DeSantis ignites intraparty fight over fate of minority congressional districts

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Until this week, the bitter partisan warfare and intraparty strife that traditionally engulfs Florida’s redistricting battles had been noticeably subdued, but then Gov. Ron DeSantis lit a match.

Days after quietly submitting his own proposal for a congressional redistricting plan that gives Republicans in Congress an eight-seat advantage in Florida, his office released an explanation to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times that indicates he has rejected the legal guidelines adopted by Senate and House Republicans and wants to advance maps with districts that raise doubts about whether they will preserve minority representation in Congress.

“This plan adheres to federal and state requirements — especially district compactness, minimizing county splits where feasible, and protects minority voting populations,’’ said DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske in an email late Tuesday. “... Additionally, the northern Florida district is an unconstitutional gerrymander that unnaturally connects communities in Jacksonville with communities hours away in Tallahassee and Gadsden counties.”

Fenske was referring to Congressional District 5, the district the Legislature created as a result of a 2014 court order, which stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee across North Florida.

Asked about the governor’s claims, Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, the chair of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, said that he did not learn about the governor’s proposed congressional map until this week, three days after the Senate committee had recommended its final map to the full Senate, and was going to refrain from comment.

“I’m not going to get into a debate with the governor’s office, through the media as acting as a proxy,’’ Rodrigues said.

A change to keep Miami Gardens whole

Rodrigues had led the Senate to advance a staff-drawn map that retained the Republicans’ 16 seats in Congress but gave Democrats 12 reliable seats, while two of the 28 seats were considered swing districts. It was calmly received by Democrats and drew rebuke only from left-leaning advocacy groups.

The governor’s map, by contrast, gives Republicans an 18-10 advantage over Democrats, diminishes the voting strength of Hispanic voters in three districts and reduces the number of districts Black voters could reliably elect candidates from four to two. It has drawn threats of legal action.

The governor, a former congressman, holds veto power over the congressional map. But, despite the arrival of the governor’s proposal, the Senate ignored it Wednesday, giving preliminary approval to SB 100, the Senate’s congressional redistricting map, during floor debate.

The Senate agreed to one change, however, adopting a late amendment from Sen. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, that revises proposed Congressional Districts 24 and 25 by making minor changes to keep the city of Miami Gardens whole.

“This amendment seeks to do one thing and that is to keep the principal city in my district and which is the largest black municipality within the state of Florida, keeping that whole in one congressional district,’’ Jones said.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park

Without opposition, the Senate adopted the amendment, drawing slight applause from several Democrats in the chamber. The Senate approved the map on a 31-4 bipartisan vote on Thursday. Only Democrats voted no. They included Sens. Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point, Janet Cruz of Tampa, Victor Torres of Orlando and Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.

“The decisions we made as we went through this process were framed by what the court blessed and avoided what the court found issue with,’’ Rodrigues told the Senate on Thursday.

After the Senate session on Wednesday, Rodrigues defended the Senate maps and suggested that perhaps the governor’s map violates the court orders from the 2010 redistricting cycle, which mandated that the state must not reduce the number of minority seats in Congress or the Legislature.

“What I said at the outset was we were operating under the parameters that the court offered in the lawsuits that occurred after the last round of redistricting, and it is clear from those lawsuits that our responsibility in creating these maps is to ensure there’s no retrogression,’’ Rodrigues told reporters.

Retrogression in redistricting means the reduction in voting strength of a racial or ethnic minority from one redistricting plan to another.

“We are 100% confident that there is no retrogression” in the proposed congressional map, he said. “ And we’re prepared to defend that method in court if necessary.”

DeSantis proposes congressional map that dilutes minority voting strength

Evolution of the Black-majority district in North Florida

The Congressional District 5 that was held unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2014 was a Black-majority seat that stretched from Jacksonville to Orlando. The court concluded that the Legislature’s original 2012 map was drawn to pack Black voters into an Orlando district, thereby leaving the surrounding districts more white and more likely to elect Republicans.

It said lawmakers could not justify the configuration “despite the Legislature’s repeated contentions” that it was the only map it could draw to “avoid diminishing the ability of Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.”

Forced into special session, the Legislature in 2015 then adopted a map with an east-west configuration, a variation the court validated. In 2016, the district elected former state Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat.

Despite the court’s validation of the 2015 map, Fenske called District 5 a “flagrant gerrymander” that the governor’s map eliminates. Rather than replacing the district with another configuration, the governor dismantled it.

“We believe our map is within constitutional requirements and performs better than the other maps on the Tier 2 constitutional requirements, including compactness and preservation of boundaries, all while increasing the number of minority districts,’’ Fenske wrote.

She argued that “under the existing congressional map, there is only one protected district with a majority of Black voters. Our map keeps a majority Black district.”

But Rodrigues on Wednesday challenged that conclusion, telling reporters the premise the Senate operated under was “that which was ordered by the court was in, and of itself, constitutional.”

Fenske said the congressional maps proposed by the Senate and a preliminary draft proposed by the House “contain no majority Black districts.”

She argued that the DeSantis map “actually INCREASES the number of minority districts, specifically districts where the Hispanic voting age population is greater than 50%. This is two more districts than in the existing congressional map, and one more district than in either of the proposed House and Senate plans.”

Under the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution, the Legislature is prohibited from drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties and is prohibited from reducing minority voting strength.

But DeSantis’ argument contradicts the legal standards the Legislature, and the courts, have used for decades: That minority districts can have a voter registration of less than 50% and still “perform” to elect a Black or Hispanic candidate. Florida’s Legislature is full of examples of minority lawmakers elected from districts that have voting age populations with far less than 50% minorities.

Legal challenges may be coming

The Senate made no changes to a second map, its proposed redistricting map for the state Senate, and approved it 34-3 on Thursday. Democrats Farmer, Cruz and Torres were opposed.

The House canceled a scheduled redistricting meeting on Thursday and is expected to introduce some or part of the governor’s congressional plan when it convenes next week.

The prospect of a legal challenge, however, continues to loom.

The Fair Districts Coalition, which advocates for the redistricting standards adopted by voters, sent a letter Thursday to Rodrigues and House Redistricting Chair Rep. Tom Leek of Ormond Beach urging them to remove the governor’s map from the redistricting website.

The coalition accused the governor of violating the disclosure rules legislators imposed on anyone who submitted a map and violating the constitutional ban on partisan interference.

“In reviewing the submission, we were astonished to find that the Redistricting Suggestion Form submitted with the governor’s map does not provide vital information that every other person is required to provide if they want to submit a map,’’ the coalition wrote.

“...The governor’s choice to insert his office into the legislative process, at a minimum, creates an appearance of partisan intent,’’ the letter continued. “And his failure to disclose the identity of every person involved in drawing the map underscores that appearance of improper intent.”

Rodrigues and Leek did not respond to requests for comment.

League of Women Voters of Florida President Cecile Scoon said her organization is working on submitting alternative maps that produce more Hispanic and Black districts that reflect the growth in those populations.

Democratic attorney Marc Elias, who has earned a reputation as a leading litigator in election-law cases, wrote on Twitter that he was ready to grill the governor’s office on its claims if DeSantis’ map becomes law.

“I look forward to my team deposing him and his staff to fully understand the illegal partisan motivations of this map,” he posted.

Equal Ground Action Fund, the political arm of Equal Ground Education Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on advancing Black issues in Florida, said Wednesday if the governor’s map advances, it will “take legal action.”

“By submitting his own map Gov. DeSantis is doing exactly what we’ve asked him and the Legislature not to do, that is pick and choose their voters,’’ said Jasmine Burney-Clark, the group’s founder. “With this map, the governor is undermining his own party’s leadership and is signaling to everyone that he wants a certain type of voter to have unfettered access to the ballot box and representation at the congressional level.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at and @MaryEllenKlas

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