Don Gaetz defends logic behind African-American redistricting

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Testifying about Florida’s 2012 redistricting efforts, Senate President Don Gaetz and an aide explained on Wednesday the logic involved in the push to put a larger number of African-American voters in the expansive district of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown.

Gaetz, chair of the Senate’s mapmaking committee during the redistricting session, and John Guthrie, leader of the committee’s staff, were the first Senate members on the stand to speak of the process during the lawsuit challenging Florida’s political map, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is considering the challenge brought on by voting rights groups, who argue the congressional districts approved in 2012 violated the state’s Fair District anti-gerrymandering amendment, passed by voters two years earlier.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Will Weatherford testified that the Senate convinced the House to approve a plan to boost by 50 percent the African–American vote in Brown’s Democratic Jacksonville district. At the time, Weatherford was chair of the 2012 House Redistricting Committee.

The Senate made “a very compelling argument” for the move, according to Weatherford, though he also could not recall the reason. Attorney George Meros, who represented the Florida Legislature, said one of the reasons lawmakers enlarged Brown’s black voting-age population was to prevent the map from being rejected under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Gaetz added the plan progressed “serendipitously” as the Senate compelled the House to include Sanford in Brown’s 5th Congressional District, which snakes through eight counties between Duval and Orange, extending into enclaves of black voters, making a district that they expect will elect African-American-favored candidates.

The Senate initially proposed to include Sanford in the district, notes Larrabee, keeping with what Gaetz had said about what lawmakers heard during public hearings leading up to the reapportionment process. The House disagreed.

“And so consequently, part of what I attempted to explain to Chairman Weatherford was that we thought that there was an advantage in not pulling Sanford, which had historically been part of the district, out of the district in a manner that would be entirely inconsistent with the testimony that we had received,” Gaetz stated on Wednesday.

With the increase of a district’s population to more than 50 percent reinforces protections extended under the Voting Rights Act, Larrabee writes. However, opponents contend that by putting Democratic-leaning voters in Brown’s territory, neighboring districts will lean more to Republicans—possibly violating the Fair District amendments’ ban on drawing lines favoring a particular political party or candidate.

Guthrie said boosting the African-American segment of Brown’s district above 50 percent was not thought to be “necessary” when Weatherford, Gaetz and staff members met to work on congressional districts.

“In the context of attending that meeting, I was of a mind that whatever it was that the Senate and the House, or Senate and House members decided that they wanted to do with Congressional District 5 — whether it was more like the House approach or more like the Senate approach — I thought that it would be possible to put up a defense of that district,” Guthrie said, emphasizing he is not an attorney. “Legal necessity is really for the courts to determine, not for a non-lawyer staff director.”

Brown’s district became a primary focus of the trial dealing with the constitutional standards for redistricting Florida voters passed in 2010.

Gaetz discussed the reasons why the public wasn’t alerted to the meetings with Weatherford over the final shape of congressional maps. “The door was open,” he said, but there was no need to notify the public. With the exception of budgets, which are discussed in “conference committees,” lawmakers generally work on legislation in private.

“That happens all the time.” Gaetz added. “It’s the standard method of reconciling differences in substantive bills.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.