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Florida Legislature won’t draft new redistricting map, deferring to DeSantis

The House and Senate release a joint memorandum saying they are waiting for the governor’s office to provide a congressional map that the governor will support.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, left, and  Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, right, listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 2, 2021.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, left, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, right, listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 11|Updated Apr. 11

TALLAHASSEE — In a highly unusual move, Republican legislative leaders on Monday deferred to Gov. Ron DeSantis to draft a new congressional map in an apparent attempt to appease the governor and dissolve intraparty tensions over the redistricting process in Florida.

The decision, announced jointly by Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, comes two weeks after DeSantis vetoed a congressional map approved by the Legislature and called state lawmakers back into a special session to craft a new plan that would be to his liking.

Related: DeSantis vetoes congressional redistricting maps, calls for special legislative session

Historically, the Legislature has taken the lead in redrawing the lines of congressional districts. But DeSantis will take the lead on the congressional map-making heading into the special session that is scheduled to start next Tuesday.

In a memo to state lawmakers, Sprowls and Simpson said legislative staff are not drafting or producing a map to introduce next week. They will be waiting on the governor’s office to provide them with a map that he will support.

“Our intention is to provide the governor’s office opportunities to present that information before House and Senate redistricting committees,” they wrote.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to the legislative leaders’ decision.

A number of current members of the Florida congressional delegation were contacted, but none would comment on this development in determining the new boundaries for their districts. The National Republican Congressional Committee declined to comment.

However, state Democratic lawmakers and other groups called the move “undemocratic” and “dangerous.”

“Whatever happened to the separation of powers?” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “The fact that the Florida Legislature is just bending over backward to do what the governor wants. I mean, why are we elected? At this point, we might as well give the governor a pen and paper and he will just redraw the maps himself.”

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said letting DeSantis draw his own congressional map signifies the “Legislature has totally surrendered its authority as a separate and equal branch of government.”

Abel Iraola, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s main arm for U.S. House races, shared those concerns.

“The Florida Legislature’s decision to hand redistricting over to Governor Ron DeSantis is an unprecedented and shameless abdication of their responsibilities as an elected body,” Iraola said. “Based on his public comments, there is no doubt that any proposal from Governor DeSantis would be a nonstarter and an attack on Black representation in Florida.”

Matt Isbell, founder of MCI Maps and a Florida redistricting expert who works with Democrats, said Monday’s announcement was rare in the context of Florida’s redistricting history but not unexpected.

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“It’s super unusual in a historic context. It doesn’t really surprise me with what’s been happening the last couple of weeks,” Isbell said. “More and more, we’ve been hearing that Ron (DeSantis) has been making it clear to the leadership ... that, ‘If you defy me on the map, I’m going to support primary opponents, I’m going to veto your budget items.’ "

“It’s the worst kept secret in this city. Everybody knows what’s been happening,” Isbell added.

An early map from the governor’s office

While DeSantis has not produced a new congressional map since the Legislature made its final version, his general counsel, Ryan Newman, had earlier offered a map that experts said would have reduced Black and Hispanic voting strength in congressional districts, and that raised new questions about DeSantis’ commitment to the Fair Districts standards of the Florida Constitution.

Now that legislative leaders have deferred to DeSantis on the maps, some groups are raising similar concerns.

“The Legislature cannot abdicate its responsibility to pass constitutional maps that comply with the Fair Districts amendments,” Amy Turkel, the interim executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. “This is a dangerous and unprecedented move.”

For two months during the legislative session, the governor tried and failed to get lawmakers to agree to his legal approach to redistricting, which is that the protections afforded to Black voters in Jacksonville and Orlando were an “illegal gerrymander” because he says the courts have since determined that race should not take precedence over the 14th Amendment provisions of equal protection.

But, also for months, the legal teams advising the House and Senate told legislators that they are legally required to draw districts in Jacksonville and South Florida that give Black voters the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, although they agreed to dismantle a Black-majority district in Orlando.

In an attempt to appease the governor, legislators passed a two-map package. The governor vetoed that plan. In a letter, DeSantis cited case law from 1992 and 1995 and said that the Legislature’s congressional map was unconstitutional “because it assigns voters primarily on the basis of race but is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”

“Republican lawmakers should have rejected the governor’s overt attack on Black representation in our democracy. Instead, they’re fully capitulating to 100 percent of his demands out of fear of retribution,” Smith said.

He referenced DeSantis’ recent endorsement of Rep. Blaise Ingoglia for a Tampa Bay-area state Senate primary over state Rep. Ralph Massullo, who DeSantis endorsed two days later for reelection to the House, rather than facing Ingoglia.

Related: DeSantis tipped balance in Tampa Bay state Senate race. Is it a trend?

Many Republican state lawmakers were reluctant to speak about the decision made by leadership on Monday. But not all.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said in a text message that the plan to defer to the governor on the maps was a “good plan.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he looks forward to the Legislature “doing their jobs and putting before the members constitutionally compliant maps.”

Time is running short to get this done

In addition to passing constitutional muster, there are some important time constraints at work in Florida’s redistricting process, too.

Because a new seat in Congress was awarded as a result of the 2020 Census, there’s a requirement to have an entirely new map in place to accommodate the 28th district. So falling back on the existing map for the 2022 election is not an option.

The last day for a candidate to qualify to run for Congress in Florida is June 17, and the primary election is Aug. 23.

At a news conference in Monticello last week, DeSantis said he understood the maps will likely be challenged in court and said he wanted the Legislature to produce a “cleaner product” that would not be as “vulnerable” as the plan he vetoed.

“I think it is going to end up working out,” DeSantis told reporters. “But at the end of the day, we were not going to just let a court draw the congressional map. I mean, that’s the requirement of the Legislature obviously, and they need to produce a map that is going to be able to get my signature, and I think that they’re going to be able to do that.”

“But stay tuned. It should be interesting over the next few weeks,” he added, perhaps foreshadowing Monday’s news.

Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padró Ocasio in Miami and Miami Herald White House and Congressional Correspondent Bryan Lowry in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

You can read the full memo below:

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