“By refusing any attempt to draw more compact districts while maintaining the required racial proportions, there is at least the appearance that the Senate thumbed its nose at the will of the people.”
– Florida Supreme Court Justice E.C. Perry
While the Florida House under the stewardship of Speaker Dean Cannon and Chairman Will Weatherford led the usually partisan House through a painstaking effort to draw compact districts that minimized partisan considerations, the Florida Senate did the opposite. What has been discussed for weeks behind closed doors has mirrored the final judgment of the Supreme Court. Senator Don Gaetz and President Mike Haridopolos arrogantly drew districts for the 2012 election similar to the way the Senate drew districts in 2002- with incumbents of both parties in mind rather than the 2010 Constitutional Amendment mandating a strict test of “Fair Districts.”
The Senate’s arrogance will usher in yet another special session. While Legislators pontificate about being responsible stewards of taxpayer money, the proliferation of avoidable special sessions since the GOP takeover of the Legislature in the late 1990s is mind numbing.
As someone who was retained by multiple entities as a consultant during the 2002 process and also testified in front of the Legislature that year, I saw the Senate’s process and ultimate handwork wrought with potential problems, while the House, surprisingly to many conducted itself in a more open and fair manner than in 2002 or 1992 for that matter when the Democrats controlled the process. The ultimate result was a House map that withstood court scrutiny unanimously while a Senate map that was rejected 5-2. Florida’s Democrats also need to be held accountable for wasting resources and ultimately the time of the court by challenging a House map which met the standard of fairness. The Senate map was obviously flawed while the House map clearly was not. But the Florida Democratic Party choose to play politics by challenging both maps and weakening their own credibility in the process.
In 2002, the Florida Senate drew a map which protected every non term limited incumbent of both parties with the exception of Richard Mitchell (D-Jasper) whom the Republicans wisely perceived as a statewide electoral threat and the Democrats seemed willing to dispose of. Interestingly, current Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith voted for that Redistricting plan which gave him a safer seat by taking several Democratic leaning areas in the Big Bend region away from the more liberal Mitchell.
That same year, the Florida House drew a partisan gerrymander that Elbridge Gerry himself would be proud. Broward County was greeted by several non-resident delegation members who were Republicans for the express purpose of weakening the delegation’s cohesion. Growing Central Florida saw the GOP concede one seat, the Winter Park based 36th which was packed with Democrats who could have very easily been drawn into other districts. Gainesville lost a seat as Democratic Alachua County despite fair growth was represented by only one resident House member for the first since the era of malapportionment. Districts in Hillsborough and Pinellas County followed railroad tracks, bridges, and other features in order to maximize the partisan GOP gain.
The next two elections found the Democrats down to paltry 36 seats in the 120 member chamber. Democrats came back only ever so slightly in 2006 and 2008 thanks to the partisan nature of the districts. But with the House’s adherence to Fair District principles in 2002, Florida’s Democrats but no longer have their favorite excuse for continued failures at the Legislative level.
In the House plan, great pains have been taken to keep a standard of compactness and maintain communities of interest. Additionally, public testimony was encouraged in this cycle not simply window dressing as it was in 2002 and 1992. (once under Republicans and once under Democrats) No such effort was made in the Senate. In fact, several urban districts such as SD-14 and SD-32 have seemingly been drawn with the desire to pack partisans into a single district to help surrounding incumbent or Republicans. The Senate map has all the feelings of a backroom deal, and contains some of the same zig zagging, incomprehensible districts that members drew from themselves in 1992 and 2002.
Credit to the Florida House under GOP Leadership for understanding the mandate passed overwhelmingly by the voters in 2010. Shame on the Florida Senate for continuing the age old tradition of ignoring voters and communities of interest in a Redistricting year and focusing solely on political, personal and partisan considerations. Let us hope the Senate gets it right in the Special Session. Failure to do so will further break trust with the citizens of the state and continue to cycle of wasting taxpayer dollars on special sessions that could be easily avoided.