Redrawn Senate map passes House, scramble for seats begin

Published March 28, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — As the Florida Legislature finished its historic special session and sent a revamped redistricting map back to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, another kind of history was being made.

Dozens of state House members were voluntarily house hunting, running for a different office, or planning to sit out the next legislative session to avoid a matchup with another lawmaker.

Republican James Grant filed papers Tuesday to run in a Pinellas-Hillsborough district that will force him to leave his current Carrollwood home. Rep. Perry Thurston, the incoming Democratic leader, planned to move in with his mom. Republican Eddy Gonzalez planned to rent in the Hialeah neighborhood where he grew up. And Rep. Scott Plakon of Longwood was ready to move in with his adult son a town over.

"It's historic,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican and incoming House speaker who led the House's redistricting effort. "It's the first time in the nation this many members have been drawn into the same districts where it wasn't a court order."

The result, he said: "a lot of blood, sweat and tears,'' and a gradual realization that "having control of our own destiny and our own maps was more important than anybody's individual political agenda."

The House completed the two-week legislative redistricting session Tuesday and voted 61-47 to pass the Senate's revamped map without change.

The Florida Supreme Court had rejected the first Senate map for failing to follow the requirements of the new Fair Districts standards. The new proposal, which appears to create more visually compact districts than the first, also creates one less Republican majority seat, giving the GOP a 23-15 statistical advantage, with two swing districts.

Democrats maligned the Senate's second map, saying it was fraught with many of the same problems as the first — from protecting incumbents, inexplicably dividing cities and counties and failing to protect minority voting strength.

"We'll see you in court,'' Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said in a terse statement.

Miami-Dade Republicans joined with Democrats in opposing the map, voicing concern that the proposal doesn't create enough Hispanic districts despite huge gains in the population over the last decade. But Weatherford said he considered the Senate map constitutional and warned that rejecting the map would set a "very dangerous precedent."

Unlike the Senate map, the House's proposed plan was approved by the court on the first review. Weatherford believes that was because legislators were willing to "put the process and the chamber above themselves."

He recalls telling members after Fair Districts passed in November 2010: "There will be political carnage from this." For the next 18 months, every opportunity he had, he said, he would "just hammer that home."

"It conditioned the members and allowed them to come to terms with, early on, the fact that it was going to be a hard process," Weatherford said Tuesday.

To ease the transition, Weatherford made a promise to any Republican House member who moved into a new district that he would protect them during the election season.

"It made the decision a little bit easier for some members,'' said Rep. Carlos Lopez Cantera, the House Republican leader.

Still, Grant said the process was "very tough." Grant not only grew up in the district he now represents, but he lives 500 yards from his parents' home.

He's moving to a redrawn district to the west that includes a majority of his current constituents. The move also means Grant will avoid a primary with Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Lutz.

"No one ever expected to me leave Carrollwood,'' Grant said. But he said his father, the former state Sen. John Grant, had seen redistricting tangles before and "was adamant that when I ran, I rent, rather than buy."

Thurston's move to his mother's home in Lauderhill will avoid a matchup with Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood. "It's just two years,'' he said. "Anybody can do anything for two years."

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, will move into a neighboring district with his adult son to avoid being matched up with Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, who is slated to become House speaker after Weatherford.

Only two current legislators — Reps. Jose Felix Diaz and Ana Rivas Logan, both Miami Republicans — don't see moving as an option. They plan to fight it out all summer for the lone seat.

"I own my house,'' Diaz said Tuesday. "If the economy were different, maybe I could move, but it's not an option."

Times news artist Darla Cameron contributed to this report.