Proposed Florida state House maps could disenfranchise Black Tampa Bay voters

The region could lose one or more of its three Black representatives under maps before lawmakers.
State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, could be moved into a different House district now occupied by one of Tampa Bay's other Black representatives.
State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, could be moved into a different House district now occupied by one of Tampa Bay's other Black representatives. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 3, 2021|Updated Dec. 3, 2021

Proposed maps for new Tampa Bay area state House districts could create political turmoil in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, including endangering one or more of the area’s Black representatives.

The two maps were proposed this week by the Republican-dominated state House redistricting committee as initial drafts for drawing the House’s own districts.

Among other changes, the maps would put state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, one of three African-American state House members from the two counties, into the same district now represented by another of the three, Rep. Michelle Rayner, D-St. Petersburg.

Rayner is leaving the seat to run for Congress, but former state Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, one of two Black candidates running to replace her, is in the same district, which stretches from East Tampa across the Bay into southern St. Petersburg, taking in parts of Hillsborough’s South Shore.

Meanwhile, the two proposed maps would also put Black state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, into a Republican-leaning district in northwest Hillsborough along with Rep. Traci Koster, R-Tampa, who is white.

The maps would also create a new district in central Tampa that political mapping expert Matt Isbell said would be likely to elect a Black representative.

But unless one or more of the Black political leaders moved to new addresses, the net effect could be reducing their numbers from three to two.

Most of the House members involved in the changes didn’t want to comment on the proposed maps, citing orders from state House leadership not to politicize the redistricting process.

But Democrats, who acknowledge they will have little influence on redistricting by the GOP-dominated Legislature, have criticized the House committee’s proposals. They contend the maps failed to create enough districts where Black candidates would stand a good chance of winning, instead packing Black voters into districts where they wouldn’t endanger Republicans.

Specifically, Isbell, a Democrat, and others have criticized proposed districts that cross Tampa Bay, saying minority access districts could have been created in other ways.

“In what world does it make sense for a member to drive an hour and a half and cross three other districts and the bay just to get to the other side of their own district?” asked Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon. “You can create minority districts without crossing the bay.”

Learned himself could be affected by the proposed maps.

He currently represents a narrowly Democratic-leaning district viewed as the party’s beachhead in conservative east Hillsborough, a target Republicans would like to win back.

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Both maps would put him into districts that, according to Isbell’s figures, have even narrower margins — one whose precincts yielded a one-point advantage for Joe Biden in 2020, and one that showed a one-point Trump win.

One of the two maps would also put Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, into the same district with Learned.

State Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, also faces a cloudy future.

One of the maps would put his home into a strongly pro-Trump district in Hillsborough County’s northeastern corner, while the other would put him into a narrowly Democratic-voting district stretching east from Brandon.

Both the state House and Senate will pass redistricting plans for Congress and for both legislative houses, and then negotiate a final plan. The congressional map will be subject to gubernatorial veto.

But the state Senate and House tend to defer to each other’s proposed plans for their own districts.