TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The political realities of redistricting burst into the open Tuesday, as the Senate approved a proposal increasing the Hispanic share of three of the chamber’s South Florida seats over objections from Democrats who argued the move was an attempt to prevent incumbents from running against each other.
The amendment to the Senate’s redistricting plan (SJR 2-C) was approved on a voice vote one day before the upper chamber is scheduled to formally vote on the map. The Legislature is nearing the midpoint of a three-week redistricting session following a settlement with voting-rights groups in which the Senate conceded that its current districts were likely to be thrown out under a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who sponsored the amendment, said the revised plan would ensure that Miami-Dade County will still have three districts in which Hispanic voters can elect candidates of their choice.
“The (original) plan would basically disenfranchise Hispanics in Miami-Dade County by creating two Hispanic seats, Hispanic-performing seats instead of the three that we’ve had, as I mentioned, for about 30 years,” Diaz de la Portilla told reporters after the Senate vote.
The first draft of the plan, offered by Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, already included three Miami-Dade districts that were aimed at electing candidates favored by Hispanic voters, who comprised at least 70 percent of the voting-age population in each district.
But Diaz de la Portilla said voter turnout figures cast doubt on whether all three seats would actually perform for candidates favored by Latinos. He also said the revamped districts in his proposal were more compact than the plan offered by Galvano, R-Bradenton. Galvano highlighted those numbers in announcing that he supported Diaz de la Portilla’s amendment.
Diaz de la Portilla’s proposal drew questions about whether it might violate the ban on favoring incumbents included in the “Fair Districts” redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010. The amendment would remove Diaz de la Portilla’s residence from a district that also would include the homes of Sens. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
“We’ve just now made this map unconstitutional,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, during a debate over the amendment. “We’ve just now said that the court is going to reject this map.”
The district with Diaz de la Portilla would also include his brother, former Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who has been angling to run for another term in the chamber when Miguel Diaz de la Portilla’s tenure is up.
“I’ve mentioned it to my brother, of course, yeah,” Miguel Diaz de la Portilla told reporters. “I’ve mentioned the idea of Miami-Dade County preserving three Hispanic majority seats, because it’s important for the community that I represent in Miami-Dade County at this moment, and that has been represented by other Hispanics up here, to have Hispanic representation in the Senate.”
Voting-rights organizations that challenged the current districts in court said late Tuesday they had filed their own plan that would make the overall map more compact than Diaz de la Portilla’s proposal.
David King, an attorney for the groups, wrote in a letter to the redistricting chairmen for the Senate and House that King’s clients were “very disheartened” by the Senate’s approval of the new proposal. The letter raised questions about both the staff-drawn “base maps,” which served as the basis for Galvano’s plan, as well as Diaz de la Portilla’s proposal.
King largely focused, though, on the shifting of lines around Diaz de la Portilla’s home, raising the possibility it could violate “Tier 1” of the Fair Districts constitutional amendment, which deals in part with favoring incumbents.
“These tier-one violations cannot be ignored, particularly when senators have already criticized the base map selection process as one designed to avoid paring incumbents,” King wrote.
Senators raised other objections as well. Miami Gardens Sen. Oscar Braynon, the lead Senate Democrat on redistricting issues, said he would oppose the Diaz de la Portilla proposal because it doesn’t fix problems in areas outside of Miami-Dade County.
“I don’t think it does enough,” Braynon said. “I still think there are issues in the map beyond that.”
For example, some Democrats have pointed to a decision to keep Clay and St. Johns County in separate districts — which would avoid an incumbent match-up between Sens. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Travis Hutson, R-Elkton. But Galvano defended that arrangement.
“There’s nothing unusual about having that type of split,” he told reporters. “And frankly, it’s something we don’t even look at, in terms of where members are living and what they’re doing.”
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.