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Florida Senate advances new maps despite criticism from Latino group

The Senate is moving quickly to complete its once-a-decade job of rewriting all congressional and state Senate boundaries.
Fla. Senator Randolph Bracy, right, speaking with outside counsel Dan Nordby, changed his vote at the end of a redistricting committee meeting Thursday to oppose the state Senate map.
Fla. Senator Randolph Bracy, right, speaking with outside counsel Dan Nordby, changed his vote at the end of a redistricting committee meeting Thursday to oppose the state Senate map. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Jan. 14|Updated Jan. 14

TALLAHASSEE — Despite harsh criticism from left-leaning voting advocates that legislators are diluting minority voting strength, the Florida Senate’s redistricting committee on Thursday approved its state Senate and congressional maps with near-unanimous votes and virtually no debate.

The only no votes on both maps were from Democrats. Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, opposed both maps. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, changed his vote at the end of the meeting and voted no on the congressional map. Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, changed his vote and opposed the state Senate map.

Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, supported both maps and called them “really good.”

The committee vote on the first week of the 60-day legislative session is a sign the Senate is moving quickly to complete its once-a-decade job of rewriting all congressional and state Senate boundaries to match the changes in population.

Senate Reapportionment Committee chair Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said the full Senate is expected to vote on the maps as early as next week. He said he hopes the final maps will be approved “as quickly as possible” and, after having reviewed what has happened in other states, predicted “you’re more likely to have litigation than not.”

The maps were drawn by Senate staff behind closed doors, based on the advice of Senate-hired lawyers and Republican leaders who followed a closely written script in an effort to avoid being accused, in the event of a lawsuit, of showing any favor to a political party or incumbent.

A decade ago, GOP legislative leaders allowed Republican consultants to secretly draw maps that were ultimately adopted by the Senate. This time, legislators went to great lengths to create distance between them and the public, conducting no virtual testimony and collecting input and map submissions only through a public website.

Rodrigues confirmed that the Senate’s outside legal team, which is advising them on redistricting, had hired a professor from UCLA who is an expert on racially-polarized voting patterns who had not produced any reports yet.

“If we retained the expert, he has a subject-matter expertise which will be important in future litigation,” Rodrigues said.

Hispanic group objects

The lack of public participation drew harsh criticism from Steven Mangual, the justice advocate coordinator for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Latino advocacy organization.

“The process has been inaccessible for public comment by limited English-proficient Floridians and the many members of the public impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “The end result has been the dilution of Latino political power.”

He noted that Florida’s Latino population growth has increased 34 percent since the 2010 Census, adding almost 1.5 million people, and now comprises more than 26 percent of Florida’s population, but both the congressional and Senate maps have created the same number of Black and Hispanic districts as were created in the maps in 2015 as a result of court orders.

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The failure to conduct a data analysis to determine if more minority districts could be drawn is an issue that has been repeatedly raised by Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

During a workshop meeting of the House Redistricting Committee on Thursday, members of the Florida House Democratic caucus, many of whom represent Haitian communities in South Florida, also raised the question of whether their communities should be given protected status in the proposed maps.

Under the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act, legislators are required to give a priority to drawing districts that will allow language and racial minorities to elect a candidate of their choice, but critics say the Senate stopped short of that by not attempting to create any more protected districts despite the population growth.

“The problem is that the analysis to determine that — it’s only been done looking backwards, taking the benchmark districts that were determined in 2015,” Scoon told the Senate Reapportionment Committee on Thursday.

She later added that “we can see that there have been efforts to comply with the law” but added that “we’re in the position where we believe that more should be done.”

During a break in the meeting, Rodrigues would not address why they chose not to attempt to draw more minority districts.

“I am 100 percent confident that we are fully compliant with all federal requirements, constitutional requirements and state statutory,” he said.

Until Thursday, there was no public indication that any of the comments or maps submitted by the public on the joint website had been considered. After he was asked by a reporter, Rodrigues acknowledged that he reviewed all of the map submissions and read all of the comments.

Broader support for congressional maps

The maps, SJR 100 for congressional districts and SB 102 for the Senate, have received mixed reviews by analysts.

The congressional map is considered by many Democrats as a reasonable attempt by Senate Republicans to adhere to the Fair Districts standards of the Florida Constitution to avoid a legal challenge.

However, Democratic analysts have criticized the state Senate map for appearing to protect more Republican incumbents than it does Democrats and for allegedly packing Black voters into a Tampa Bay district to avoid creating a more competitive seat in Pinellas County.

A Times/Herald analysis of Senate data shows that the proposed Senate map creates four competitive seats in South Florida but puts Democratic Sens. Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point and Jason Pizzo of North Miami Beach into the same solidly Democratic District 38 and Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation is drawn into the Black-majority district that is expected to be held by Rosalind Osgood.

Osgood, the Broward County School Board chair, won the primary for Senate District 33 on Tuesday and now faces a general election contest in March. Although the proposed District 33 performs solidly Democratic, the Senate reduced its Black voting age population by 5 percentage points.

Book, who hopes to remain as Democratic leader for two more years, could move to the neighboring Senate District 32, which includes Weston, Pembroke Pines, Cooper City and Miramar.

Rodrigues, who chose the map over another proposal recommended by the reapportionment subcommittee, said he chose it because it had better “overall metrics” that align with the constitutional requirements.

He also confirmed to reporters during a break in the meeting that at least two Senate Republicans may be drawn into the same district, Sens. Keith Perry of Alachua and Dennis Baxley of Ocala.

Drawing for districts

The only suspense was a question of which of the 40 Senate districts would be given a two-year term and which a four-year term. Although senators serve four-year terms, because of the redrawing of the political boundaries, all districts will be on the ballot this year.

To make sure that the Senate returns to staggered terms for the rest of the decade, the Senate conducted a random drawing of all 40 districts to give even-numbered districts a two-year term and odd-numbered districts a four-year term.

Senate Secretary Debbie Brown arrived with a glass cookie jar filled with 40 slips of orange paper with the word “even” or “odd” written on them, and Sen. Aaron Bean, an auctioneer from Jacksonville, announced the results.

“Thank you for playing Florida Senate,’’ he concluded. “You now know our future map numbers.”

The maneuver effectively gives some senators an exception over the eight-year term limit by giving them two extra years. An early analysis shows Sens. Ben Albritton, Jennifer Bradley, Jason Brodeur, Jim Boyd, Manny Diaz, Ileana Garcia, Ed Hooper, Gayle Harrell, Shevrin Jones, Jason Pizzo and Ana Maria Rodriguez have the potential to serve as many as 10 years thanks to the redistricting process.

There was little discussion about the details of the maps. Gibson, the Jacksonville Democrat, offered an amendment to the state Senate map that she said would expand the geography of the Black-majority district in Duval County to increase its economic diversity. But the committee rejected her amendment on a party-line vote.

The committee approved an amendment to the Senate map offered by Rodrigues who said it was designed to keep more cities together in various districts.

Coalition criticizes

While keeping cities and counties together is a priority under the Fair Districts standards of the Florida Constitution, it is not as important as protecting minority voting strength.

In a letter to Rodrigues on Thursday, the Fair Districts Coalition underscored the line of questioning that had been made in committee hearings by Scoon.

They noted that legislators “still have not made the data that formed the basis for the analyses available to the public in downloadable and usable form” to help the public understand the districts.

They also asked a question that has been posed to them by reporters and Scoon, about how they decided to protect minority strength.

“We wonder why you are limiting your examination of minority voting rights to the existing minority districts?” the letter asked. “Certainly, the minority population has grown since the last maps were drawn. There may be other opportunities to afford Black and Hispanic voters their rights to participate fully in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Have you explored the possibility that other minority districts could be created?”

The coalition, which includes left-leaning groups such as Florida Common Cause, Florida Rising, Unidos US and the League of Women Voters of Florida, is viewed as a partisan advocacy group by legislative leaders.

“The Fair Districts Coalition is a partisan entity funded by the National Redistricting Action Fund, the affiliated advocacy and lobbying arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee,” said Senate spokesperson Katie Betta. “President (Wilton) Simpson and Chair Rodrigues have directed senators to insulate themselves from partisan organizations and other interests that may intentionally or unintentionally attempt to inappropriately influence the redistricting process.”

The Fair Districts Coalition responded: “The Fair Districts Coalition is made up of a number of organizations. All on the Line is the only one that is affiliated with the National Redistricting Action Fund. All the other member organizations are non-partisan, non-profit organizations who are not lobbyists for and do not lobby for the NDRC. All members of the Coalition have a common goal. That goal is to work for fair districts drawn in compliance with the FairDistricts Amendments and federal law.”

Scoon said that the league “would like to see some amendments” when the maps come to a vote next week, and “we may be proposing some.”

Editors note: This story has been updated with a response from The Fair Districts Coalition.

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