TALLAHASSEE — Pushing back against allegations that it was being bullied by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Senate passed a map drawn by the governor’s staff that favors Republicans and eliminates two districts represented by Black Democrats.
The Senate voted 24-15 along party lines and sent it to the House, where it is expected to be approved on Thursday. Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, was absent for the vote. She was boycotting the session because she said legislators had ceded their authority to draw maps to the governor.
By approving the governor’s map without making any changes to the configuration, the Senate was forced to do an about-face on a district it had defended as legal and constitutional.
Congressional District 5, a sprawling district that stretches from Gadsden County in North Florida to Jacksonville, was drawn by plaintiffs who challenged the 2012 redistricting maps passed by the Legislature and approved by the court. It is now held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, and the Senate had not only revived the district in its map but defended it as a necessary component to abide by the requirement in the Florida Constitution that legislators not diminish the ability for racial and language minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
Lawson’s election in 2017 was the first time in state history that many of the Black communities along the former plantation corridor that borders Georgia had been represented in Congress by a Black lawmaker. The region includes Gadsden County, the state’s only Black-majority county.
DeSantis, however, threatened to veto the Senate congressional map if it reached his desk. The House and Senate then prepared a compromise plan that offered the governor a primary map and a backup plan in the event that a court rejected that one.
The governor vetoed it anyway and argued that the Legislature’s version of Congressional District 5 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In his veto message, the governor said that recent court rulings required that for the district to be drawn as a majority-minority district, it must have at least 50 percent of its voting-age population be Black and include cohesive communities that can be drawn in a geographically compact shape.
Dismantling two Black-represented districts
Because District 5 did not fit that criteria, the governor’s legal team advised that the district was not a cohesive community and therefore not protected under the state Constitution. They made a similar calculation when reviewing Congressional District 10, the Orlando-based district held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat. The governor’s office dismantled it and divided its voters into neighboring districts.
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Senate Redistricting Committee chairperson Ray Rodrigues said in an interview with the Times/Herald that the Senate rejected two of the governor’s maps in January and February because they did not comply with what they interpreted as the court rulings related to Florida’s anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards.
But since then, federal court rulings from Wisconsin and Alabama have persuaded the Senate’s GOP leaders to change course and adopt the governor’s approach, he said.
“When you put those decisions together, with the two previous decisions done after Fair Districts was adopted, then it becomes clear — as the governor has drawn attention to — that there’s a conflict between the protections of the Fair Districts amendments and the more recent application of the federal Voting Rights Act,” said Rodrigues, an Estero Republican. “That’s a conflict only the court can resolve.”
Senate Democrats on Wednesday lamented the disregard for the Fair Districts amendments and what they considered an intentional attempt to diminish Black voting strength to benefit Republicans.
“What I’m worried about is this consistent abuse of power,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat. “This is a stage four malignancy, and this will be the death of democracy.”
Complaints of the Senate being bullied
Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat and candidate for Congress in the Orlando district, called DeSantis a “bully” and urged senators to stand up to him.
“Bullies don’t respect weakness, they only respect power and strength,” Bracy said. “If we continue to do this, it’s only going to get worse.”
In an apparent jab at Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is running for agriculture commissioner this year, Bracy said he believes the Senate is bowing down to the governor’s wishes because “he has threatened primary opponents” in his own party.
DeSantis has twice declined to endorse Simpson in the race when asked about it by reporters in recent weeks, including one time in Miami when Simpson was standing next to him at a press conference.
Sen. Lori Berman, a West Palm Beach Democrat, noted that the map does not reflect Florida’s voting diversity or the state’s closely divided political margins.
“We created a congressional map that has 20 Republicans and eight Democrats … that’s clearly not a 3 percent differential,” she said.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said that five of the Senate’s six Black Democrats were elected in districts that do not have a majority of Black voters, so “to say that these maps are hurting minorities is not correct. It depends on who runs for these districts.”
“These are constitutional maps,” she concluded. “I think they are very thoughtful. I don’t think anyone who votes for them today are racist or are following the direct will of the governor.”
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Beach Democrat, said that there are six Black lawmakers in the Senate and 21 in the House — a 16.5 percent blended average, he said, “which is exactly the Black population in the state of Florida,” but the governor’s map will leave only two Black districts out of the 28 congressional districts.
Rodrigues rejected the claim that the Legislature abdicated its responsibility by allowing the governor to veto its map and then passing his without modification. “I disagree with that,’’ he said. “We would abdicate our responsibility if we failed to pass a map and allow the courts to do it.”
He also said they weren’t bullied. “The governor has always had a role in the process,” he said.
The Florida House on Wednesday also took up its congressional map and is expected to pass it on Thursday.
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contribute to this report.
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