A Senate district is split by Tampa Bay. Black organizers ask if it’s time to change.

As Florida’s legislature continues reapportionment, there is debate about whether the district, which spans Tampa Bay, still makes sense.
Tampa skyline pictured on this month.
Tampa skyline pictured on this month. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 21, 2022|Updated Jan. 22, 2022

A Tampa Bay legislative seat, which for three decades has linked southern St. Petersburg with the western part of Hillsborough County, was created to ensure that the local Black population has voting power in the state Senate.

But with the once-a-decade reapportionment process underway, some Black residents and organizers want to see an end to the seat’s tradition of jumping across Tampa Bay’s waters.

Local organizers say St. Petersburg and Tampa’s Black communities may have similar issues but the communities have distinct histories, organizing dynamics and priorities. And they wonder about whether access to their state senator could depend on which side of the bay the legislator spends more time.

“It’s not to say that a representative doesn’t care per se, but they don’t live there, they don’t have a stake there, so I think it’s a compromising position,” said Jordan Pride, president of the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus.

But some residents, particularly in St. Petersburg, fear the split is necessary to ensure proper minority access, and that changing it could leave Pinellas swept up in a larger, whiter district.

As it stands, Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson represents a district that includes the area south of 22nd Avenue North in St. Petersburg, with carve-outs for Pasadena and two triangle-shaped areas at the very southern tip of Pinellas. The boundaries of the district sweep over Tampa Bay’s waters to Hillsborough’s shore and encompass parts of Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Gibsonton, East Tampa and Temple Terrace up to East Fowler Avenue.

Without a boat, getting from one part of the district to the other requires driving either north through a district held by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, or south on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and into the district represented by Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton.

Because of the ongoing redistricting process, Rouson declined to comment in detail. He said he spends a lot of his time, though, driving over bridges.

The state Senate district (currently District 19) has been drawn across the bay for decades.

But experts and others theorize population changes and growth mean such a split no longer is necessary to preserve that voting power. The Florida Senate on Thursday approved a redistricting map that would again lock into place a Tampa Bay state Senate seat that links the two communities spanning Tampa Bay’s waters. Rouson was excused and did not vote.

The current boundaries of Senate District 19, which crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The current boundaries of Senate District 19, which crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of St. Petersburg and Tampa. [ Florida Senate ]
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Distinct communities

Robin Lockett, an organizer with Florida Rising, an organization designed to advance racial justice, said using a body of water to count a district as contiguous may be constitutionally valid but in practice makes no sense.

“It’s been going on for a while, but it doesn’t mean that it’s right,” Lockett said.

Lockett works in Pinellas and Hillsborough, and she said the issues residents in each county face may be similar but have their own nuances. In Hillsborough, for example, she said the priority may be criminal justice. But Pinellas may focus more on education.

Lockett said she’s trying to break down the redistricting process within the community. She said the Legislature has made it difficult by design to understand. This year, unlike in prior redistricting cycles, there were no state tours to discuss the maps and get resident feedback.

“They’ve always talked above everybody’s head,” Lockett said.

There are 40 state Senate seats in Florida. Rouson is the only Black senator from Tampa Bay, and one of five Black state senators total.

Stanley Gray, a Hillsborough resident and president of the Urban League of Hillsborough, said he’s personally in favor of creating a district that doesn’t jump across the bay to St. Petersburg, and he thinks Hillsborough’s population would support such a district that still provides minority access as required by the constitution.

He said issues are solved differently in Tampa from how they are in St. Petersburg.

“The ‘what’ may be more similar, but how you get it done and how you effect change and who you get within the communities to effect change are different,” he said.

Gray said, for example, because of their size and slower growth, nonprofits and social organizations in Pinellas tend to be more united than those in Tampa. It’s a different environment.

Certainly, there are other state Senate districts that face disparate populations. But this is the only state Senate district to conjoin multiple counties across a body of water.

How the map was drawn

The map boundaries were cut in the 1990s to create a district where Black voters had a reasonable chance to elect a representative, but it expanded in spider-like strips inland as far as Lakeland. After the U.S. Supreme Court deemed districts couldn’t be so winding, the district was redrawn but remained in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee over the next decades, according to redistricting expert Matthew Isbell.

The 2010 Fair Districts amendment, which was approved by Floridians and added to the constitution, says legislators cannot diminish the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters in the state. To ensure that, legislators crafting the districts have to look not just at population, but the minority share of registered voters in an area and minority voter participation.

At a recent Senate workshop on the proposed maps, staff said the linked district was the only way to preserve the voting strength of the minority communities as required by the amendment.

But other experts have said population growth means a Hillsborough-only district could still ensure equal voting access for the Black community.

The latest plan advanced by the Senate doesn’t significantly change the district’s shape. It removes Gulfport and stretches north in Hillsborough and cuts the boundaries in the west.

The debate is at the heart of the chief complaint voting rights groups such as the League of Women Voters and Latina Justice have raised regarding the redistricting map that was approved on a 34-3 bipartisan vote on Thursday.

Advocates argue drawing maps that dilute the power of minority voters by packing them into a single minority district when more than one could be drawn is a violation of the constitutionally required Fair Districts amendment.

A staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida, Nicholas Warren, submitted an alternate map to the Senate in November that would have kept a minority access district compact in Hillsborough.

In the suggestion form he submitted with his map, Warren said his plan increases metrics like the number of Black and Hispanic voters in the 2020 general election and Democratic primary.

That would be true for the Hillsborough-only district. But the same access may not remain for the Black population in St. Petersburg if the cross-bay district was cut.

Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg, said the thought of any lost representation gives her heartburn. She said she is not a fan of the talk of stopping the cross-bay split if it means St. Petersburg’s Black community could lose out.

“For far too long we’ve had folks representing the interest of African Americans without that lived experience,” she said.

True representation

Gray, of Hillsborough’s Urban League, said he personally cares about good and fair representation more than simply minority representation. Though he wouldn’t provide an example, Gray said he’s felt that some of the legislators who have served the district over the years have tended to favor the side of the bay where they received more votes.

Yvette Lewis, the president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, had the same concern. When there’s a split across the bay, the representative isn’t as present for everyone, she said.

“I don’t have a problem with it jumping the bay, crossing the bay; I just have a problem with the representative being available to everyone,” she said.

But having a split district, and a potentially divided legislator, is a sacrifice she said she’s willing to make to ensure that the minority access doesn’t erode.

When she was following along with redistricting at the county level, Lewis noted that Carver City/Lincoln Gardens no longer had the numbers of Black residents needed, so instead the county carved out a seat picking up people in Apollo Beach and Ruskin.

She worries about what an influx of white residents and displacement of Black residents in historically Black areas could mean for minority voting power.

“Gentrification is the problem really,” Lewis said. “We can lose representation easily. We can lose it and then we won’t have any representation at all.”

Rev. J.C. Pritchett II, president of Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, a nonpartisan political group, said no matter the cut of a district, the entire Tampa Bay area needs to begin to see itself as a unified region and act together.

More unites the people of the area — Black and white, young and old — than divides it, he said. The fight for affordable housing, combating climate change and economic success are universal.

He added that it’s vital to the entire Tampa Bay region to have someone at the table who understands the systemic issues that have come from the Black American experience of overcoming slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and more. Having a legislator elected from the local Black community helps with that, he said.

“In this horrible experience that African Americans have had in this country, someone from our community and our culture and our experience has a chance to be at the table,” he said. “And that’s No. 1 on my list.”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.