TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The chairman of the state Senate committee charged with redrawing districts for the 40-member chamber released his proposed draft of the map late Wednesday, as Republican discontent with a plan for whether and when members would have to run for re-election continued to brew.
The complicated dance during a special redistricting session highlighted the delicacy of the issue among lawmakers most affected by the process and underscored fissures within the GOP majority over a lingering battle for the Senate presidency following the 2016 elections.
The draft proposal released by Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, came after an at-times contentious meeting of Galvano’s committee aimed at finding a way forward with a new map that would satisfy the voter-approved “Fair Districts” amendments, which ban political gerrymandering. The Senate settled a lawsuit with voting-rights organizations after determining it was likely to lose a court battle over the lines.
But Galvano’s plan would ignore at least one of the complaints offered by Democrats and voting-rights organizations by continuing to have a district based in Hillsborough County that reaches across Tampa Bay to grab voters from southern Pinellas County.
Republicans contend maintaining the shape of the district is necessary to allow African-Americans to elect a candidate of their choice; Democrats say the district can achieve the same purpose while being drawn entirely within Hillsborough County.
Under the plan offered by Galvano, the district closely resembling one now held by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would have voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink in 2010 by about 4 percentage points. An alternative map drawn by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would not cross the bay but would result in a district that went for Obama and Sink by around 13 points.
Much of the discontent, though, seemed to revolve around how to number newly drawn districts. Because odd-numbered Senate seats are up for re-election in presidential years and even-numbered seats are up in midterm elections, the numbers can decide how long a senator is able to serve under the state’s term limits. It can also determine whether an incumbent faces the larger turnout of a presidential year, which tends to be more favorable for Democrats, or the smaller and more conservative midterm electorate.
When lawmakers initially tried to draw the current districts in 2012, the Florida Supreme Court required that the numbers be assigned randomly, leading to a Senate committee essentially raffling off odd and even numbers during a redistricting meeting. This time, Senate leaders want to designate the numbers based on which current district is most closely represented by each new district.
“The last time it was done randomly; this is simply going to carry that forward and apply that to the new plan,” said Jay Ferrin, the chief aide to Galvano’s committee.
Senate leaders have also said they believe only senators in odd-numbered districts will have to run again in 2016. Normally, all 40 members of the chamber face re-election after the once-a-decade redistricting process, but lawyers for the Senate say that isn’t necessary because the current initiative is a mid-decade redrawing of the lines.
“No Florida case has said that senators have to truncate their terms twice or more times during one 10-year period,” said Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice who represents the Senate in redistricting litigation.
In addition to opening up each member to new challenges, requiring each senator to run again in November 2016 could result in Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, being thrown out of office early. Because the state’s term-limit rules are based on when a candidate’s name appears on the ballot, Altman can stay in his Senate seat until 2018 if he doesn’t have to run again, but could not run in 2016.
But the handling of the numbering issue by Senate leaders has drawn scorn from Democrats and some Republicans.
“I don’t even understand why we’re not just using the same process over again that we used (in 2012),” Clemens said. “I think we’re risking tanking this entire process by taking an action that could protect incumbents. … If we take that tack, we’ve already created an environment in which I think the Supreme Court is going to reject anything we do.”
Another behind-the-scenes issue in the debate about the shapes of districts and the numbers is a fierce battle between Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to become Senate president in November 2016. Both are trying to line up enough Republican support to become president, and redistricting changes could influence the makeup of the chamber after next year’s elections.
Members of the GOP caucus, stung by repeated legal losses in redistricting cases over more than three years, said Wednesday that the Senate should consider asking the Florida Supreme Court or the Leon County judge currently overseeing the settlement what to do about the numbers.
“I just don’t find any consistency in this,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. “I think I’ve lost confidence.”
“Rather than getting ourselves boxed into a situation where we take a position, it would seem to me within a matter of days that you could ask the court to interpret this and tell us what we’re going to need to do so we can do it right,” said Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who is a lawyer.
Galvano has promised to bring maps with two different sets of numbers to the committee: one following the plans of Senate leaders, and another with a randomized set of numbers that will be decided Thursday by the state auditor general.
“The committee will determine whether the amendment or the substitute amendment will be adopted,” Galvano wrote in a memo to senators accompanying his proposed map.
After the meeting Wednesday, Galvano told reporters that lawmakers likely won’t have the last say on whether every senator whose district changes will have to run again in 2016.
“I think the obvious answer is ultimately, the court will resolve it,” he said. “I think that’s tied very closely to how we end up numbering the districts and how we put it together.”
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.