A House committee gave the final tweaks to the state's redistricting maps Friday and set them up for a final vote next week despite strong criticism from the Fair Districts coalition, which helped bring the new standards into law.
The committee voted along party lines to advance the maps to the House floor next Thursday. If approved, as expected, they will be sent to the Florida Supreme Court for its required 30-day review.
The maps are the first to be drawn according to the new anti-gerrymandering rules imposed by voters in 2010, and the results are historic.
At least 38 House members could be pitted against each other or forced out of office because of the new political boundary lines.
And two new congressional seats are drawn - one in North Florida and another in Central Florida - to accommodate Florida's decade of population growth. Voters will have the option of electing more minorities because of new minority access seats in the state House, Senate and congressional maps.
"We are setting a course for how future legislators and how future members of this chamber will handle the redistricting process,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee. "It's bigger than this process and it's bigger than today."
While the Fair Districts coalition commended the House for drawing more compact districts, it also accused legislators of strategically protecting incumbents, picking favorites in competitive areas, packing minority voters into minority districts and strategically cementing a Republican majority for the next decade - all alleged violations of the new standards in the state Constitution.
"It appears that all maps under consideration were drawn with an intent to gain partisan advantage and/or to protect incumbents," wrote representatives from the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause in a joint letter to Weatherford late Thursday.
The 12-page letter cited examples in every map and in all regions of the state. The House's congressional map, for example, improved U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's South Florida district with more Republican areas, "thereby reducing her vulnerability" in a district that had been trending increasingly Democratic, it said.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart's new District 25, also in South Florida, "received more Republican voters to make his seat safer,'' the group alleged. And in the Senate map, Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican "rumored to be eyeing the Senate Presidency, is likewise placed in a district with stronger Republican performance,'' the group wrote.
But Weatherford and the Republican-dominated committee forcefully pushed back against the detailed critique.
"I think it's an unfortunate and more likely a legal stunt that this has taken, and I frankly find it offensive personally," Weatherford said.
"A lot of people predicted there would be a January surprise within this House,'' he said, referring to the presumption that many legislators wouldn't stand to have so many incumbents pitted against each other. But, he said, "little did we know ... the January surprise would come from the very organization that told us that they didn't think we would be transparent or follow the law."
The coalition submitted three alternative maps for lawmakers to consider earlier this week and were asked by Weatherford to appear before the committee to defend and explain them. The coalition refused.
In Pinellas, the House plan would place Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, in a district with Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. In Tampa, Republican Reps. James Grant and Shawn Harrison are forced into the same district. But Ahern is considering selling his home, buying a smaller place he and his wife desire, and moving north into another district that would have no incumbent because Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, is running for Senate. Meanwhile, Kriseman is weighing whether to run for St. Petersburg mayor in 2013.