House, senate committees approve new districts
By BRANDON LARRABEE
Historic City News partner, News Service of Florida, informed us today that Florida’s house and senate committees APPROVED revised congressional districts Friday, clearing the way for a set of votes that would bring a special legislative session to an end early next week.
The Senate Reapportionment Committee approved the plan on a bipartisan, 7-0 vote. Not long after that, the House Select Committee on Redistricting voted 8-5 along party lines to move the proposal to the floor in that chamber. The conflicting votes appeared to reflect differences between House and Senate Democrats on whether to join the Republican majority in backing the maps.
The three Senate Democrats who voted for the plan — Minority Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Bill Montford of Tallahassee — said their support was tentative.
“I do look forward to dealing with this map and others on the floor,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, House Democrats tried unsuccessfully to get Republicans to accept a different version of the map drawn by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, didn’t directly answer when asked whether he was disappointed with his counterparts in the Senate.
“I love Senate Democrats,” he said, pausing for a moment. “This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where we ask the tough questions. It’s more of a congenial delegation over there. But we want to get down to the facts here. We want to address what’s really happening. Is this the best that we can do?”
The special session was sparked when Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis threw out two congressional districts approved in 2012, saying they were drawn to help Republican candidates in defiance of the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards approved by voters in 2010.
Lewis found that the GOP-dominated Legislature put more African-American voters than necessary into Congressional District 5, represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, to keep those Democratic-leaning voters out of surrounding districts. District 5 is meant to provide black voters with an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
The judge also found fault with Congressional District 10, currently held by Republican Congressman Dan Webster, because of an appendage of white voters added to the Orlando-area district.
Republicans say their new map is based on an earlier version of the 2012 congressional plan that Lewis seemed to indicate was better than the bill that passed that year. But legislative leaders say the new plan is better than the initial 2012 proposal, making several districts more compact.
“On every measurement, we improved upon the map that (Lewis) spoke consistently of in a favorable light,” said House Redistricting Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
In all, the map approved Friday would alter those two districts and five more. Because all congressional districts have to have roughly equal populations, any change to even one or two districts will generally ripple throughout the map.
The new legislative proposal would do little to change the partisan balance of the state’s congressional delegation, though it seems to make the seats held by Webster and fellow Republican Congressman John Mica more competitive.
Under the current map, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried Webster’s district by almost 7.7 percentage points in 2012; that would fall to 4.8 percentage points under the new map. Romney’s margin of victory in Mica’s seat would drop from 4.8 percentage points to almost 2.9 percentage points.
Soto’s plan would have pushed things even further. Webster’s district would have gone for Romney by 2.6 percentage points, while Democratic President Barack Obama would have narrowly won Mica’s seat by less than 0.4 percentage points. But Soto’s map only affected Districts 5, 7 and 10.
“We think the Soto map is less distraction, more competitiveness. And I think that’s really what the people of the state of Florida want,” Thurston said.
But Republicans and legislative lawyers blasted the proposal, saying it would endanger African-American voters’ opportunities to elect a candidate of their choice in Congressional District 5 by lowering the black voting-age population in the district to about 43.7 percent.
George Meros, a lawyer for the House in the redistricting trial, said the chances that black voters would get their candidate of choice elected in District 5 would be “a flip of the coin at the very best.”
Soto said he believes that estimate is too conservative and will bring his amendment back up on the floor of the Senate.
House Democrats were also considering joining a proposal by a pair of voting-rights organizations that were parties to the lawsuit challenging the congressional maps.
League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab and Common Cause Florida Chairman Peter Butzin issued a new letter Friday calling again on lawmakers to consider reorienting Brown’s district, which currently runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, by turning it into a district that runs from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west.
“Of greatest concern is that (the proposed map) continues to use a minority-marginalizing relic of an era in which political gerrymandering was acceptable — now it is not,” the two wrote. “That is, CD 5 in (the map) packs an excessive number of African Americans into a district marked by hooks, tentacles and appendages as it snakes through and splits every county from Jacksonville down to Orlando.”
The groups’ idea has run into stiff opposition from the NAACP, which argues that an east-west CD 5 would not guarantee a victory by the candidate of choice for African-American voters and would strand thousands of voters in Central Florida in districts that would also be unlikely to approve black voters’ choices.
Beverlye Colson Neal, vice president of the Orange County branch of NAACP, said the proposal by the League of Women Voters would move Brown’s district into counties where census numbers have high numbers of African Americans due to the locations of jails, even though inmates are not on the voter rolls.
“You’ve got to look at the intent of (what) the district is meant to do,” Neal told the Senate committee. “I’ve lived in this district 50 years of my life. I know what it was like when we had a congressional rep who did not have the interest of the people that they served.”