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Odd couple of Floridians in Congress lead fight against redistricting amendment

Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart spend most of their time on opposite sides of the political aisle in Congress and rarely agree on much — except when it comes to redistricting.

Only hours after voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2010 to impose new rules on the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional district lines, the two Congress members filed a lawsuit to invalidate it.

The complaint, filed in Miami federal court, claims Amendment 6 violates the Constitution because it infringes on the power of Congress to regulate federal elections. U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro will hear arguments, beginning Friday morning.

Amendment 6, along with Amendment 5, which regulates the redistricting of state legislative lines, was approved by 63 percent of voters. Both explicitly ban the kind of redistricting system that brought Brown and Diaz-Balart into power — one that allows legislators to carve out districts designed to favor candidates or protect incumbents.

But for Brown, a 20-year House incumbent from Jacksonville, and Diaz-Balart, a 10-year House veteran from Miami, the new rules are all about challenging federal sovereignty.

"We're going to court to defend the Constitution of the United States because there's a basic conflict between this amendment and the Constitution," Brown said Thursday. "Only the courts can decide."

They also argue that if the amendment is allowed to take effect, fewer minorities will be elected, catapulting Florida back to the "129 years when Florida had no minority representation in Congress," Brown said.

Brown and Diaz-Balart's argument, however, is not shared by the Florida chapter of the NAACP or the American Civil Liberties Union, groups which oppose the lawmakers' lawsuit.

"The folks who are in power want to be able to pick their voters, as opposed to letting the people pick their legislators," said Leon Russell of Tampa, the NAACP's national vice chairman. The goal of the amendments, he said, is to create competitive legislative and congressional districts that are more reflective of Florida's evenly split voter registration.

Three African-American and two Hispanic state legislators — all Democrats — have intervened to oppose the lawsuit.

Aligned with Brown and Diaz-Balart is the Florida House of Representatives, which argues that it does not want to be involved in drawing a potentially flawed map. But the House, and the nearly $2 million legal bill it has rung up, has drawn fire from taxpayers who complain they are paying for both the state's role in upholding the amendment, and the House's role in challenging it.

Brown and Diaz-Balart have been on the same side of a redistricting battle before. In 1992, when Diaz-Balart was a young state representative and Brown a veteran state senator, they were part of an unlikely alliance formed to maximize African-American districts and, in the process, strengthen Republican districts.

The resulting districts became more concentrated for Republicans, less competitive for Democrats and, over time, helped change the political landscape of Florida. The 1992 districts also made history, allowing Brown and two others to be the first African-Americans elected to Congress since the 1800s.

In 1992, Diaz-Balart ran in a newly drawn state Senate seat as his brother, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, moved to Congress. In 2000, Mario Diaz-Balart returned to the Florida House and, as head of the House's redistricting committee, created the 25th Congressional District, sprawling across the tip of the Florida peninsula.

Since 2002, Diaz-Balart has been elected twice without opposition. Since 1992, Brown also has been re-elected twice without an opponent.

Odd couple of Floridians in Congress lead fight against redistricting amendment 09/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2011 11:06pm]
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