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Senate committee signs off on its redistricting maps

After a bitter debate over a last-minute map produced and withdrawn by Democrats, the Senate Reapportionment Committee on Wednesday voted out its proposals to redraw the political lines for the Senate and Congress for the next 10 years.

The proposals will create a new Hispanic congressional seat in Central Florida, leave intact all of the African-American minority seats in Congress and the state Senate, and retain the Republican majority in both the Senate and congressional delegations. 
If adopted by the full Senate next week, as expected, the bills will move to the House where legislative leaders hope they will get final resolution by the end of the month. The legislative maps will then be sent to the Florida Supreme Court, as required, and the congressional map will go to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
The court has 30 days to approve or reject the proposal and lawmakers want a chance to rewrite it, if necessary, before session ends March 9.
"Should there be any areas in which the Supreme Court to have another look at the maps, my hope is we could do that while we’re still in session,’’ said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the committee. "I don’t want to come back for a redistricting session."
Prior to the meeting, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, submitted two alternative maps. Her proposals, written the Democratic Party of Florida’s help, would slightly reduce the number of Democrats in proposed Senate and Congressional districts, creating competitive Republican seats and two more Democrat-leaning districts than the Republican proposals. 
But the proposals unleashed the partisan hostility that had been pent up since the process began seven months ago. Rich abruptly withdrew the amendments, saying instead that she will resubmit them as an amendment when the full chamber votes on the measure Jan. 17.
"I believe we can do a better in reconciling the Voting Rights Act and the Constitutional amendments,’’ she said, a reference to the newly-adopted Fair Districts amendments that prohibit legislators from protecting incumbents or political parties when drawing maps.
The suggestion that senators would be asked to vote on a fresh map they will have only had the weekend to see, drew sharp rebukes from Republicans on the committee.
"I am totally discontent and unhappy with the way this has been handled to get a massive change to a map that I have no idea what it is,’’ said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.
But it was clear that Rich didn’t even have the support of her own members for her plan. Her congressional map, for example, would have ended the seven-county stretch that now comprises the district held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and make it more compact but, in turn, reduce the percentage of black voters from 49 percent to 36 percent.
"This would have clearly diminished the ability for African Americans to be elected to office,’’ said Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, whose district would have gone from more than 50 percent black under the Senate map to 20 percent black under Rich’s plan. Bullard’s son hopes to replace her when she leaves because of term limits. 
Rich said that she relied on help from staff at the Democratic Party of Florida to draw her maps because Senate Democrats do not have access to the staff that the Republican leadership has. She said they made no attempt to protect incumbents and that Bullard’s district "has never been a minority access district. It’s been pretty evenly divided" and has become much more Hispanic in population so must change.
Unlike the Republican map, Rich said, the Senate map creates a new minority access seat in Palm Beach County, which could elect another black to the Senate.
Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith came to Rich’s defense and in a statement said he believed her maps comply with the requirements of the new Fair Districts requirements in the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry immediately seized on the Democrats’ remarks as “an outrageous demonstration of hypocrisy.” 
“Florida Democrats say one thing while doing another by pushing maps that favor Democrats and diminish the possibility of African-Americans representing their communities of interest,’’ he said.
The committee voted 22-4 in favor of the Senate map, with four of the 10 Democrats opposed: Rich, Maria Sachs of Delray Beach, Oscar Braynon of Miami and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.
According to a Herald/Times analysis, the map of the 40-member Senate creates 24 Republican-leaning districts, sacrificing Republican strength in areas now held by 11 of the senators leaving because of term limits. It includes 14 Democrat-leaning districts and two competitive districts that could be considered a toss-up. The map creates a new Hispanic access seat in Central Florida and eight of the districts have 50 percent or more minority voters.
The map could result in some of the chamber’s 29 Republicans facing more competitive races in the 40-member House in the 2012 elections. But it is sure to preserve the Republican majority in both the Senate and the Congressional delegation.
The Congressional map, approved by the committee 21-5, creates 15 Republican-leaning districts, 10 Democrat-leaning districts and two competitive districts. Five of the districts have 50 percent or more registered Democratic voters, including the minority majority seats now held by Democratic U.S. Reps. Brown, Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson. None have 30 percent or more registered Independent voters.
In six of the proposed districts, 50 percent or more of registered voters are black or Hispanic, including districts now held by U.S. Reps. David Rivera and Mario Diaz Balart, both of whom are Republicans.