By Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE – Over complaints that its work continued decades-old gerrymandering, Senate Republicans rammed through a proposed map for their own seats that more evenly divides population gains over the past decade and maintains an electoral advantage for the majority party.
The Senate map, SJR 1176, was fast-tracked 34-6 after a daylong debate in which Democrats said the majority was violating the Fair Districts reforms voters passed in 2010. But Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, called Florida’s example a “model for America.”
Hours later, the Senate passed by the same margin its version of new congressional districts that creates a 41.3 percent Hispanic seat in Osceola and Orange counties and creates a re-election challenge for U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, by drawing more Democrats into his seat.
Democrats complained the maps kept in place racially “packed” districts that ensure more Democratic votes will be concentrated in fewer Senate districts – a process that was perfectly legal in past redistricting cycles, but was prohibited by the anti-gerrymandering reform.
“For the last 20 years, this kind of packing of African-American voters has been used to ensure the election of a disproportionate number of Republican candidates,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
The Senate maps have five seats likely to elect blacks, five that should elect Latino candidates, and one in Miami-Dade that could go either way.
“It also ensures that we will be in a perpetual minority in the House and the Senate,” Joyner said, “with little opportunity to advance an agenda that will benefit the very people we represent.”
Republicans currently have a 28-12 advantage in the Senate, even though Democrats have a roughly 500,000-vote edge among the state’s 11 million registered voters.
While Fair Districts requires lawmakers to protect minority voting rights, it also bars drawing maps that intentionally help incumbents or political parties.
Republicans have said the new contours reflect where people live and the public input they have received over the last six months.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, called it “unbelievable” that black lawmakers were complaining and voting against a map that preserved minority seats.
“How you could do that I do not know, because I could not do that.”
But the Democratic opposition was hardly united.
Democratic Sens. Gary Siplin of Orlando, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Larcenia Bullard of Miami, Gwen Margolis of Miami Beach, Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Jeremy Ring of Margate all broke with their party leader and supported the maps. One Republican, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, voted against the maps.
Both the House and Senate still have to agree on the congressional plan. The House is mulling over options for its own maps, and is expected to take the Senate districts as passed. After that, they head to the Florida Supreme Court where Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, predicted they would run afoul of the law.
“I believe the map does protect parties and incumbents,” she said.
Democrats pointed to seats that would remain safe GOP turf and could have been drawn more compactly within a single county.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, questioned why the GOP had carved out District 29 stretching from just east of Fort Lauderdale north to take in most of coastal Palm Beach County when it could have been drawn entirely in Palm Beach.
Surrounded by districts that tilt Democratic, the new-look District 29 is similar to Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff‘s current District 25.
The new district is a little more of a straight line in Palm Beach, but would still likely be a swing seat, with 37 percent Republican voters and 35 percent Democrat.
Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said while that may have been possible, it would impact an adjacent African American-leaning seat that Republican lawmakers say is protected by Fair Districts.
“Almost anything is possible, although nor everything is legal or sensible,” he said.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, chimed in to point out that Polk had been divided among four different Senate districts when 33 of the 67 counties had not been divided at all.
But drawing the maps from one end of the peninsula to other made it impossible to keep Polk compact, she was told.
“No matter where you start,” Gaetz replied, “you end up in Polk County.”
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