Florida congressional redistricting hearing heats up

Bill Cotterell | Tallahassee Democrat | 09/25/2015

Attorneys for the Legislature hotly denied Thursday that Republican legislative leaders plotted to protect GOP members of Congress and accused plaintiffs in Florida’s marathon redistricting suit of being in cahoots with Democrats to rig the political boundaries.

But lawyers for the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and a coalition of citizens whose lawsuit got the state’s congressional maps tossed out by the Florida Supreme Court said House and Senate leaders were covertly protecting a Cuban-American member in South Florida.

As Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis began a planned three-day trial on seven alternative maps for the state’s 27 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congresswoman Corrine Brown renewed her attack on a proposed district that would stretch a minority-access district from Chattahoochee to Jacksonville. Brown cited recent remarks by a GOP state legislator who was secretly recorded telling other party officers that the key to defeating Brown lies in the district’s number of state prison inmates, who are disproportionately black but are unable to vote.

Pending proposals would split Leon County, affecting the political futures of first-term Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, and Brown, who was elected in 1992. Her district runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, embracing pockets of black population along the way, and she wants to keep a north-south axis.

Plans left undone by the House and Senate last month, though, would run a district from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, splitting Leon, Jefferson and some other counties across North Florida. Brown has filed suit in federal court, saying the move illegally dilutes black voting strength.

State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, roiled the debate by suggesting that her party had padded the voting age population of the east-west district by including state prisons – where inmates count toward the required population of a district, but are ineligible to vote in Florida. A secret recording of Adkins’ remarks at a recent state GOP conference was obtained this week by POLITICO Florida.

Brown issued a statement as the trial started, saying that reconfiguring her district from north-south to east-west would lower the black adult population from 50 percent to 45 percent. She said “many who were counted in this 45 percent are incapable of voting, so the number is in reality nowhere near 45 percent.”

She said there are 18 prisons with about 17,000 inmates in the proposed new district, nearly half of them black. Brown said that “completely distorted” the black voting age figure for her planned district.

Graham, elected last November, has declined comment on the remapping until it is done. She could run against Brown in the proposed cross-Florida district or try her luck in a probably more conservative tract running from Panama City to the outskirts of Ocala – or she could jump into the statewide U.S. Senate race next year.

Lewis opened the hearing by denying a motion by Rep. Daniel Webster, a Republican from Ocoee, who sought to intervene in the case. Lewis said it’s too late, and that Webster had ample opportunity to be heard in the legislative process, which broke down in August with no new maps passing.

“The evidence is going to show that political intentions infected not a shred of the base map,” said George Meros, representing the House, which passed a map drawn by staff members in response to the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling July 9 that threw out eight congressional districts. The Senate countered with its own version, and the special session was stymied – sending the case back to the courts.

Orlando attorney David King, representing the League and Common Cause, said legislators kept Homestead in one district but moved three heavily black communities into the district of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. That complied with Supreme Court requirements, King said, “but they found a way to make the districts even better for the Republican Party,” by protecting re-election chances of Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Kendall.

Meros countered that the plaintiffs have been far too cozy with the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in preparing their own “fix” for the district lines. He said Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Margate, had a tacit veto over any plans proposed by the plaintiffs for the Broward-Palm Beach County area he represents.

Lewis said he hopes to wrap up testimony by Monday, with both sides filing suggested findings later in the week. “I’d like to get this to the Supreme Court as soon as possible,” he said.

Lewis will recommend a plan to the justices, who will decided boundaries of the state’s congressional districts.


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