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Senate passes congressional map

For Valentine's Day on Friday, even the Florida Senate seemed to be trying a little tenderness.

The normally partisan, contentious Senate took its first vote Friday on its most partisan, contentious issue: reapportionment.

After weeks of dirty tricks and accusations, the final votes were partisan but almost free of rancor. The Senate passed a compromise Democratic plan strictly along party lines, 22-18. Republicans even took a few moments afterward to praise the process that led to Friday's vote.

Of course, they still weren't happy with the result. Even a non-partisan observer, Common Cause lobbyist Bill Jones, said the Senate'scongressional plan faces legal problems if the Legislature adopts it.

"We had the Valentine's Day Massacre years ago," Jones said. "Today we had the Valentine's Day Mess."

GOP lawmakers say the biggest problem with the Senate's congressional reapportionment plan is that it is skewed by personal ambitions of some veteran members. Senate President Gwen Margolis and Sen. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, both want to be in Congress. Both have fashioned districts that would help them get there.

In particular, Hispanic Republicans say Margolis is hurting their chances of getting a second representative in Congress. They say the district Margolis has drawn for herself in South Florida should be heavily Hispanic. Instead, it's only about 54 percent Hispanic, enough to give Margolis a realistic shot at winning.

Democratic leaders took pains on Friday to explain that they don't think two effective Hispanic districts can be drawn in South Florida, because a heavy Hispanic population doesn't translate into votes. Many Hispanic people in South Florida can't vote because they aren't citizens, said Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Miami Beach.

That argument didn't wash with state Sen. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a native of Cuba, who predicted that Margolis' district would be thrown out by the U.S. Justice Department because it violates minority voting rights.

"This is a glaring deficiency, a glaring violation of the Voting Rights Act," Diaz-Balart said.

The district that Thurman has shaped for herself in North Florida might have fewer political problems. But it still conflicts with a black-oriented district that the House of Representatives has approved.

Senate leaders tried another tack: drawing a black-majority seat that loops around Thurman's district. It connects Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Orlando in a narrow arc.

Before adopting its plan, the Senate rejected plans drawn by black and Hispanic legislative caucuses. Those plans would have created more minority-oriented districts than the plans approved by House and Senate Democratic leaders. But Senate Democratic leaders said some of the districts are stretched so far that they might not really elect minority candidates.

The House and Senate now will appoint a conference committee to work out differences between their plans.

The plan approved by the Senate on Friday was sponsored by Arnett Girardeau, D-Jacksonville. Girardeau, who is black, termed the plan a "historic opportunity" for black Floridians. He even invited several visiting West African students to watch what he termed "the best example of how democratic government works."

One student from Ghana said he was impressed. Ghana, which is preparing for a return to democratic rule, has been consumed with talk of fair representation, said Kakra Asante, 24.

"It's something that everyone's been waiting for," Asante said. "It is most welcome."