Battle lines: Tensions flare as Florida lawmakers weigh new map

State lawmakers review a proposed redrawing of congressional districts in the Tampa Bay area. [STEVE BOUSQUET   |   Times]
State lawmakers review a proposed redrawing of congressional districts in the Tampa Bay area. [STEVE BOUSQUET | Times]
Published Aug. 11, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers intensified their criticism of the Florida Supreme Court's redistricting ruling Tuesday as a Republican congressman fought for his political survival and a Democratic congresswoman announced she would file a lawsuit Wednesday to keep her current district.

The drama played out on the second day of a two-week special session to fix the Congressional district map ruled invalid by the court on July 9. Five of the seven justices ordered lawmakers to redraw the boundaries of eight districts, saying the process was "tainted" by political operatives and violated constitutional mandates that districts do not favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.

In a day-long hearing, legislators reviewed the base map drawn by legislative staffers and focused their criticism on the court's mandate to create an east-west district across a 200-mile stretch of North Florida that would favor the election of a black candidate in 2016. The proposed district reconfigures one held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown since 1992.

Sen. Bill Galvano, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, said based on concerns raised about the map, "people aren't just ready to rubber stamp it."

In speeches laced with resentment, lawmakers accused the court of "embedding" a map drawn by Democratic "partisan operatives" in their decision and questioned the court's respect for the separation of powers between the two branches of government.

"How does the court come in here to run roughshod over the Legislature?" asked Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, raised concerns that the court directive to make specific changes smacked of the kind of partisan activity that legislators have been accused of doing.

"If the Florida Supreme Court is basically drawing a map, and they know that the map was drawn by partisan Democratic operatives, how are the justices complying with the Constitution?'' Bradley asked.

Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero III, a former Supreme Court justice, gently sidestepped the question and noted that he may have to defend the new map before the court.

"I don't want to make them mad," Cantero said.

Galvano said that while legislators may disagree with the court's order to draw an east-west map, they could pass it to comply with the state court and hope for a federal court to intervene.

"We still have the potential of a federal claim with regard to the Voting Rights Act and the impact that could have,'' he told the Times/Herald.

That challenge could come as early as Wednesday. A spokesman for Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, said she would file a lawsuit urging the court "to keep Congressional District 5's boundaries as they are currently."

Brown has argued for weeks that the court's directive to shift her district's configuration will weaken the rights of black voters.

The lawyers said the Legislature should redraw Congressional District 5 in line with changes proposed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, two plaintiffs in the case, even though the district's black voting age population would shrink from 50 percent to 45 percent.

"We believe the most prudent thing to do is to have that as a safe harbor and have the east-west configuration,'' attorney George Meros said.

Meros and Cantero are the lead lawyers advising the House and Senate in the maps the court twice determined were flawed.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, dismissed the Republicans' complaints as "Politics. Everyone wants to protect their own territory. That's how we got into this mess."

She said the criticism of the courts could be because the voter-approved Fair Districts amendments that prevent illegal gerrymandering may force lawmakers to draw a map more reflective of the state's political composition.

"There are more Democrats in Florida than Republicans,'' she said, but the congressional delegation includes 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats. "That's hardly parity."

The staff director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, Jay Ferrin, defended the base map as legally compact and said he and staff members drew it "in isolation" with "no collaboration" with legislators.

Ferrin said that many decisions, such as splitting the city of Clearwater and Sarasota County into two districts, were the inevitable result of trying to protect minority voting rights or keep districts whole.

Several legislators commended the staff for balancing the difficult issues, while some lamented the fact that they had no input so far.

"I know how complicated this is,'' said Lee, the senator. "We have essentially relegated 20 million people's future to three men."

U.S. Rep. Dan Webster was the only congressman to attend the hearing. Elected the first Republican House speaker in more than a century in 1996, he sat quietly through the debate over the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol hearing room named after him.

Webster spent nearly three decades in the Legislature before winning a suburban Orlando congressional seat in 2010. He said the proposed base map would "eliminate" him from Congress because, while it was not one of the eight cited in the court's order, the domino effect of the horizontal reshaping of Brown's District 5 would make his District 10 more diverse and Democratic.

"The new configuration for District 10 makes the seat uncompetitive for anyone in my party, including me," Webster said.

He added that the map violates a provision of the Fair Districts provision because his re-election would be "disfavored" and the law prohibits maps that "favor or disfavor" incumbents.

Under the proposed map, heavily-Democratic sections of Orlando would be shifted from a Jacksonville district into Webster's 10th Congressional District. The result would be a net infusion of at least 66,000 registered Democrats into his district. Webster cited election data that shows President Barack Obama won 61 percent of the area that would be in the proposed 10th Congressional District.

Legislators have until 6 p.m. Wednesday to file any proposed changes to the staff-drawn map. Legislators must redraw the districts and receive court approval in time for the 2016 election.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.