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House and Senate give early approval to congressional fix, voters group issues warning

RedistrictOldNewFlorida House and Senate redistricting committees gave swift approval Friday to a proposed fix to the invalid congressional redistricting map hatched in private by legislative leaders and staff. 

The House Redistricting Committee voted along party lines to approve the map after rejecting an alternative drawn by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando intended to remove the partisan advantage in Districts 7 and 10, held by U.S. Reps. John Mica, R-Orlando, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden.

Democrats joined with Republicans in the Senate and unanimously approved the fix that was created by House and Senate redistricting staff in private meetings with Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, and their outside legal counsel.

The fix attempts to resolve the issues raised by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis when he threw out the congressional map and ordered Districts 5 and 10 to be redrawn. The proposalcleans up the meandering District 5, now held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and slightly modifies District 10, held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. 

Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida, which successfully sued to get the congressional map overturned, warned that the Legislature's repairs don't go far enough to satisfy the court's concerns and urged them to consider their proposed alternative.

"Map 9057 continues to use a minority-marginalizing relic of an era in which political gerrymandering was acceptable – now it is not,'' the voters groups wrote in a letter to House and Senate leaders.

District 5 "packs an excessive number of African Americans into a district marked by hooks, tentacles and appendages as it snakes through and splits every county from Jacksonville down to Orlando. By packing minorities into such a north-south district, CD 5 in Map 9057 destroys the ability to create an additional district with significant minority voting strength in Central Florida."

They offered an alternative map that creates a minority district along the east-west corridor of the top of the state and which, they said, will create the opportunity for two black to be elected to Congress from north and central Florida instead of one. 

But the proposal has been rejected by the leadership of the NAACP and no Democrats in the House or Senate have offered it as an alternative to the GOP proposal.  Download 2014 08-08 LOWV Letter to Weatherford and Gaetz re 9057.docx

Graphic: Comparision of current congressional districts and the proposed change in C9057 by Ron Brackett, Tampa Bay Times

The GOP proposal, however, drew praise even from Senate Democrats on the committee and members of the NAACP. (http://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2014A/0002A)

 “It seems like you’ve done your homework and done it well,” Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, told Galvano. 

Whitfield Jenkins, the former president of the Marion County NAACP, said District 5 secures the ability for African-Americans to get elected. Significantly altering it would prevent that from happening, he said.

Beverlye Colson Neal, the former executive director of the NAACP Florida Conference, said reducing the number of black voters would disenfranchise the same voters.

 “These voters will be placed in districts where they are outnumbered by whites,” Neal told the committee. “African Americans are a fragile community and the least bit of disenfranchisement will keep them away from the polls.”

 Neal conceded that she didn’t favor the fair districts amendment in the first place.

 “It wasn’t fair to ask African-Americans,” Neal said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, a former legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Brown, said she wanted to make sure not too many black voters were removed from District 5.

“When I look back at the numbers, it doesn’t appear to be egregious,” Gibson said. “I’ll probably crunch them over the weekend. I just want to make sure it continues to be a district that those constituents can have a representative of their choosing, collectively.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, gave a full-throated defense of the original map and the new proposed map. 

“It’s an excellent proposal that we should all be supporting,” he said of the new map.

 “There’s a misunderstanding of what Fair Districts do. It’s a constitutional reaffirmation of the Voting Rights Act. We are prohibited from diminishing the ability of minorities from electing representatives of their choice. I believe the League of Women Voters has thoroughly misapplied fair districts.” 

Later he called out the Florida League of Women Voters for not commenting on the maps or proposing one of its own. 

“They should be here,” Simmons said. “They’re not here. They had the opportunity to be here.”

Actually, a representative with the group was there taking notes. She referred all questions to Deirdre Macnab, the group’s president who had sent a letter to House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz earlier in the week, offering an alternate map and urging them to have it filed by a member of the Legislature.

In a letter to the leaders on Friday, Macnab and Peter Butzin of Common Cause said the Legislative map “makes only minor changes to the enacted map by eliminating the incursion into SeminoleCounty by Congressional District (“CD”) 5 and the finger-shaped appendage in CD 10" but retains the original District 5 which she called the "relic of an era in which political gerrymandering was acceptable."

Staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.