Legislature OKs new congressional districts, sparking fight with DeSantis

Governor objects to what he sees as a racial gerrymander

By: - March 4, 2022 3:21 pm

The Florida House, Feb. 2, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

The Florida House and Senate approved a plan to redistrict the state’s congressional districts Friday, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to veto it over what he considers racial gerrymandering.

The House vote was 67-47 for redistricting legislation (SB 102) that includes a “Plan A” map plus a “Plan B” backup plan. Both retain a version of a North Florida district, dubbed CD 3, intended to elect a Black candidate. Plan A contains that district within Duval County, but in the backup it stretches west to pick up Black populations in Leon and Gadsden counties, around the state capital.

Later in the day, the Senate, voted 24-15, to go along, sending the matter to the governor.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, Jr. Credit: Wikipedia.

Gadsden is Florida’s only majority-Black county. Under Plan A, Blacks to the west of Duval would be relegated to solidly “red” districts. Plan B roughly models the existing CD 5, held by Black Democrat Al Lawson.

Both Plan A and Plan B would leave Blacks and Hispanics each with three districts in which they are likely to be able to vote in a candidate of their choosing.

DeSantis made his threat via Twitter as the House opened debate. “I will veto the congressional reapportionment plan currently being debated by the House. DOA,” he wrote.

Democrat Evan Jenne of Broward County called the tweet to the House’s attention.

“Members, we need to seriously reconsider what we’re doing with this bill,” Jenne said.

“This map doesn’t just have significant problems on this floor or in the courts; this map has significant problems even leaving the building,” he said.

The bill’s supporters acknowledged DeSantis’ position.

“I know that there is pressure. I understand that. But, for what it’s worth, with all my heart, I believe we are doing the right thing” in approving the maps notwithstanding the veto threat, said Tyler Sirois, the Brevard County Republican who chaired the Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee.

“Engagement is not interference. Say what you will about the governor’s involvement, at least he engaged,” said Tom Leek, chairman of the full committee.

Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orange County countered: “The question is not whether the Legislature should give the governor a say. The question is whether the Legislature should give the governor total control.”

In the Senate, Reapportionment Committee Chairman Ray Rodriguez of Lee County, said of the House approach: “This is a constitutional map. This is a good map.”

A point of clarification here: When legislators talk about the House map, they’re referring to Plan A. But going along with that entails also accepting the backup Plan B.

An earlier Senate’s map contained a sprawling North Florida Black district similar to the House’s Plan B, but Senate President Wilton Simpson indicated on Thursday night that he was favorably inclined toward the House’s approach.

“I believe the House map is in order. I believe it’s constitutional. I believe the speaker and his team have done a tremendous job putting that map together. And so, I don’t see why we wouldn’t pass that map,” Simpson told reporters.

During a news conference later Friday, DeSantis insisted: “I’m part of that process, you know, I think it’s important to let everybody know where I stand in that process.”

He explained to reporters:

“I put it [the tweet] out because some people were saying, even though I’ve been, I thought, very clear, ‘Oh, he’s not, no, no, no, no, he’s not actually going to veto it.’ Yes, I am,” the governor said.

“What makes you think, after seeing me for however many years, what makes you think when I say I’m going to do something that I’m not going to follow through. I mean, it’s just the reality.

“I don’t make declarations lightly. I know there’s a lot of moving parts, and so I always want to make sure I’m not going to say I’m going to do something and then not do it.”

“So, when I say, you know, ‘Expect this,’ they should expect it,” he said in Jacksonville.

DeSantis has proposed his own map eliminating that North Florida district and creating 20 Republican-leaning districts and eight for Democrats. The House Plan A map leans 18-10 GOP to Democratic.

The Florida Constitution establishes two sets of priorities for judging district boundaries: Tier One, the most important, are that they favor no partisan interest or officeholders and that don’t diminish minorities’ ability to elect candidates of their choice; Tier Two, subsidiary priorities, include compactness, roughly equal population levels, and respect for political and geographic boundaries.

DeSantis, and even House Republicans including Cord Byrd, representing Nassau and part of Duval counties, and Jacob Fischer, of Duval, argue that U.S. Supreme Court precedent disfavors drawing boundaries based on race. The governor had already strongly suggested his intention to kill any plan that did that.

Republican Randy Fine of Brevard County, vice chairman of the full Redistricting Committee in the House, supported the legislation but defended the governor’s intervention on the ground that the Florida Constitution allows him to veto congressional maps. He noted that DeSantis offered no advice regarding state House and Senate redistricting, which the governor lacks authority to veto.

“If you do not take his perspective into account, you are making a mistake, because that is how the Constitution is designed — to give him a say and to give him perspective in that process. And that perspective should be respected,” Fine said in debate.

Democrats also complained that the primary map overly defers to the governor and likely will erase a total of two Black-leaning districts — the North Florida district as well as CD 10, in Central Florida.

“That is not what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Kelly Skidmore of Palm Beach County, the ranking Democrat on the Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee.

Others expressed bemusement of the Plan A-Plan B idea.

“You don’t ask two dates to go to prom,” said Fentrice Driskell, a Hillsborough County Democrat, who sat on the full Redistricting committee.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.