district from 50 percent to 48 percent. 

Galvano, who does not believe the state judge has the authority to order a special election for congressional races, said the new maps will be approved on the condition that they do not take effect until after the Nov. 4 elections.

Soto proposed a map that makes minor changes to Brown's district and splits the districts of Webster and U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando, equally between Democrats and Republicans.

House Democrats said they will consider filing a proposed map submitted by the League of Women Voters and Florida Common Cause, which originally brought the lawsuit against the Legislature's congressional maps.

The coalition plan makes significant changes to Brown's district, specifically creating an east-west district that stretches across the top of the state from Duval to Gadsden counties and is designed to elect a minority candidate.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, of Plantation, said that if Democrats file the map on behalf of the plaintiffs they will include specifics on who drew it and who paid for it, in the spirit of transparency.

The plaintiffs argue that the House and Senate map, which would slightly modify District 5, "was the product of a tainted redistricting process" and "does a disservice to the voters who have waited too long for constitutional districts." 

Their proposed alternative "allows for the creation of a district with enhanced minority voting strength in Central Florida, while preserving the ability of African Americans to elect in CD 5,'' they wrote.

Even before the plaintiffs' proposal was submitted, lawyers for the Republican legislative leaders had prepared their attack. 

In showing a slide of a proposed east-west district, George Meros, an attorney for the House, told legislators that if stretched on its side it would reach from Naples to Cuba, drawing laughter from Republicans on the committee. 

He further noted that the NAACP opposed the east-west configuration, which would stretch for 206 miles, and said it is not justified by the state's Fair Districts law.

"There is no question that it makes it less likely for an African-American candidate to win in an east-west configuration,'' Meros said.

As the House and Senate redistricting committee met in a joint session, the audience was bereft of the familiar partisan lobbyists frequently found lining the back of the room.

Galvano and Corcoran had said there would be "zero tolerance" for any input from partisan political operatives, in response to Lewis' conclusion that political consultants "did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process." 

Corcoran told reporters they have ordered members to refrain from any conversations with anyone who wants to influence the drawing of the maps and urged them to report any conversations with political operatives to them.

"It won't be tolerated,'' he said. "It will be open and transparent."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Tia Mitchell, Kathleen McGrory and Rochelle Koff contributed to this report.

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