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  1. Florida Politics

Personal agendas at stake with redistricting maps

TALLAHASSEE — Personal ambitions have been kept off the record in the Legislature's once-a-decade redistricting fight, but the carefully choreographed plan could implode this week if a House committee proposes and accepts changes to the Senate map.

That would put an end to the gentleman's agreement between the two chambers to accept each other's redistricting maps — and set off a battle that could delay a budget accord.

"It could blow up a few things,'' said Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat, who is watching the Senate maps carefully as he plans to run for a Senate seat held by his mother, Larcenia Bullard.

The Senate map is an immensely personal exercise for many House members who, like Bullard, have aspirations of getting elected to the upper chamber. But the Senate map also is personal for the 40-member Senate, where 30 of the incumbents — 21 Republicans and 9 Democrats — hope to return next year.

The Senate map leaves "every (sitting) Republican and every (sitting) Democrat in better shape than they are today,'' said Rep. Ron Saunders, the House Democratic leader.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, for example, avoided being matched up with Sen. Greg Evers, a fellow Republican who also happens to live in Okaloosa County. Gaetz lives in Niceville and Evers lives in the tiny rural town of Baker.

By splitting the region horizontally across five counties instead of following the county boundary lines, the Senate gave Gaetz and Evers separate districts. Gaetz said the proposed map is irrelevant because he could move to any of the five counties in his district because the millionaire businessman owns property in each of them.

The districts of future Republican Senate president hopefuls Jack Latvala and Andy Gardiner were also aided by the Senate map. Latvala's Pinellas County-based district and Gardiner's Orlando district, which is surrounded by a new Hispanic majority seat, both became more Republican.

Democrats Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Gwen Margolis of North Miami needed to have their districts increase in size to reach the ideal Senate district population. To do that, the Senate map consolidates black and Hispanic voters into surrounding districts, allowing the districts of Margolis and Sobel to retain many of the constituencies they now serve.

"I'm happy,'' said Margolis, a former Senate president and veteran of the 1992 redistricting wars.

The Senate map is also intensely personal for two senators trying to get a relative elected. Democrat Sen. Gary Siplin is eyeing the newly created congressional district in Central Florida while his wife, Victoria Siplin, has filed to run to replace him in the Orlando-based Senate seat.

Meanwhile, Dwight Bullard faces a challenge from former Democratic state Rep. James Bush III to fill the seat held by his mom; Saunders, the House Democratic leader from Key West, also is eyeing the race.

At least five current and former House members are also seeking state Senate seats and House Speaker Will Weatherford's employer, East Pasco businessman Wilt Simpson, is running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

By late Tuesday, it appeared that the House Redistricting Committee was still on track to approve the Senate map without making changes before its next meeting on Friday. But it wasn't because the House didn't try.

House Democrats had prepared a plan that would have helped Weatherford split his home county of Pasco east to west, instead of north to south. It would have kept Lakeland whole — instead of the plan that now splits it into four districts — and it would have created more minority opportunity districts , Saunders said.

But the Democrats decided not to offer their proposal as an alternative to the Senate map because Gaetz told them he wouldn't accept it, Saunders said.

"Unless you're suicidal, why would you (anger) Don Gaetz?'' he said. "I'm not going to butt heads with him and neither is Will (Weatherford).''

Gaetz said Tuesday that he has been speaking with Weatherford once or twice each day since the session began and now expects no tinkering with Senate maps.