March 21, 2017

Florida Senate passes redistricting push back: Court told us what to do, so now we'll tell it what to do

RedistrictOldNewAfter four years of bitter legal battles over Florida redistricting, Republicans in the Florida Senate Tuesday passed a bill that makes new demands on the court in future map wars, and sets new standards about which maps take effect and when.

The bill, SB 352 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, passed the Senate 24-14, on a party line vote. It locks maps in place on qualifying day and requires that if a map is challenged 71 days before the primary election, the existing map in force will be the one that applies for the election. If the court orders revised the boundaries after that, the new boundaries will take effect in the next election cycle.

Those changes essentially codify the ruling of Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis in 2015, but the bill also trods new legal ground by also "encouraging" the court to act as if it were a legislative body. Before resolving a redistricting dispute, the Senate bill wants the court to conduct public hearings, record and maintain public records and accept public submissions of draft maps.

"The courts are now passing law,'' Hutson explained. "All I'm doing is what they encouraged us to do. There are things the public should know, how they're coming to these conclusions so we know where their heads are at."

The proposal is a response to the legal wrangling that snagged the Florida Senate and embarrassed its leaders in the last election cycle. After voters approved the Fair Districts gerrymandering standards in 2010, courts struck down congressional and Senate district maps approved by the Legislature and the grounds that the maps violated the Fair District provisions that prohibited favoring incumbents or political parties. 

During debate on the bill last week, Hutson defended that changes as necessary to ensure transparency in the redistricting process and provide certainty for voters and elections supervisors. But Democrats argued that the bill appeared to be intended as retribution against the judicial branch.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, offered an amendment to remove the section of the bill that imposes the new legislative standards on the court, saying "it also just doesn't work. I don't know what a court would do with this kind of language." 

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, argued against the amendment, saying the changes were needed to stop what he considered the "arrogance" of the courts, which ordered lawmakers to keep a record of the redistricting deliberations in order to establish whether they were adhering to the provision that prevents them from "intentionally" favoring incumbents or parties.

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April 26, 2016

Corrine Brown says tells SCOTUS she'll appeal redistricting ruling. What grounds? We have to wait

Corrine BrownU.S. Rep. Corrine Brown filed a one-page motion with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday saying that, yes, she's going to appeal the federal court ruling that upheld the redrawing of the district.

Brown, D-Jacksonville, sued the state last year after a court approved a map drawn by a coalition of voters was adopted. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and a group of Democrat-leaning voters successfully challenged the Florida Legislature's map and, when lawmakers couldn't agree on a plan to redo it, the court approved the plaintiff's plan.

Brown, who was joined by dozens of black voters from north and central Florida, argued that the new district’s east-west configuration across the top of the state violates the federal Voting Rights Act by making it less likely that the district would elect a candidate preferred by black voters. A three judge court panel of the Northern District of Florida rejected her claims. 

Brown's motion filed this week indicates that she will appeal but does not indicate whether she will ask the court to enjoin the implementation of the map in November or not.  Download Brown redistricting appeal

In a landmark case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last July that Brown's Jacksonville-to-Orlando district was in violation of the "Fair Districts" amendments to the state constitution because it was drawn to carve out Democratic-leaning African-American voters from districts in Northeast and Central Florida to benefit Brown and to make the surrounding districts more hospitable for Republican candidates.

Brown, who had been elected twice from the map drawn by the Florida Legislature in 2012, announced last week that she would seek re-election to the reconfigured east to west district.

The ruling was the latest in more than four years of legal challenges over Florida’s redistricting maps. Meanwhile, the court-approved map will remain in place unless Brown seeks an injunction and the U.S. Supreme Court approves. 



April 21, 2016

Gwen Graham may run for Florida governor in 2018


U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, announced in a press release and video this morning that she might run for Florida governor in 2018.

"I'm excited to tell you first I am seriously considering running for governor in 2018," she said.

Graham, who said she won't seek re-election to her Congressional seat, would have faced a tough re-election after redistricting made her northern Florida district less favorable for Democrats. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is term limited so he can't run for re-election.

Graham won her seat in Congress in 2014. She has name recognition beyond northern Florida because she is the daughter of former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also seems to be feeling out a Democratic race. Other potential names mentioned include Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and State Sen. Jeremy Ring who represents western Broward.

On the Republican side, it has been speculated that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will run -- his political action committee raised more than $4 million in one year. There has also been considerable chatter that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will run even though he denied that a couple days after he lost the Florida presidential primary.

Graham's challenge in a statewide Democratic primary will be explaining some right-leaning votes she took in her conservative district including in favor of the Keystone pipeline.

Since her district was reconfigured by a court order, Graham has been rumored to be preparing to drop out of Congress and launch a campaign for governor in 2018. When U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown announced she would stay in the seat, Graham's options narrowed. This is considered more than a trial balloon but a warning shot to funders and potential foes. 

From her press release:

The politicians, lobbyists and courts in Tallahassee have been working to redraw and divide the North Florida district I represent -- they’ve turned what was an example of a fair district, into two partisan districts.

This is a perfect example of how dysfunctional our state government has become, and it’s caused me to rethink how I can best serve the people of North Florida and our state.

I’m excited to tell you, first, I’m seriously considering running for governor in 2018.

Public servants must focus on the job they’re elected to do, so I will spend the remainder of my term fully representing you in Congress, but I will not seek re-election while considering this next step of service.

Working together, I know we can bring common sense back to Tallahassee and make our state work for the people, again.

Thank you for all the support you’ve given me in the past. I will continue looking to you for advice, support and inspiration as we build a stronger future for Florida.

Photo credit Associated Press

April 20, 2016

Corrine Brown announces she'll seek election to district she thinks violates Voting Rights Act

Corrine BrownSaying she is "very disappointed" in the federal court ruling that rejected her attempt to invalidate a new Congressional District 5 which stretches across North Florida, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, announced Wednesday that she will seek re-election to the district anyway. 

“Although I still maintain that the new congressional districts will be severely disadvantageous to minorities throughout the state of Florida, I intend to declare my candidacy for the newly drawn Congressional District Five of Florida,'' Brown said in a statement.

On Tuesday, a three judge federal court panel of the Northern District of Florida upheld the Congressional District 5, which had been ordered reconfigured to run from east to west by the Florida Supreme Court last year. In a landmark case, a majority of justices ruled that Brown's Jacksonville-to-Orlando district was in violation of the "Fair Districts" amendments to the state constitution because it was drawn to carve out Democratic-leaning African-American voters from districts in Northeast and Central Florida to benefit Brown and to make the surrounding districts more hospitable for Republican candidates.

Brown sued, arguing that the newly-configured district violates the federal Voting Rights Act by making it less likely that the district would elect a candidate preferred by black voters, and the federal court rejected her claims.

"Although the victory percentages may drop slightly from those in the north-south configuration, the evidence demonstrates that black-preferred candidates should generally continue to win east-west District 5 with about 60 percent of the vote," wrote judges Robin Rosenbaum, Robert Hinkle and Mark Walker in the opinion. "And a win is a win, regardless of the margin of victory.”

Brown, who has served in Congress since 1992 in a district that sliced through the central part of Florida, is likely to face unfamiliar competition for the new North Florida district. Although much of the population of the district is still concentrated near Brown's hometown of Jacksonville, she must now appeal to voters that she has never served before as far west as Gadsden County.

Former state Sen. Al Lawson, a long-serving Democratic legislator from Quincy, has announced his decision to run in the district regardless of Brown's decision. Others had said they are considering jumping into the race as well. 

Brown said she is "still mulling my options" about whether or not to appeal the court's decision saying she is "reviewing the ruling with Rep. John Conyers (the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee), as well as with Attorney William Sheppard and his legal team in Jacksonville."

"I have a lot of unfinished business to address in Washington, and I look forward to providing a strong voice in Congress for the citizens in the new 5th Congressional District,'' Brown said.

"As I always have, I will fight to bring the federal dollars that the citizens of the 5th District send to Washington back to Florida,'' she said. "As a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I will continue to fight to enhance transportation and infrastructure funding and development; and as a staunch advocate of health care, work to expand health care opportunities through the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare), as well as expand Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security dollars."


February 18, 2016

Diaz de la Portilla: killing guns and immigration bills was 'common sense'

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, on Wednesday laid out his rationale for why he decided to kill several controversial gun and immigration bills by not scheduling them for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, and he warned he will kill the bills again next year if they return.

"Not agendaing those bad bills was really nothing more than common sense,'' Diaz de la Portilla told an audience of the League of Women Voters Wednesday evening. The group recognized Diaz de la Portilla as one of three lawmakers to receive the group's  annual "Making Democracy Work" award. Also receiving the award was Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Rep. Dave Kerner, D-West Palm Beach. 

Diaz de la Portilla is up for re-election in a newly-drawn District 37, thanks to the lawsuit brought by the League and a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters who challenged the Senate map drawn by Senate Republicans.

But he could face fierce competition from Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who has told the Herald/Times that he is considering running for the district after the court approved the map drawn by the League's consultant. The new District 37 is heavily Hispanic and leans Democratic with a higher percentage of registered Democrats than Diaz de la Portilla has in his current district. In 2012, the district voted for Barack Obama with 53.6 percent of the vote.

Diaz de la Portilla reminded the group, however, that his "common sense" approach to legislation has included voting against what he called the "union-busting bill" known as "paycheck protection" during his first term in 2011. "I was just a freshman senator but it just didn't make sense and would have not been fair to a lot of people in my community,'' he said. 

He spoke about how he opposed attempts to split the Supreme Court into civil and criminal divisions -- an effort led by former Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon with the support of many in his party -- and Diaz de la Portilla reminded the group he was the deciding vote to kill a bill to convert public schools into charter schools.

"I didn't agenda the campus carry bill last year either,'' he said to applause. "And if the bill is back again next year and I'm here and that bill is filed again, that bill won't be heard next year either." 

Diaz de la Portilla noted that the proponents of the bill to allow concealed carry permit holders to openly carry their guns "want to make it seem as if it's some kind of gun rights issue. It's not a gun rights issue,'' he said. "It's a public safety issue. It's bad public policy."

He said that with both the open carry and campus carry bills, he heard that "law enforcement is against it, university professors are against it, college presidents and the majority of students are against it. There is only one strong, special interest group that's for it. Only one,'' he said, a reference to the influential National Rifle Association.

"We in the Legislature are elected to make decisions that are common sense, to make decisions that are for the people of the State of Florida,'' he said. "So if there are just a few people in the State of Florida who are backing a special interest, they just want to help the manufacturers to keep themselves relevant. I will not agenda open carry next year if I'm here to make that decision."

He called the immigration-related bills "xenophobic" and said that "we've had that debate" and "the majority of the people don't think these are ideas that we should be spending our time on." He announced Wednesday that SB 872, which punishes so-called “sanctuary cities” that limit enforcement of federal immigration orders, will not get a hearing in his committee. The companion measure, HB 675, has passed the Florida House.

Diaz de la Portilla has had a mixed record on voting and redistricting. In 2011, he supported a bill that reduced the number of weeks for early voting from two to one, and in 2013, after long lines plagued South Florida polls in 2012, he filed legislation to reinstate early voting the Sunday before Election Day. 

In 2015, a redistricting map he sponsored and the Senate passed was rejected by House leaders because they believed it was drawn to benefit Diaz de la Portilla, or his brother's efforts to seek re-election. Diaz de la Portilla  said he was motivated to increase Hispanic voting strength and keep Little Havana whole. He also complained that the alternative map promoted by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would diminish Hispanic voting strength. 

Diaz de la Portilla's position against the gun bills made him a target of some critical editing on his Wikipedia page, according to a public radio editor who discovered the changes.

He told the League that he would "rather spend the committee's time on [bills related to] mental illness, and dealing with direct file of juveniles....dealing with quality of life issues that make sense for most people, not dealing with special interest issues."

"I think it's important as an elected official to look at each issue on the merits and use your common sense,'' he said. "What the people of Florida want is somebody who will make decisions on the merits."

January 20, 2016

Florida Legislature won't appeal redistricting ruling; sets districts for 2016 election


The Florida Legislature is giving up the fight and will not contest a court ruling that redraws all of the state’s 40 state senate districts for the 2016 election cycle.

State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he told Senate President Andy Gardiner on Wednesday that the Legislature should let court-ordered maps go into effect, even though he says there were legal issues that were open to appeal.

“My recommendation is for us not to appeal, and the Senate President has agreed,” Galvano said.

The decision leaves the state with a new map that will recast Florida's political landscape, giving millions of people new representation and bolstering Democratic chances in 2016. Voters in South Tampa, East Hillsborough, and large portions of Pasco County will get new state senators, as a result of the map. In Miami-Dade in casts incumbents against one another in potential new districts in a presidential election cycle.

Democratic party analysts say the new maps are fairer and gives them a better chance of winning additional seats in a Florida Senate that has been dominated by the Republican Party for most of the last two decades.

The decision not to appeal also ends a tumultuous process that cost taxpayers over $11 million, led to four trials, three special sessions and eight rulings from the Florida Supreme Court.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds in Tallahassee ruled in late December that he was rejecting the Senate’s latest attempts to draw district lines and turning instead to a map backed by a coalition of votings rights groups, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. 

Galvano said after that ruling that the Legislature was considering appealing the decision or even requesting a re-hearing of the case. But Galvano said Wednesday that he’s ready to accept the court ruling and move forward with the new districts in place for the 2016 election cycle. He said the issues he has can be addressed in future redistrictings, which happen ever 10 years after the U.S. Census is completed.

The Legislature has been trying -- and failing -- to draw new district lines since 2012. But those maps and subsequent redistricting efforts have been struck down by the courts after the League of Women Voters and Common Cause challenged them in court saying they violated the fair districts provision of the state constitution, which mandates that lawmakers draw political boundaries without the intent to favor incumbents or political parties.

January 15, 2016

Court sets oral argument date in Corrine Brown redistricting case


During the next two months, lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, over Florida's new congressional maps will file briefs to make their case with federal judges.

But if all else fails, expect them to go to court March 25.

The U.S. District Court in Tallahassee this week set oral arguments for 9 a.m. that day "if the court determines to have a hearing or oral argument."

Specifically, the hearing would be about Brown's request for an injunction to stop her new district boundaries from going into effect.

The Florida Supreme Court officially approved a new map last year after ruling against the Legislature in a case that claimed unconstitutional partisan bias went into drawing Florida's congressional districts.

Brown's new district -- District 5 -- is dramatically different from her current one. This, she claims, disenfranchises voters in some of the African-American communities between Jacksonville and Orlando that she has represented for more than two decades.

But if the district court wants to intervene, it will have to act fast. County supervisors of elections must mail overseas ballots for the congressional primary by July 16.

January 06, 2016

Florida redistricting shuffle: Gwen Margolis to move to seek re-election in new Senate District 38

Miami Democrat Sen. Gwen Margolis said Wednesday that if the Florida Supreme Court approves the final state Senate map, she will be moving from her Coconut Grove home to seek re-election in adjacent District 38, under the court-approved state Senate map. 

Under the plan approved by the trial court, Margolis is paired in District 37 with Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, while it follows the boundaries of the City of Miami, it is now nearly evenly divided politically.  District 38 runs from Miami Beach to Aventura.
Margolis, 81, was first elected to the Legislature in 1981 and served for 12 years, including serving as the first woman Senate president in 1990. She was elected again to the Senate in 2010 and re-elected under the current redistricting map in 2012.
"She looks forward to continuing to meet with her constituents and voters who have long supported her as their state senator,” said Christian Ulvert, Margolis' campaign advisor. 

January 05, 2016

Sitting Miami-Dade senators pitted against each other in November election -- unless 2 move


When Circuit Judge George Reynolds approved a new state senate map last week, lawmakers’ political careers were suddenly thrown into flux. Much of that chaos hit in the middle of Miami-Dade County, where two pairs of sitting senators found themselves living in districts together.

It poses a tough choice: Move, perhaps to a more politically friendly district, or face another well established incumbent in the November election.

Two Miami-Dade lawmakers were much luckier. Sens. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, will run for reelection in very similar districts to those they represent now. However, because of random district numbers drawn Tuesday and the Senate’s staggered terms, both will face term limits two years earlier than they would have under the previous plan.

Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Sens. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, who were both drawn into District 40 near Kendall.

Most of Bullard’s current district lies to the south and west, stretching down to the Keys and in the expanses of western Miami-Dade County. Either could be a good place for Bullard — a household name in the area after his mother, Larcenia Bullard, spent 20 years in the Legislature — to run. Both districts voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

But District 40 is heavily Hispanic, and that could offer an in for Flores.

Bullard said Tuesday that he hasn’t yet decided where he will run. He hopes “diplomacy” can be used to avert a full-on collision with Flores.

“Flores needs to decide what is better suited for her,” he said.

If Flores moves, it’d only be for a two-year stint before she would face term limits. But she is close with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the next Senate president, and is a likely pick for a top spot in the chamber’s leadership.

On the county’s Atlantic coast, it’s likely a showdown between Sens. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, could be averted by a convenient move.

The map approved by Reynolds put both senators in District 37, the area around the city of Miami. It’s territory Diaz de la Portilla and his relatives have won for years, but it also favors Democrats during presidential elections.

But just to the north lies District 38, stretching from Miami Beach to Aventura, a lock for virtually any Democrat and especially for Margolis, who has represented the region for decades.

Would she move, though, for just two years in office? Margolis didn’t return Times/Herald calls for comment.

Still, it sounds like she might. Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, plans to run for that seat as soon as Margolis is done in the Legislature. And he doesn’t plan on running in 2016.

“The senator has told me she is going to run for reelection in that seat, that she is moving from Coconut Grove and she is going to move up into the district,” he said.

Tampa Bay area state senators on collision course for GOP primary because of new redistricting maps


State Sen. Wilton Simpson is not moving under any circumstances, saying suggestions he might move to a new district to avoid facing another incumbent and preserve his status as a future Senate leader “nonsense.”

Simpson, R-Trilby, said he will run for re-election in a the new district where his present home and farm is located, but which also includes the home of Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who also plans to seek re-election. Legg said he's running for re-election and suggested Simpson could move south into a different district to avoid a primary fight that has been made possible because of the latest turn in the state’s years long redistricting saga.

"I've raised my family here," Simpson said. "I've spent a lof of my life here. My intention is to run where my seat has been drawn. This is a good seat."

A state court adopted new redistricting maps last week that put Legg and Simpson into the same district. On Tuesday, the Legislature assigned district numbers to the 40 districts adopted by the court, putting Simpson and Legg into what is the new 10th District. That district will include all of Citrus and Hernando counties, plus most of central and northeastern Pasco County.

A Simpson-Legg Republican primary battle could have a lot more riding on it than just who represents Trinity, Land O’Lakes and Trilby. Simpson is in line to become the Florida Senate President in 2021 - marking potentially the first time ever Pasco County would have a resident in that powerful position. But if Legg were to defeat Simpson in a primary, that possibility would be over.

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