As redistricting heats up, Central Florida at heart of battle

Orlando Sentinel | Orlando Sentinel | 08/13/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Central Florida's congressional districts are essentially caught in a virtual tug of war between state lawmakers and the Florida Supreme Court.

That was clear from the deliberations of lawmakers in a special redistricting session Tuesday, as several legislators bashed the court's decision to throw out the previous maps and mandate that the current Congressional District 5 running from Jacksonville to Orlando instead run horizontally from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.

Republican legislators took particular issue with the court ordering the east-west district, which was favored by Democratic groups and the League of Women Voters, which brought the redistricting lawsuit.

"If the Florida Supreme Court is basically drawing a map and they know that the map is drawn by partisan Democratic operatives ... how are the justices who do that complying with the constitution?" said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who currently represents District 5, is also upset with the change. She is taking legal action to prevent lawmakers from approving an east-west district.

The Supreme Court found last month that GOP political operatives colluded to submit maps favoring the Republican Party that were eventually passed by lawmakers. In throwing out the districts and sending lawmakers back to the drawing board for the third time, the court included suggestions and guidelines for the Legislature to follow to comply with the Fair Districts amendments passed by voters in 2010.

The amendments prohibit lawmakers from drawing maps to favor or disfavor incumbents, political parties or minority groups, while drawing districts as compact and contiguous as possible.

Despite grousing about the decision, lawmakers are now considering a proposed "base map" developed by legislative staffers — who were ordered by legislative leaders not to have contact with lawmakers or political operatives while drafting the map — that includes an east-west District 5.

Because District 5 was originally designed to allow black voters to choose a candidate of their choice, the change would mean much of Central Florida's black population would be taken in by surrounding districts in the base map.

Many of those voters would be drawn into District 10, currently held by U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando. The changes prompted Webster to show up in Tallahassee to declare the new maps unconstitutional because they would likely prevent him from being re-elected.

In the base map, Webster's district sheds part of Lake County, with more conservative, white voters, and adds parts of Orange County with more Democratic, black voters. Using the 2012 election votes, under the reconfigured district, the number of President Barack Obama voters would increase by 15 percent, while the number of Mitt Romney voters would drop 15 percent.

"The new configuration for District 10 makes the seat uncompetitive for anyone in my party, including me," Webster told the committee. "This new plan not only disfavors the incumbent but appears to be an attempt to eliminate the incumbent."

The fate of the black voters in the Orlando area is already the subject of a federal lawsuit. Brown does not want the district redrawn, but her legal effort hit a snag Monday when the underlying case was withdrawn.

The base map being considered by lawmakers would reduce the black voting-age population in Brown's district from 47 percent to 44 percent. The dilution of the black voting population in her district is in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, she contends.

Webster, though, ruled out legal action on his part to save his seat in Congress. There's no federal Voting Rights Act issue involved in his case, and the state Supreme Court has already ruled on the Fair Districts, ordering an east-west district.

"I'm not sure what legal action I'd have. If the Supreme Court upholds it, they're the appeal," Webster said.

That could bring an end to Webster's political career in Florida, which spans three decades and includes a stint as Florida House speaker.

A final vote on new districts is expected next week. The districts will then be reviewed by a lower court in September.

More mapmaking is in store for lawmakers, who must gather again in Tallahassee in October to draw new state Senate districts.


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