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Senate: Safeguarding minority seats top priority

The Florida Senate reached a consensus Tuesday that in redrawing legislative districts, their No. 1 priority is to ensure that nothing is done to "diminish" the ability of racial and language minorities to elect the candidates of their choice. The decision by the Republican-controlled Senate Reapportionment Committee sets the tone for the highly partisan remapping process that will dominate Tallahassee in the coming months.

Senators say they are legally bound to safeguard minority districts because of the language in the two so-called fair districts amendments voters added to the state Constitution in 2010 (and which Republicans opposed). Amendment 5 says that "districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, urged that redistricting staffers be instructed to design minority seats first "and we shape the rest of the map around those seats." Added Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former state Republican Party chairman: "I do believe that racial protection is clearly paramount."

Democrats on the redistricting panel were low-key in their remarks. Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said what matters is not the African-American population in a district as much as performance -- who turns out to vote and how they vote. Braynon noted that Duval County just elected its first African-American mayor, Alvin Brown, in a county-wide election, even though black voters do not make up a majority of the county's electorate. 

Tuesday's discussion focused on two state Senate seats held by African-American Democrats, Gary Siplin of Orlando and the newly-elected Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville. Siplin's District 19 seat has a black voting age population of 33 percent and a Hispanic voting age population of 36 percent. Gibson's District 1 seat has a black voting age population of 47 percent. Senators said that means that the redrawn seats must have at least those same percentages of minority voters.

For Republicans, safeguarding minority voting strength may be smart politics as well as sensible policy. African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and as their population in select districts increases, it likely diminishes the chances for Democrats to make gains in the adjacent seats. The "bleaching" of districts in the 1992 reapportionment was critical to the GOP's takeover of the state Legislature a few years later. In the end, partisan control of the Legislature is what reapportionment is all about. 

-- Steve Bousquet