Miami-Dade's Hispanic districts remained the focal point of the high stakes conflict between the House and Senate over the redrawing of the state Senate boundaries Wednesday as it became apparent that Senate leaders did not have the votes to pass a House map that significantly revised the configuration of the South Florida districts.
The full Senate met for 30 minutes to take up the House's redistricting map, S9079 and, rather than taking up a vote on the compromise plan, they agreed to a rare two-person conference committee to work out their differences.
Two hours later, Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, met for 10 minutes in the Senate's cavernous conference room, filled with two dozen curious House and Senate members, deeply concerned about what any new map could mean to their political future.
With little debate, Galvano and Oliva agreed to have staff make changes to only the Miami portion of the House map, picking up a configuration previously offered in a draft map known as S9080 and S9074.
"Instead of going through the changes at this point, let me make a recommendation,'' Galvano said. "That recommendation would be to look at South Florida. What I would like to do is look at the base maps that have been proposed and see if there is a configuration within those base maps that could be juxtaposed into S9079 that would improve the overall metric."
Oliva said, "we're very open to look at that."
There was no other discussion and they agreed to return again on Thursday.
The Senate earned the votes of Miami's three Hispanic Republicans to narrowly pass its map to the House on a 22-18 vote last week. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, voted with Senate leadership to support the map after Diaz de la Portilla's amendment was approved to strengthen the three Miami's three Hispanic-majority districts.
But, after it became clear that the amendment also helped to remove Diaz de la Portilla from the same district as Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, Oliva said he feared it could be criticized by the court as being designed to protection an incumbent. The House then changed the configuration of the map, drawing the districts similar to a map drawn by the redistricting challengers, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida.
Diaz de la Portilla blasted the change as a significant diminishment of Hispanic voting strength, noting that one of the proposed districts reduces the voting age population.
“The Oliva map diminishes the ability of Hispanics to elect a candidate of their choice in one of three Hispanic seats in Miami-Dade,” he told the Herald/Times. “I can’t support a retrogressive map.”
Diaz de la Portilla said late Wednesday that if Galvano and Oliva choose S9080, the draft "base" map drawn by staff which Galvano said would be considered as an alternative to the House map, he would not support it. According to the data, he said the map packs Hispanics into proposed Districts 36 and 37 and divides communities in proposed District 35, his home district, that he says does not guarantee a Hispanic could be elected.
"For almost 30 years, the Hispanic community in Miami Dade has had three seats in the Florida Senate,'' he said. "This new map leaves our community with just two Hispanic seats. This map is patently unfair for Hispanics in Miami Dade. This is just wrong."
Like the House map, S9080 gives Democrats potentially four more seats in the Senate -- based only presidential election results which don't guarantee that Democrats could win-- while S9074 gives Democrats only three added swing seats.
But in Miami Dade, Districts 36 and 37 remain heavily Democratic and in District 35, Diaz de la Portilla would be pitted against Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, in a district that elected Obama by 52.4 percent of the vote in 2012. Flores would be forced to move north or face Democrat-heavy District 38, Bullard's home turf. The change would also push Braynon's district into predominantly Broward territory.
What Galvano left unsaid was what to do about the concerns raised by other senators during the Senate session, and what impact that may have on the ability of Senate leaders to attain the votes to pass a map.
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who voted for the Senate map last week said he "very strongly" objected to the decision by the House to split Lake County into two districts and divide The Villages into multiple districts. "Could you consider that in your deliberations?" he asked.
Galvano replied: "Your concerns are noted" but he made no mention of them when he met Oliva.
Hovering over the Senate vote is the bitter feud over who will be Senate president in 2016 as Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, appears to have the votes. His rival, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, believes that a vote should not be taken until the maps are finalized by the courts or an election occurs. Senate President Andy Gardiner has set a Dec. 2 meeting of the Republican caucus to elect Negron as the next president.
Galvano was asked if he was willing to agree to postpone the vote in order to win votes of some senators. "We're not going to make political side deals to get votes on the map with regard to leadership of the Senate,'' he said.
Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, the lead Democrat on the Senate redistricting committee, blasted the narrow approach of Galvano and Oliva in not addressing the concerns of other senators and making decisions without the input of other legislators.
"I think we're heading down a path of not having 21 votes,'' he said. "It's about to happen in a closed door session. My hope is they at least record it."
He and members of the press asked Gardiner to allow them to sit in and observe the staff as it revised the House map, but the request was rejected.
"If there is a feeling amongst the leadership of the House and Senate that members are unable to follow the [Florida Constitution] then that needs to be said,'' he said. "The implication is we're not capable of doing it."
Photo: Reps. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers and Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, review a proposed map during the meeting between the House and Senate redistricting chairman late Wednesday.