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Dean Cannon, mistrust, dumb ideas, political scientists and Day 7 of redistricting trial

Day Seven in Florida's precedent-setting redistricting trial may look like a sleeper for the few that are watching the soporific play-by-play on The Florida Channel but for the cognoscenti, the plot keeps getting thicker.

At stake is the 2012 congressional maps drawn by the Republican-led legislature and being challenged by a group of voters, led by the League of Women Voters and a group of Democrat-leaning plaintiffs. The court awaits the arrival of the secret documents from political operative Pat Bainter, unless the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in. Here are some developments from Wednesday: 

Plot line #1: What did the presiding officers know? 

Dean Cannon, the former House speaker during the 2012 redistricting session, testified under oath that he didn't know that his redistricting director was meeting with Washington redistricting attorney Ben Ginsberg, GOP political operatives Rich Heffley, Marc Reichelderfer and members of the House and Senate staff at Republican Party of Florida headquarters in December 2010 to discuss redistricting. But, had he been told, he said, he would have been "comfortable" with it.

“It was a good idea for anyone who had been involved or had been involved to get together with staff and legal counsel to figure out the rules of the road,’’ he said.

Reichelderfer testified last week that he attended the meeting to see if political consultants would "have a seat at the table" and current House Speaker Will Weatherford, who was then House redistricting chairman, testified they were told they wouldn't. 

Plaintiffs allege that Republican political consultants conspired with GOP staff to conduct a "shadow" redistricting process that used operatives to draw maps and have them submitted by members of the public. They claim that those maps then became the foundation of the legislature's final redistricting maps.

Plainfiff's attorney David King noted that Cannon, who now runs a Tallahassee lobbying firm, was first an opponent of the Fair Districts amendment and then vowed to conduct an open process.

“So we are going to begin this open and transparent process with a secret meeting at the Republican Party of Florida headquarters?” King asked.

Cannon acknowledged that once Fair Districts amendments became law he was determined to uphold the Constitution. The meeting was justified to help staff and consultants know "what role was appropriate for people both inside and outside the Legislature.”

Cannon acknowledged he used taxpayer resources to challenge the constitutionality of the ballot statement and that he tried and failed to get the Florida Supreme Court to accept the Legislature's competing amendment, known as Amendment 7, in an effort to gut the Fair Districts proposal. Cannon personally argued the case before the Florida Supreme Court.

“I felt that amendments were poorly drafted and would foment litigation just like this litigation,’’ Cannon said. "I thought it was a bad idea to take the discretion out of politics…take politics out of politics." 

Cannon also testified that he routinely deleted emails that were deemed insignificant and not worthy of archival, including redistricting emails.

Plot line #2: Why were political consultants kept in the loop on redistricting?

Cannon echoed the testimony of House Speaker Will Weatherford and others who said that the reason political consultants Marc Reichelderfer and Rich Heffley were allowed in the inner circle on redistricting is because they served roles as intermediaries during a time of tense mistrust between the House and Senate.  

Cannon called it a "pretty persistent, chilly relationship" and the political operatives helped to relieve the tension.

"Mr. Reichelderfer was a friend and I knew he was a good friend with Mr. Heffley,'' Cannon said. "Marc counseled me it’s not going to be healthy if there is this persistant conflict between the chambers." 

Cannon said he worried that the Senate would release a map that would expose "embarrassing" weaknesses in the House map and he exchanged several emails with Reichelderfer about his concerns.

"We had shown our draft map and they had not reciprocated and it was making everybody antsy,'' Cannon testified. "…You don’t want to have persistent acrimony between the House and Senate."

At one point Cannon asked Reichelderfer why the Senate would have released a map before getting the House's approval of it.

“Why would they put out a map until we are sure it is one that is acceptable?” he wrote.

He said he later concluded that "the reason they hadn’t given us their draft map back is they weren’t finished with it yet. There wasn’t going to be any attempt to make the House look bad."

Plot line #3: Who was drawing the maps? 

Cannon said that he was unaware that Kirk Pepper, his deputy chief of staff, delivered several maps drawn by the House redistricting staff to Reichelderfer weeks before they were made public. Pepper testified that he did it to "help a friend" who makes his living off the political process -- but he never notified Cannon.

"My recollection is I yelled at him and told him that was stupid,'' Cannon testified. "…I said that is really dumb and he agreed."

But Cannon said he never asked Pepper any more questions about why he gave Reichelderfer the maps or why Reichelderfer might want them. He said he learned all he needed to know "in the press clips." Pepper has since gone to work for Cannon at his lobbying firm.

Cannon also testified that he supported having Alex Kelly, the House redistricting staff director, meet with Senate redistricting staff director John Guthrie to work out an agreement on the Senate maps outside of the public process.

But, he said, “I never gave Mr. Kelly any instructions about any particular district because that’s how I approached the entire process.” 

He said that his only direction was that every change had to improve the map. "That was my failsafe check on someone going in to help or hurt an incumbent or a political party,” he said. "...Our goal was to produce the best possible map so that it would be invulnerable to a legal challenge and not be taken away from the legislature by the courts.”

Florida Republican Party official Frank Terraferma has testified this week and last that districts that he drew are identical to the maps submitted by former FSU student Alex Posada, which became the basis for the final congressional plan. But Terraferma did not know how his map made its way into Posada's plan. 

“I have no idea what other people may have done with stuff I may have drawn,” Terraferma said.

Plot line #4: The legislature could have drawn better maps

The plaintiffs hired Harvard University election expert Stephen Ansolabehere to drew three alternative maps. Ansolabehere testified his results are more compact and kept communities of interest together better than the districts drawn by the Legislature.

For example, he drew a map that included Congressional District 5, now held by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, that was more compact than the one drawn by the Legislature, he said. His proposed district stretches across North Florida, from Jacksonville to Tallahassee where racial polarization is higher than it is in Central Florida, he said, instead of dividing dozens of communities from Orlando to Jacksonville.

He also testified that District 10, held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Haven, could have become a stronger minority district.

"It's notable, without trying,'' we were able to create an alternative map that kept communities together in a way the Legislatively-drawn maps did not, he said.   

George Meros, attorney for the House of Representatives, challenged Ansolabehere's conclusion and suggested that "none of the maps that have been produced have beaten the Legislature’s maps with city and county splits and compactness."

Ansolabehere disagreed. "It depends on now you view it and how the judge and others weigh the different criteria,'' he said. "I think county splits are the more relevant criteria….otherwise redistricting can go mad and you can cut a county into 100 different splits to create as many districts as you possibly could."