Redistricting trial shows joke is on Florida voters

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJune 1, 2014 

Sometimes it takes a simple redistricting lawsuit to show us the funny side of the state Capitol.

Redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries, isn’t something that’s the stuff of big laughs.

But the lawsuit accusing legislative leaders of improperly drawing some congressional districts — chiefly for Republican gain — has dug up enough evidence to show that politicians’ talk about government in the sunshine is a big joke.

“It was an extremely open and transparent process,” Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, after giving testimony in the redistricting lawsuit, deadpanned to reporters.

Too bad he wasn’t intentionally self-mocking.

Legislative leaders are essentially incapable of being “extremely open.” They make a show of sunlight. But time and again they cut deals in shadow that result in fait-accompli votes on major items like, say, the $77.1 billion budget.

Since knowledge is power, and since power shared is power lost, secrecy is strength in the Capitol.

The lawsuit shows Weatherford and his counterpart, current Senate President Don Gaetz, met out of the public eye to work out differences in the redistricting maps. But Gaetz said in court that it wasn’t really a closed meeting.

“The door was open,” said Gaetz.

Oh, yes. So many open doors. Ha. Ha.

In drawing the maps, the Republicans who run the Legislature were certain they would get sued no matter what.

For the first time, they were bound by the new “Fair District” rules to prohibit lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. Voters overwhelmingly approved the Fair Districts constitutional amendments in 2010, over the objections of the Legislature.

In 2012, soon after the Legislature passed its maps, a coalition of liberal-leaning groups led by the League of Women Voters filed suit.

The key concept in the amendments, “intent,” isn’t easy to prove, but it has been done. The Florida Supreme Court in 2012 forced the Legislature to redraw the 40-district state Senate map because it was “rife with objective indicators of improper intent which, when considered in isolation do not amount to improper intent, but when viewed cumulatively demonstrate a clear pattern.”

The 120-member Florida House map had few problems winning the Supreme Court’s approval.

As for the 27 state congressional districts, it’s anyone’s guess. Defendants are now presenting their side in court.

Of these 27 congressional districts, 17 are held by Republicans and 10 by Democrats in a state where both parties are about evenly matched in voter turnout.

President Barack Obama won Florida overall by barely a percentage point in 2012. But he carried only 11 congressional seats, two of which are held by Republicans. His average victory margin in the districts he carried: 28 percentage points. His average loss margin in the 16 districts won by Republican Mitt Romney: 14 percentage points.

The numbers indicate more Democrats have been stuffed into fewer districts, thereby increasing relative GOP strength in more districts statewide. If so, was this intentional?

In defense of the maps drawn under Weatherford and Gaetz’s guidance, the state has more compact and more-competitive districts than before. The congressional maps had bipartisan support.

At the time of the redistricting efforts, before they became their chambers’ chiefs, Weatherford and Gaetz were also leading the Republican Party’s campaign efforts to win House and Senate seats.

Both men say they resisted the temptation to mix their public and partisan duties.

The lawsuit shows that they, their staffs and their lobbyist-operative friends sure had a lot of contact.

There were numerous private meetings between lawmakers, staffers, state and national GOP consultants and lobbyist go-betweens. House and Senate staffers were assigned to meet privately to work out arrangements.

Emails that could have been used in the case were destroyed.

A top Republican consultant, Pat Bainter, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to shield his emails, saying they’re trade secrets and that the lawsuit infringes his First Amendment rights. Before evidence involving Bainter’s emails is mentioned in court, the press and public are escorted from the room so the hearing can be in . . . secret.

In another instance, a top House staffer gave a Republican consultant and lobbyist a flash drive of maps two weeks before they became public.

A third Republican operative had one of the top minds at the Republican Party of Florida draw up a congressional map. Then identical elements of that map were offered in the name of Alex Posada, an FSU college Republican who also spoke at a 2011 public meeting.

“I think one of the primary goals of this whole process has to be transparency and I think y’all have done a great job here today,” Posada told lawmakers then. “You mentioned earlier how a lot of times we hear politicians talk, but rarely do we see them listening to us, so I really appreciate that.”

That plan was initially adopted, but the final version of the congressional map doesn’t appear identical to the map submitted in Posada’s name. If there’s not enough to show the “Posada” map’s imprint on the final districts, the story is more sideshow than smoking gun.

Now out of college, Posada said in a sworn deposition that he doesn’t remember much and that he never submitted any maps. Who did? How did the maps go from a party official to a consultant to someone who falsely used Posada’s identity?

No one knows or is saying. Or maybe they know and they’re just fooling around.

Joke’s on us.

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