State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, chair of the Senate Reapportionment committee, on the Senate floor, April 19, 2022. Credit: The Florida Channel.
The Florida Senate has set up a final floor vote for Wednesday on a redistricting plan that awards the lion’s share of the state’s seats in Congress to Republicans and cuts representation by Black people in half.
The state House is following closely behind, running the governor’s map through its Redistricting Committee vote and preparing for initial floor debate on Wednesday, according to a schedule announced by Speaker Chris Sprowls.
Committees in both chambers advanced legislation, also sought by DeSantis, that would punish The Walt Disney Co. for opposing legislation passed during the recent regular session forbidding classroom instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 or in upper grades if parents deem the material not age-appropriate.
Critics call it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and argue it discriminates against LGBT people.
Tuesday’s developments came during a special session, scheduled to last no later than noon Friday, called by DeSantis to force the Legislature to accept his version of a congressional map written to account for population growth documented in the 2020 U.S. Census.
He’d vetoed the Legislature’s version, which would have given Republicans 18 of the 28 seats in Congress and 10 to Democrats, with four Black-access districts and the same number for Hispanics.
DeSantis’ plan contains those four Hispanic seats but only two for Blacks and gives the GOP 20 seats.
Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues of Lee County conceded that the Legislature had attempted to preserve two protected-Black districts because they’d been created by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015, following years of litigation against the redistricting that followed the 2010 Census.
But DeSantis has raised valid concerns that the districts might not qualify for protection under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Rodrigues said.
“There’s an inherent conflict between our state Constitution and Supreme Court decisions that have occurred since the Fair Districts amendment was adopted to our state Constitution,” he said.
That was in 2010, by a supermajority vote by Floridians. The amendment forbids the Legislature from drawing political boundaries to benefit any political party or incumbent or disadvantage minorities’ ability to elect representatives of their choice.
Democrat Randolph Bracy of Orange County asked whether Rodrigues considered it fair to slash Black representation in half.
Rodrigues rejected the premise that Blacks can’t win heavily white districts. He said he lives in CD 19 in southwest Florida, with a 3 percent minority population, represented in Congress by Byron Donalds, a Black Republican.
“”I don’t think color makes the determination of whether a person gets elected or not. I think it really comes down to whether that person connects with the voters or not,” he said.
DeSantis sent Alex Kelly, his deputy chief of staff and architect of his map, to brief the House and Senate committees. In testimony on the Senate side, he said he’d consulted with no one but had based his product on an amalgamation of earlier maps produced by the Legislature and the governor.
DeSantis’ adamant refusal to broach a “racial gerrymander” meant the demise of the Legislature’s proposed CD 5, modeled on the district now held by Democrat Al Lawson, and CD 10 in Central Florida, now held by Democrat Val Demings.
CD 5 would stretch for 200 miles from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and majority-Black Gadsden County. The DeSantis team argues that’s too far to qualify as a compact district under Fair Districts and recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
As for CD 10, the black voting-age population has been slipping and is no longer sufficient to qualify as a Black-accessible district, Kelly argued.
The DeSantis map splits black communities in the Tampa Bay region by drawing a line through St. Petersburg, and through Jacksonville by using the St. Johns River as a dividing line between the governor’s preferred versions CD 4 and CD 5, which wind up majority Republican.
Black people living in Florida’s old plantation belt would be left without the chance to elect another Black person to Congress, given voting trends.
The Senate rushed the plan (SB 2-C) through a three-hour hearing committee meeting, where it passed on a party-line vote. The bill landed on the Senate floor a little after 5 p.m.
Senators immediately attached an amendment requiring any legal challenges brought under state law to be tried in a state trial court in Leon County, site of the Capitol. That may be an attempt to restrict federal court review of claims under Fair Districts, although the amendment would allow U.S. constitutional or statutory claims in federal court.
Backers argued the state deserves the ability to litigate in its home venue — as usual in lawsuits involving the state.
Voting rights groups are already in federal court in Tallahassee asking for a judge-drawn map on the ground that the map the Legislature is likely to pass violated Fair Districts, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
Of course, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida also maintains a courthouse in Tallahassee.
“This is not just forum shopping. This is avoid Judge Walker shopping,” said Democrat Gary Farmer of Broward County. He referred to Chief Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District, who on March 31 struck down key provisions of Florida’s 2021 voting restrictions law as unconstitutionally targeting Blacks.
Another Senate amendment specifies that if a court deems any of the new districts invalid, that won’t necessarily undo districts elsewhere in the state that are valid. It provides $1 million for litigation costs.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier in the day, Ramon Alexander, a Democrat representing Gadsden and part of Leon counties, criticized HB 5-C, sponsored by Republican Alex Andrade, which would repeal an exemption for Disney connected to last year’s law cracking down on social media over their alleged deplatforming of conservatives.
Also pending is legislation (HB 3-C) to sunset any special district created before the adoption of the Florida Constitution of 1968 effective on June 1, 2023, unless the Legislature has reauthorized them since then. The Legislature could reestablish them after that date, however.
Alexander complained the governor was bullying the company.
‘Lipstick on a pig’
“We talk about checks and balances and the core essence of what that is. And I’ve had my fair share of debates but, for the first time in this process here in Florida, I am deeply concerned about absolute power,” he said.
“If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig,” Alexander said. “And this is a classic example when one person has absolute power, this is the outcome of our democracy.”
Andrade, a Republican representing parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, replied that his legislation removes from state law “the exemption from consumer protections on social media platforms for companies that happened to own theme parks in Florida.”
State Rep. Ben Diamond expressed frustration with the special session, saying the Legislature should be focused on addressing their constituents’ real problems.
“They don’t want us up here talking about Disney World, they want us here doing our jobs,” said Diamond, a Democrat representing part of Pinellas County. “I am so frustrated because I don’t see us doing that, I see it as political theater.”
He added: “We shouldn’t be up here fighting Mickey Mouse; we should be up here fighting for our constituents.”
There were moves in both the House and Senate committees Tuesday to require Kelly to testify under oath. Chairmen in both chambers quashed that kind of talk.
“That procedure would be different from any of the testimony that we received in our committee thus far,” said House chairman Tyler Sirois, who represents part of Brevard County.
The request from Skidmore “would be an extraordinary step that I don’t feel is necessary and frankly I find absurd,” Sirois said. “This is a state house, not a courthouse.”
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