When I announced my campaign for Congress this time last year, the last thing on my mind was how our congressional district that included the city of St. Petersburg and most of Pinellas County would be redrawn.
I talked about how lucky I was to grow up in Pinellas and to learn from my family the values of public service. I shared my work on behalf of our community as a member of the Florida Legislature, and my desire to continue to fight for our community’s priorities in Washington. I talked about my frustrations with today’s politics — and how we need more leaders who will seek common ground.
I assumed the Legislature would draw new congressional lines that met the requirements of the Florida Constitution.
Boy, did I assume wrong.
The governor called us back to Tallahassee, and the Legislature rubber-stamped his plan to gerrymander Florida’s congressional districts. There was little time provided for public input.
Our state constitution says Floridians have a right to fair districts — drawn without the intent to favor any one political party. The voters should select our representatives — the politicians shouldn’t hand select their voters.
The new map divides our community in Pinellas and splits the city of St. Petersburg in half. Nearly every Pinellas voter who lives east of 34th Street — from Feather Sound to Pinellas Point — is drawn into a Tampa-based congressional district.
So St. Petersburg City Hall and Tropicana Field are in the Tampa-based district. Tyrone Square Mall is in the Pinellas-based district. Gibbs High School, on the east side of 34th Street, is in the Tampa-based district. Just across the street, Pinellas Technical College is in the Pinellas-based district.
The governor crammed as many St. Petersburg Democrats as possible — including me — into a Tampa-based district that already was solidly Democratic and represented by my friend, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. That leaves a Pinellas-based district that is overwhelmingly Republican.
This political gerrymandering hurts our community. It creates two noncompetitive districts in Pinellas County. In reality, Pinellas is narrowly split between Republicans and Democrats, and we have a ton of independent voters who aren’t affiliated with either party. Voters here have a long history of electing centrist candidates from both parties in competitive races.
This map weakens our community’s voice in Congress. It also adds to the growing polarization and gridlock that so many of us are sick of seeing in Washington.
The fight over congressional districts now shifts from the statehouse to the courthouse. As I no longer live in the 13th congressional district, today I announced my plan to suspend my campaign and do everything I can as a lawyer to help us win the legal battle for a fair district for Pinellas County. I fully intend to resume my campaign for Congress when we have a legally drawn district here.
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I had hoped my Republican colleagues in Tallahassee would follow the law. But I’ve learned the hard way from my six years of public service that finding leaders who will do the right thing is rarer than ever. It’s all the more reason why we need our courts to right this wrong — so that we the voters can have a real choice as to who represents us in Washington.
Ben Diamond is a St. Petersburg Democrat and a member of the Florida House.