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An angry Tom Lee questions Senate base maps

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A fiery state Sen. Tom Lee lashed out at the Senate’s outside attorney Monday, questioning why he didn’t object to specific allegations of unconstitutionality over the chamber’s current districts.

The Legislature began a scheduled three-week Special Session to redraw the state’s 40 districts after the Senate settled a court challenge by admitting its current map was gerrymandered to benefit Republicans and incumbents.

Lee, a Brandon Republican, also asked why all of the replacement maps contain districts that cross Tampa Bay when the Supreme Court, in a similar challenge over the state’s congressional districts, said they shouldn’t jump the bay.

“What we did is the basis for why we are here,” Lee said during a joint meeting of the Legislature’s redistricting panels. “When we just ignore the court’s direction to us, this thing is just going to get kicked out again.”

Raoul Cantero, the Senate’s outside counsel and a former state Supreme Court justice, clarified that the Senate only admitted that the entire map was unconstitutional, not individual districts.

But plaintiffs who sued specifically called out three Tampa-area districts as unconstitutionally drawn: Those seats are now held by Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican; Arthenia Joyner, the Senate’s top Democrat; and John Legg, a Pasco County Republican.

One claim was that Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters from Legg’s area were packed into Joyner’s district to make it a “majority minority” district. That would help black voters elect a candidate of their choosing.

Cantero also told lawmakers that the court ordered new congressional districts not to cross Tampa Bay for reasons having to do with minority voting strength; he countered that to similarly fix Senate districts, however, they had to cross the bay.

Voters approved the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments in 2010. They make clear that lawmakers cannot draw new districts after every U.S. census to favor a political party or incumbents.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause sued in 2012, saying the current Senate map violated the standards. The Senate admitted fault in July and agreed to re-do the map.

Democrats could pick up a net gain of two Senate seats under the six staff-drawn maps. The Republican-Democrat ratio in the chamber now is 26-14.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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