Legislature gets another chance to take politics out of politics

Bill Cotterell | News Press | 08/07/2015

More than 60 years have passed since Gov. LeRoy Collins, in his first legislative address, asked the Florida House and Senate to draw political boundaries based on people, not politicians.

“The apportionment of representation in theLegislature is grossly unsound and unfair, and brings about a situation whereby hundreds of thousands of our citizens are relegated to an inferior class,” Collins said.

A Tallahasseean who grew up in the Old South and wanted to change things, Collins was talking to — and about — the state Legislature in 1955. But the same could be said of congressional districting, at different times and places, over the decades of Florida’s post-World War II population boom.

Florida legislators return to the Capitol on Monday for their third special session, with one more on tap for October, because of their repeated failure to effectively take the politics out of politics under a new set of rules. This week, it’s congressional redistricting — complying with a Florida Supreme Court ruling that that partisan gamesmanship affected the drawing of eight districts — and in the fall, they’ll deal with realigning the Florida Senate.

The process of redistricting every 10 years has a long and colorful, sometimes ugly, history in the Sunshine State. The back-scratching, or back-biting, of pitting two or more members against each other — or carving out safe seats for a favored few — affects everything else legislators do in years ending with a 2.

That’s why they’re back in a year ending with a 5 — to fix, again, what they got wrong in 2012, under a new anti-gerrymandering edict named “Fair Districts Florida.” Essentially, that’s a pair of constitutional amendments requiring lines to be drawn without regard to incumbent protection or party membership, and with careful consideration of keeping districts as compact as possible and protecting minority voting interests.

By 1991, the year Collins died, a House reapportion committee preparing for the 1992 free-for-all noted, “Reapportionment has been inextricably linked with the political history of the state, at one time or another affecting every issue of state government, serving to bring into sharp focus the divisions within Florida’s political make-up and exposing the tension of rapidly changing demographic and social forces.”

All states redraw their lines every 10 years, adjusting membership in the U.S. House in accord with each census, but no state has changed so much or so dramatically as Florida. Not only does the state have more major cities than most others, its population growth has ranged from conservative Cuban Americans to liberal New York retirees, from urban black residents to Panhandle fishing interests.

Since the federal courts set the “one person, one vote” standard a half-century ago, Florida’s delegation in the U.S. House has more than doubled, from 12 members to 27. By the time of the 2010 census, only 35 percent of Floridians were born here.

In a new book coming this week from University Press of Florida, “Jigsaw Politics in the Sunshine State,” historian David Colburn is quoted as observing how Florida went from “one of the least appealing, most racially polarized and poorest states to one of the most desired, most diverse and most prosperous.” It has not been a pretty transition, though, as the Legislature increased and decreased its own size and sliced up an ever-increasing congressional pie.

In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that redistricting is a “political thicket,” and that the judiciary would stay out of it. But in 1962, the justices reversed themselves and said the federal government could intervene to prevent gerrymandering.

Florida at that time was run by white, male, rural legislators who used multi-member districts and odd configuration of lines to split large urban areas and assure their own continued domination. Editor James Clendinen of the Tampa Tribune dubbed them “thePork Chop Gang,” partly because of how they carved up the state, but mostly because they brought the bacon home to little counties — at the expense of big ones.

For just one example, racing taxes were evenly divided among 67 counties, whether they had any tracks or not. That was because Jefferson County had one senator and so did Miami-Dade (although Dade got three representatives, to Jefferson’s one). The difference in population was more like 50 to one, though.

This posed a real dilemma for lawmakers. How were they to protect their own jobs in that pre-term limit era, avoid having any black members (or have as few as possible), maintain southern Democrat power at a time yankees were flocking to the coasts and Cubans were seeking refuge in Miami, keep the federal judges at bay and deny it all with a straight face? Then President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, further complicating the political and demographic equation.

By the late 1960s, the 119-seat House had one black member, Rep. Joe Lang Kershawof Miami. The Senate, then 48 seats, had none. Through the 1970s and 1980s, white Democrats ran the Legislature with about the same two-thirds majorities that Republicans enjoy now, and they drew the congressional lines accordingly.

In 1992, Reps. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, Carrie Meek of Miami and Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale became the first black members of Congress sinceReconstruction. Brown’s oddly shaped district, meandering from downtown Jacksonville to Orlando, was the focus of the state court challenge last year that resulted in a July 9 ruling that knocked out the revised 2012 congressional map — forcing the special session that starts on Monday.

The pending “base” plan for the session, subject to amendments and much debate in the next two weeks, would create a minority district across North Florida, having Brown run from Jacksonville to Chattahoochee. It would also split Leon County and force Rep.Gwen Graham of Tallahassee to either challenge Brown in a Democratic primary or run in a new, more Republican-leaning tract from mid-Panhandle through the Big Bend.

In 1978, Tallahassee attorney Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former Miami legislator who would become president of Florida State University and president of the American Bar Association, headed the Constitution Revision Commission. The panel proposed creation of a special six-member commission to draw district lines — taking the duty away from the Legislature — with uniform, nonpartisan standards much like those laid out by the 2010 “Fair Districts Florida” amendments.

But all of the Constitution Revision Commission’s proposals were voted down at the polls that year because of a separate casino-gambling amendment put on the ballot by a petition drive financed by resort operators. The idea of creating a redistricting panel has popped up periodically since then — most recently last week, when Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, filed a bill to create one.

Meil Skene, former bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times and editor-president ofCongressional Quarterly, wrote a detailed essay about reapportionment for the authoritative Florida Handbook. Tracing the topic from pre-statehood days through the multiple special sessions of the 1960s and dawning of the Republican era, Skene highlighted an odd result of the process.

While the Voting Rights Act and court rulings were all aimed at making the system fair for minority voters, finally uprooting the Jim Crow era of Florida politics, they resulted in conservative Republicans running everything in Tallahassee. Policy decisions became more starkly partisan and polarized, and independents increasingly decided elections in districts crafted by the GOP to pack as many black voters as possible into as few Democratic districts as possible.

“The perverse effect was that the increasing number of black legislators had less and less impact in a Legislature increasingly run by Republicans,” Skene wrote. “And the greater partisan majorities in all districts meant that the Republicans took increasingly conservative positions on high-profile issues, while Democrats became more liberal in those positions.”


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