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Rejected redistricting reform of 1993 haunts Legislature

The Democrats have lost the redistricting battles, as everyone knew they would. Though they still lead in voter registration, hold both U.S. Senate seats and scored a statistical tie in the presidential race, their large disadvantages in the Legislature and Congress can only get worse under the plans that the Republicans rammed through the Legislature Friday.

Democratic presence in the 120-member state House could dwindle from 43 to 36, too few even to make the Republicans follow the rules. The GOP also nailed down both of the two new congressional seats, rigged Democrat Karen Thurman's district for a takeover, gave U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw breathing room in the district he nearly lost two years ago, and guaranteed that C. W. Bill Young's district, which Democrats might have won on his retirement, will stay Republican forever.

Democrats lost the least (if at all) in the state Senate remap. Tom Rossin, the minority leader, repaid the favor by supporting the House-Senate plan. He declared that he was acting "on pure political expediency," which would be "difficult if not impossible to defend." The reason? His home county of Palm Beach would finally have three resident senators, a gain of one.

"The only way I could accomplish that," he confessed, "was to promise to vote for the map."

The loser in that deal, Republican Debby Sanderson, sat stonefaced a few feet away. That one district is presently hers. Though her Fort Lauderdale home is still in the district, most of the voters will be in Palm Beach. What's more, most of them are Democrats who voted overwhelmingly for the Gore-Lieberman ticket. If she doesn't return next year, the 275,000 Republicans in Broward County will have no one in Tallahassee to speak for them.

Sanderson, though a very senior Republican with 20 years in Tallahassee, was expendable not only for having been the first to cross Senate President John McKay on tax reform, but also for having picked the wrong faction at the wrong time in a struggle over future Senate leadership. She was the only Republican to vote against the legislative maps as the Senate passed them 28-9. Among the eight dissenting Democrats was Richard Mitchell, of Jasper, whose district was elongated as far south as Citrus County, making it harder for him to return.

Rossin did not pretend to excuse any of this. Rather, he said it dramatizes why Florida should stop trusting the Legislature with redistricting and should give the job to an independent, nonpartisan commission.

He is right. Letting legislators redistrict themselves is like putting Bonnie and Clyde in charge of security for banks.

Rossin, who is leaving on account of term limits, said in the debate that he intends to lead an initiative campaign to create an independent redistricting commission.

That considerably surprised one Senate gallery spectator, Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause. For two years has been leading just the sort of campaign Rossin was proposing.

Rossin said later he hadn't known about the existing effort, which calls itself People Over Politics. No wonder. People Over Politics has been unable to make itself heard. It has collected only 21,000 verified signatures, a scant 4 percent of what it would need to make the ballot. It has raised only $145,000 (most of it already spent) but almost nothing since early last year, when trial lawyers and the teachers' union made up a small stake.

Initiatives, in Florida as elsewhere, need deep pockets. There have been deep pockets for liberal drug laws, high-speed rail, the Everglades, clean air, slot machines and even pregnant pigs, but there has been no George Soros or "Doc" Dockery for simple, unsexy good government. Not even the Democratic Party, with so much at stake, deigned to give a dime. That indifference is suicidal.

Rossin says he thinks he can raise enough money. He's also inclined to start from scratch, modeling his proposal on one the Senate passed nine years ago that called for the Supreme Court to appoint a nonpartisan redistricting commission. The People Over Politics petition would have the majority and minority parties in the House and Senate name the majority of members, who would choose a chairman. That has enabled critics to argue that the commissioners would be as political as those who appointed them.

"That's critical," says Rossin. "The body that handles it has to be looked on as nonpartisan as possible."

Florida has come achingly close to this reform three times before.

The Constitutional Revision Commission of 1978 proposed an independent commission, but everything it sent to the ballot failed that year in a backlash over abolition of the Cabinet and a casino gambling initiative. (Redistricting, however, came the closest to passing.)

In 1993, the Senate voted unanimously for a court-based commission but the House adopted a killer amendment at the urging of both party leaders.

The 1998 Constitution Revision Commission was poised to recommend an independent districting panel until GOP leaders including Tom Feeney, the present House speaker, twisted just enough arms, elbows and necks to turn two votes. That left the Legislature to its own sausage-making, and led to the deal Thursday that produced a congressional district invisibly labeled "Tom Feeney." An independent commission, it is safe to say, would have been under no pressure whatsoever to oblige him. Neither would it have had any particular malice for Sanderson.

The Democrats never did anything so dumb as to pass up the independent commission that the Senate, under President Andrew Crenshaw, its first modern Republican president, proposed to the House in 1993. Crenshaw, now a congressman, had bitter memories of a long, ugly redistricting battle the year before. But in the House, still held by the Democrats, Majority Leader (and speaker-designate) Peter Wallace teamed with Republican leader Sandra Mortham to derail Crenshaw's reform. They did it on a voice vote, sparing members the duty of voting against them and the embarrassment of being blamed for supporting them.

"I think I voted against it, but I think I'm sorry," said Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, who was in the 1993 House, on Friday.

If the Democrats lose the U.S. House of Representatives by one, two or three seats that they gained in Florida, that day in 1993 will be as clear a reason as any. If the Republicans win it again, by only one, two or three seats, they will owe it to Feeney for his influence over the Constitution Revision Commission five years later.

Wallace was nursing resentment over how the courts had changed his 1992 redistricting plans and failed to anticipate the Republican takeover that would make him the last Democratic speaker. Mortham's foresight was better. Both said the issue had to do only with the Legislature's rightful role in the scheme of things, but all the grownups in the chamber knew that they were were gambling on who would control the Legislature in 2002.

Mortham and Wallace exchanged high-fives on the floor when their killer amendment won.

There is no other way but an independent commission to produce districting maps that allow voters a real choice as to who represents them. As before, there will be few real contests for the Legislature or Congress. There may be a few interesting primaries, but the outcomes in November have been largely pre-ordained.

Wallace, now practicing law in St. Petersburg, might have been his party's ideal candidate upon Young's retirement. But if he ever thought of it _ which he says he didn't _ it's out of the question now. The new congressional plan leaves his St. Petersburg residence in Young's district, but sends most of the south St. Petersburg precincts that might vote for a Democrat into the Tampa-based district of U.S. Rep. Jim Davis. In the special lingo of redistricting, they "bleached" Young's district to "pack" Davis'. Young's present constituents are 40 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican, with the rest scattered among independents and minor parties. The new plan makes them 43 percent Republican and only 36 percent Democratic. Presently, the population is 80.6 percent nonhispanic white. It is about to become 89.7 percent white.

The stunt closely tracks what was done 10 years ago to create a Senate district for then-Rep. James Hargett, D-Tampa. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has since made it clear that race-based gerrymandering is inherently suspect. The bleaching of Young's district is very profoundly suspect. It will be interesting to watch this issue in court.

"It's clearly designed to ensure that a St. Petersburg Democrat will not be elected," Wallace said last week.

I asked whether he had any second thoughts about 1993.

"I have," he said. "There certainly have been times when I wish we simply had taken President Crenshaw's idea and run with it."