State Politics

Tensions flare as Florida Senate narrowly passes redistricting map

TALLAHASSEE -- The personal and political conflicts that have divided Florida Senate Republicans for months reached the boiling point Wednesday as the Senate narrowly approved a redrawn redistricting map 22-18 and two powerful senators pointedly used the opportunity to finger each other for the chamber's mistakes.

Democrats united against the map, predicting it would be struck down by the court as a violation of the anti-gerrymandering rules of the Florida Constitution. They were joined by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater and three other Republicans.

The vote came halfway through the three-week special session the Legislature called to redraw the Senate map after agreeing in July it had violated the constitutional Fair Districts standards when approving the redistricting map in 2012.

The map now moves to the Florida House, where the House Redistricting Committee is scheduled to meet Monday to review the Senate map and a map submitted late Tuesday by the redistricting challengers.

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes said while there were good elements to the Senate plan, he also feared changes to three Miami-Dade districts raise questions about incumbency protection.

The amendment approved on a voice vote by the full Senate was sponsored by Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables. It separates him from the same district he was drawn into with state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. It strengthens the election chances of former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who is considering running to replace his brother. And it puts state Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, into the African-American district now held by state Sen. Dwight Bullard.

"I've got real concerns about all of that," Oliva told the Herald/Times on Wednesday.

While the vote shows the Senate could muster the support to pass a map, it also laid bare the anger that has divided senators in the midst of a tense leadership fight between Latvala and state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

After a tense debate over the map, emotions spilled into view as state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who was redistricting chairman when the invalidated 2012 maps were approved, rose for a rare "point of personal privilege," a rule that prevails over all others. He set out to criticize Latvala for publicly blaming Gaetz for the Legislature's having to redo the Senate map.

"When a bully throws a sucker punch, you hit back and never give in," he told his colleagues.

Over the last two months, Latvala has been critical of Senate leadership because of the court rejection of the map drawn during the 2012 term, pointing out a Herald/Times report that the taxpayer cost of the redistricting litigation has risen to $11 million and claiming Gaetz was "the cause of the hot mess that we find ourselves in."

Latvala is also locked in a bitter leadership fight for the 2016 Senate presidency against Negron, who is backed by Gaetz.

"There's a lot of doubt whether we here in this Senate have handled this issue in a way that we can be proud of," Latvala said Wednesday without naming Gaetz.

The comments did not sit well with Gaetz, a former Senate president. He distributed a copy of the complaint filed by the redistricting challengers, which detailed Latvala's role in an amendment to the 2012 Senate redistricting map that removed state Sen. Denise Grimsley, then a House member, from the same district as state Sen. Bill Galvano, who was not yet elected to the Senate.

The change, the plaintiffs alleged, was an example of the intent to favor a political party or incumbent.

"Sen. Latvala says Don Gaetz is the cause for the special session. You decide. I am am sorry for my mistakes. Sen. Latvala should be sorry for his," he said.

Latvala had left the chamber after the vote and Gaetz asked the Senate sergeant at arms to find him so he could hear the admonition.

Gaetz admitted he made mistakes as head of the Senate's redistricting effort, including not putting political operatives under oath when they appeared before his committee claiming they were unaligned members of the public.

The 17-minute tirade was followed by a stern warning from Senate President Andy Gardiner not "to keep this going."

But it was too much for state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, a Latvala ally, who rose to rebuke Gaetz.

He said it was "beneath the dignity of this chamber" for Gaetz to "label another member as a bully."

Latvala said he did not hear Gaetz's remarks but considered them inappropriate.

"It seems now Sen. Gaetz is trying to deflect some of the blame for this whole fiasco," Latvala told the Herald/Times while driving to an event in Clearwater. "That is a guy who doesn't want to take responsibility for his actions."

Latvala defended the changes made to Grimsley's district and accused Gaetz of using the redistricting process in 2012 to punish Grimsley, who was then chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

"She had irritated Gaetz a time or two," he said. "If my political activity is undoing his political activity then so be it."

The exchange discouraged many in the Senate.

"We're at one of the lowest points I can ever recall," said state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former Senate president. "We've got a lot of healing to do."

During the tense debate over the Senate maps, Lee was noticeably absent. He had blasted the map last week as a "defiant" answer to the court's rebuke of the Legislature. He told the Herald/Times on Tuesday he believed the redistricting drama that had marred the Senate map would be played out in court and he would be a willing witness for the plaintiffs.

When it came for a vote, Lee joined with the majority, later explaining he was "supporting it on a coin toss" to move it to the House.

"I'm tired of the B.S.," he said. "I've said plenty. My views haven't changed."

Gardiner said he hopes the next few days will help to cool emotions.

"Emotions obviously are running pretty high," he said. "We'll be back next week and see what happens."

Staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.

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