Redistricting drive could reshape politics
June 7, 2009
To the average citizen, it sounds like the most boring subject in government - a movement to reform the process of drawing legislative district boundaries.
That movement, however, could reshape Florida politics.
Its first result probably would be to help the Democratic Party win seats in the state Legislature and Congress in 2012 and thereafter. But supporters say it's a nonpartisan effort that would go far beyond changing the current political situation.
A petition drive for two constitutional amendments - one for state legislative districts and one for Florida congressional districts - now has about 450,000 of the 635,000 signatures needed for each amendment to get on the 2010 election ballot, organizers say.
With the help of large contributions from a few big Democratic donors, FairDistricts Florida.org, which is sponsoring the amendments, has raised almost $600,000 for a campaign.
That includes $200,000 from a retired Colorado energy executive who recently moved to Naples, $110,000 from a Tampa businessman and thousands more from well-known, high-level Democratic donors.
So far, there are no signs of an organized campaign to oppose the amendments. But considering how much is at stake, Republican insiders and the amendment's sponsors speculate one is bound to emerge.
The amendments would set new standards for drawing district boundaries, a process done after the Census every 10 years by the state Legislature.
In the past, under both parties, district lines have been drawn to strengthen whichever party held the majority in the Legislature.
Starting with the last redistricting in 2002, however, computerized mapping and voting data analysis made districting a far more powerful political tool than before.
"It has now become a science, not just an art," said Wayne Bailey, a Stetson University political scientist and a Democratic Party activist.
Question of legitimacy
"The whole legitimacy of state government is involved here," he said. "State government in Florida has not been in accord with the political feelings of the public."
Bailey and other Democrats say district lines are the reason Republicans hold a majority of nearly 2-1 in the Legislature and Florida congressional delegation, even though the state seems roughly evenly divided in voter opinion.
The state has one Democratic and one Republican senator, and the last three presidential races were a 50-50 tie in 2000, a GOP win in 2004 and a Democratic win in 2008.
Republicans disagree, noting they have won the past three governor's races and most statewide Cabinet races.
"I think the reason the Republicans hold the majorities is not because of boundaries but because of our philosophy in governing, which is embraced by the voters," state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer said.
A dominant party can use districting to its advantage by cramming as many opposing voters as possible into a few districts, leaving the remaining districts with small but reliable majorities of its own voters.
Some of the best examples are in the Tampa Bay area, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's 11th District. It includes most of Tampa, but hops across Tampa Bay to take in a chunk of south St. Petersburg, then runs down a narrow strip of the bay's eastern shore to take in central Bradenton.
That arrangement, crafted by the GOP-dominated Legislature in 2002, gave Castor a big Democratic majority. But it Republicanized GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young's 10th District in Pinellas, and the Bradenton-Sarasota 13th District, won that year by Republican Katherine Harris and now held by Republican Vern Buchanan.
Lawsuits seeking more minority officeholders have helped Republicans by moving Democratic-oriented black voters into a few districts and "bleaching" the remaining districts.
FairDistricts officials, however, say the amendments aren't meant to help either party, but to create a fair, more competitive system for both parties.
The chairman is Thom Rumberger, a prominent Tallahassee lawyer who calls himself "an active, practicing, contributing Republican" and financial backer for numerous high-level GOP officeholders.
Other leaders include former Republican state Comptroller Bob Milligan and prominent Democrats including former Sen. Bob Graham.
"If this is adopted, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would have an unfair advantage," Rumberger said.
When the state Legislature draws district lines after the Census, political horse-trading reaches epic proportions, as legislative leaders and Congress members seek districts to help themselves or their allies.
The governor can veto the House plan, but not the legislative plan.
The results are spidery, Rorschach-shaped districts, often running miles along narrow strips of waterfront or street frontage to take in particular pockets of voters.
The result, said Ellen Freidin, campaign manager for FairDistricts, is a lack of competition in state legislative and congressional races.
"Districts are designated and planned to be won by a party or an individual, so there usually aren't any meaningful challenges," she said.
Since 2004, Freidin said, only three incumbent state legislators have been voted out of office, out of 120 House members and 40 senators.
The amendments say the districts may not be drawn to favor any party or candidate, and would have to be compact and follow city or county lines or geographic boundaries where possible.
The state House and Senate opposed the language of the amendments before the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully contending they violated the single-subject rule for amendments and that the ballot summaries were misleading.
Greer said if an organization forms to oppose the measure, the Republican Party won't contribute. "The party's position on any constitutional issue will be to provide information, but not put resources toward anything except electing Republicans to office."
Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida, which backs the amendments, doesn't think they'll pass without a fight.
"It may take the form of a stealth effort, but I'd be surprised if there weren't opposition," he said.
FairDistricts raised $560,901 in the first three months of the year. Freidin said she couldn't predict the total on the coming April-June report, but said the organization has spent virtually all it has raised on gathering signatures. Among big contributors so far:
•$200,000 from Christopher Findlater, an energy company executive and major donor to national Democratic causes who recently moved to Naples.
•$110,000 from a company run by Charles R. Brink of Tampa, one of the founders of the MonaVie beverage company.
•$50,000 from the Service Employees International Union, a politically active, Democratic-oriented union.
•$50,000 from the Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, a West Palm Beach trial law firm.
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