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Even the redistricting wind blows some good

Pinocchio's nose was never so long as George Bush's should have been when he presented Clarence Thomas to the nation as the "most qualified" person for a Supreme Court vacancy, insisting that race "had nothing to do with this."

Race had nearly everything to do with it. For political reasons, Thurgood Marshall's successor had to be black. Moreover, Thomas' race forced most of the civil rights lobbies to accept the nomination despite his open hostility to affirmative action.

So it was ironic, if unsurprising, that Thomas provided the swing vote last week for the court's decision that says blacks can't be favored in the drawing of congressional and legislative districts. It's as if the first man in the lifeboat were kicking others back into the water instead of helping them up.

The decision was dreadfully put. Shaw vs. Reno, two years ago, properly condemned districting based entirely on race. Examples of that, while glaring, have been relatively few. But the court now says race can't carry any more weight than other standard redistricting factors, such as contiguity, compactness and political boundaries. That could lead to results as extreme as some of the districts under attack. Say that the Legislature found a reasonable way to keep most of Tampa's and St. Petersburg's black communities in the same Senate district. They probably couldn't do it. For certain, they'd be sued.

The federal judiciary will be overcome with cases. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned in dissent, redistricting now is "perilous work for state legislatures." On one hand the Voting Rights Act demands that race be considered in places subject to its jurisdiction. On the other, the Supreme Court warns against considering it too much. Incomprehensible law is bad law. The so-called "political thicket" of redistricting now is a bottomless swamp.

Thomas' conservative fans may rue the day. While the decision may interrupt or end the careers of many new black lawmakers, it also threatens Republicans who got safe districts of their own by cynically packing blacks into voting ghettoes. Let's not forget who forced these plans on the reluctant legislatures of Florida, Georgia and other Southern states. It was the civil rights division of Bush's Justice Department, working in open collusion with the Republican Party's political cadres.

Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, should stop measuring himself for Congressman Sam Gibbons' seat and worry about defending the one he's got before the Legislature meets again. His district would not be 97 percent white if that of Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, whose Dist. 21 boundaries are as bizarre as any in the nation, were not 49 percent black. A decision against one ends the other. A suit involving Hargrett's was already pending; its outcome is no longer in doubt.

In its order creating that plan _ after the Legislature refused to _ the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged that blacks in Polk County had little in common with those in Hillsborough and Pinellas "other than their race." But, they said, "under the law community of interest must give way to racial and ethnic fairness."

As of last Thursday, that's no longer the law.

It could be a blessing in disguise for minorities if it helps Democrats back to power in the U.S. Congress and the Florida Senate, and even more so if it refocuses the debate on alternative voting systems, such as cumulative or preference voting, that help minorities to be elected in geographically broad multimember districts _ and which make them in turn more effective with their non-minority colleagues.

To his credit, Thomas substantially made those points in a concurring opinion in a Georgia voting rights case last year.

"In principle," he said, "cumulative voting and other non-district-based methods of effecting proportional representation are simply more efficient and straightforward mechanisms for achieving what has already become our tacit objective: roughly proportional allocation of political power according to race."

He sounded uncannily like Lani Guinier, whose nomination to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division had been trashed by Thomas' own patrons.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., whose own district was the target of Thursday's decision, now is trying to repeal the 1967 law mandating single-member districts for all seats in the U.S. House. The Republicans may not let that happen, but the prospect is somewhat better for opening the state legislatures to proportional, multimember representation.

That must be an urgent item for the Florida Constitution Revision in 1997. So should the creation of a blue-ribbon commission, as nonpartisan as possible, to be in charge of districting. Its decisions would be inherently less suspect than the Legislature's.

House Speaker Peter Wallace, D-St. Petersburg, who has opposed having such a commission (except to act when the Legislature fails) said Thursday he is now open to the idea. Even an ill wind blows some good.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.