Months after gerrymandering new political districts to bolster the Republicans' stranglehold on power, Hillsborough County commissioners have agreed to discuss redrawing political lines ostensibly to give Hispanics — the county's largest minority group — a better chance at winning a commission seat. But there are other motivations that are less than pure.
As it stands now, four commissioners on the seven-member board are elected from individual districts, and three are elected countywide. That arrangement allows any voter in Hillsborough to elect a majority of commissioners: their district representative and three at-large commissioners. It provides some political balance in the large, diverse county, and a large proportion of countywide commissioners helps the board focus on the big picture.
Commissioner Les Miller, an African-American Democrat who holds a safe seat in the inner city, proposed a new arrangement last month that would increase the number of district representatives to five. Miller said population growth has made the number of voters in each district too large. Smaller districts also would make it easier for minorities to carve out a power base, increasing their chance to win a commission seat.
The board voted unanimously this month to have county staff members write ballot language. Miller wanted to move ahead and put the question to a referendum, but he backed off after fellow commissioners complained he was moving too fast. The ballot language will act as a starting point for commissioners and the public to discuss the issue. No decision is expected before next year.
Replacing a countywide seat with a district representative would give Democrats an easier chance of adding to the two seats they hold now on the board. But carving up the commission further along district lines would make the board more parochial, as district representatives would be forced to bargain and trade for the interests of their specific neighborhoods. This is the wrong direction for a county, and a region, that is growing more connected politically and economically. If Democrats want to be competitive, they should field top-quality candidates and sell a compelling message.
And where was this concern for Hispanics when it mattered? Commissioners had the chance this summer to give Hispanics a better opportunity to elect candidates of their choice by approving district lines that were fair and compact and that grouped together neighborhoods of common interest. Instead, the board approved maps that loaded the bases for Republican candidates. Miller voted for the plan, too. It kept his minority constituency intact.
The only maps that count are the ones this board has already sent to the Justice Department for approval. Having a debate now over a remedy that was clear months ago is hypocritical. Commissioners are trying to appear fair and open in the run-up to next year's elections — or they are trying to show, as the Justice Department conducts its review, a sensitivity to Hispanic concerns that was missing when it mattered. Either way, this discussion is wrong-headed and too late.