Florida’s Old Capitol and New Capitol, viewed from the Leon County Courthouse on March 21, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan for drawing new congressional districts, giving 20 of Florida’s 28 seats to Republicans and scrapping two Black “performing” seats, cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, on Day Two of a special session that aggrieved Democrats, including Black caucus members.
It was a party-line vote, with the Senate chamber divided, 24-15, to send the plan (SB 2-C) to the state House, which began debating amendments to the redistricting bill on Wednesday.
Every one of the Senate’s Republicans sided with the governor while every Democrat voted no except for Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade County, who boycotted the session to protest what she saw as DeSantis’ overreach.
Democrats argued the plan violated Florida’s 2010 Fair Districts amendments, approved by the voters to remove partisan favoritism from redistricting and ensure minority access to representation.
Under the Voting Rights Act, minority-performing districts are those in which racial or language minority groups members have sufficient numbers to elect candidates of their choice.
The law also protects against “retrogression,” or eliminating minority representation. Additionally, the Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution protects against plans having the effect of retrogression, whether intended or not.
Republican Ray Rodrigues of Lee County, chairman of the Redistricting Committee, defended the plan, however, arguing DeSantis had made a legitimate argument that Fair Districts conflicts with U.S. Supreme Court rulings constraining consideration of race when drawing district boundaries.
“That conflict is going to have to be resolved by a court,” he said.
A lawsuit is pending 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.
Democrat Randolph Bracy, of Orange County, accused the governor of bullying legislative Republicans into doing his bidding by holding over them the threat of endorsing their opponents in GOP primaries. But DeSantis will never be satisfied, he warned.
As with all bullies, “that’s how they work. And you’re going to continue to play this game with him and, before you know it, we’re not going to have — “
At that point, Senate President Wilton Simpson interrupted, reminding Bracy to concentrate on the substance of the bill and not the governor.
Bowing to the governor
“I don’t mean to call out my colleagues and my friends,” Bracy continued. “But I don’t like how this process is going.”
Other senators warned that, by bowing to the governor, the Senate was abandoning its responsibility as part of a co-equal branch of government. Democrat Shevrin Jones noted that the Senate, because it’s less hierarchal than the House, has always been the place where “bad bills come to die.’
“Who are we? Are we the Senate or are we going to allow this process to he hijacked in the way it’s being hijacked right now?” he asked.
Rodrigues argued DeSantis’ involvement was legitimate.
“The governor has always had a role in redistricting — not just Gov. DeSantis, but every governor of the state of Florida, because no reapportionment is complete for a congressional map until the governor signs it,” Rodrigues said.
Still, Democrat Audrey Gibson of Duval County reminded the Republicans that the Fair Districts amendments gives top priority to fairness in redistricting, reading in part:
“Congressional districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.”
A plan the Legislature passed during its recent regular session provided for four Black-performing seats. The governor’s contained two Black seats and four for Hispanics. DeSantis claimed the Legislative plan amounted to a “racial gerrymander” — particularly the Legislature’s CD 5, which stretches from Duval County for some 200 miles to capture Black voters through Tallahassee and Black-majority Gadsden County.
Additionally, CD 10 in central Florida no longer contains enough Black voters to qualify for protection under Fair Districts, the governor’s team argued.
A gubernatorial aide who drafted the map emphasized during a committee hearing on Tuesday that he’d emphasized Tier 2 priorities including respect for geographical boundaries, Gibson said. And the map splits Black voters in Duval County so that they comprise only around 30 percent and 12 percent of the voting age population between the new CD 4 and CD 5.
Across the broader sweep of the Legislature’s CD 5, “there will be no African American member of Congress, and likely no African American member could be elected while thousands of African Americans live in this entire swath of the state. I call that taxation without representation,” Gibson said.
Loranne Ausley is a Democrat who represents five North Florida counties that overlap in part Lawson’s district. She denied the district represents a gerrymander. The counties in that district include Black populations representing 25 percent or more of their totals, “making up a cohesive community of urban and rural voters, many of whom have lived in these communities since the 1800s,” Ausley said.
All are majority Black in the Democratic primary, she continued.
“This map shows us it’s not about compactness. This is about limiting minority access,” Ausley said.
Down on Disney
The Senate quickly turned to legislation (HB 3-C), sunseting 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.
One such body is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which the Legislature approved in 1967 to give The Walt Disney Co. control over the 25,000 acres it owns in Central Florida. The company came under fire after speaking out against DeSantis’ “Parental Rights in Education” law (aka “Don’t Say Gay”) restricting classroom instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.
The vote was 24-16 with Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County the only no vote among Republicans.
Then the chamber passed HB 5-C to repeal an exemption for Disney connected to last year’s law cracking down on social media over their alleged deplatforming of conservatives. That vote was 24-16.
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