State Politics

Senate panel OKs Fla. redistricting maps

TALLAHASSEE -- Senate and congressional redistricting maps won committee approval on Wednesday, buoyed by the unanimous support of Republican lawmakers. Democrats were sharply split, but the GOP has solid majorities in both Florida legislative chambers.

The votes in the Senate Reapportionment Committee were a prelude to floor action in that chamber next week on its plans for the 40 Senate and 27 congressional districts. The 120-member House is moving a bit slower with final committee action expected late next week on maps for itself and Congress.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston withdrew her proposals for changes in both maps after getting opposition from some of her own members. Rich said she’d offer revised versions when floor debate begins Tuesday. She said she didn’t expect those changes to be drastic.

Regardless, they are unlikely to be adopted if the committee votes are any indication although her proposals might come into play in potential court challenges.

“It appears to me that there are some parts of these maps that can be improved to ensure that we are complying with the standards in our constitution,” Rich told the panel.

Rich contends the committee-sponsored plans would violate a pair of amendments that voters adopted in 2010. They prohibit gerrymandering intended to benefit incumbents or political parties while also protecting the ability of racial and language minorities to elect candidates of their choice. Amendments 5 and 6, as well, require lines to follow city, county and geographic boundaries when possible.

The new district lines also must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and undergo Justice Department or court review because of past racial discrimination in five of Florida’s 67 counties.

Rich drew her plans without consulting other senators, which she said would have violated amendments, but she did get help from the Florida Democratic Party. When questioned whether that might violate the amendments, Rich said Senate Democrats lack staff support and asked “who drew the Republican map?”

Her maps would have reduced some of the large percentages of voting age blacks in several districts -- what critics call “packing” -- that now are represented by African American Democrats while leaving enough for most to keep their black-majority or minority-access status. They also would have moved some of those Democratic-voting blacks to what now are Republican districts, making them more competitive, while creating a new black-majority Senate district in Palm Beach County.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, a black Democrat from Miami, was outspoken in her opposition to Rich’s proposal.

“This would have clearly diminished the ability for African Americans to be elected to office,” Bullard said.

Her district currently has only a 29 percent black voting age population, but Rich’s plan would have given it a Hispanic majority. Rich said it’s simply a result of changing demographics in that area.

While Bullard will be term-limited out of office this year, her son, Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is running to succeed her.

Rich’s plan also would have dropped the black voting age population of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s district to 36 percent compared to 50 percent in the committee’s proposal.

To get that high of a percentage, though, District 3 would have to remain relatively unchanged from its present long, narrow configuration, snaking nearly 150 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando.

Brown is one of three black Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation. Rich’s plan also would have dropped U.S. Rep Alcee Hastings’ district to 48.5 percent black voting age population compared to 51.8 percent in the committee proposal. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson’s district would be about 56 percent under either plan. Both are in South Florida.

The committee voted 21-5 for the congressional map (SB 1174) with Democrats split 5-5. The vote was 22-4 for the Senate plan (SJR 1176) with Democrats favoring it 6-4.

Legislative leaders have agreed the House will accept the Senate’s map for its own districts and vice-versa. The chambers, though, would have to negotiate any differences over the congressional map.