Inside the Lines: Brown’s district at center of ‘Fair Districts’ storm

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Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida reports that as lawmakers criss-cross the state to gather public input for how to draw Florida’s political lines in the once-a-decade redistricting process, they are encountering a public that wants the Legislature to follow the new standards passed by the public in the 2010 elections.

But the fault lines that run through some areas of the state are proving that complying with the “Fair Districts” amendments, which are aimed at curbing partisan gerrymandering, might prove to be a difficult balance.

Competing interests are at play, from the political goals of elected officials to the racial politics that still divide some communities.

At the center of the storm is the 3rd Congressional District, a seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat from Jacksonville. Brown’s district stretches from her hometown in the north to Orlando in the south, winding through nine counties in the process.

“I got to say it is probably the most popular district not just in Florida, but the entire country,” Brown quipped.

Drawn following a legal battle in the 1990s — and as part of an alliance between African-American Democrats and Republicans eager to reap the gains of concentrating black votes into majority-minority districts — the 3rd District has become a fixture in the debate over how to redraw the lines.

Since it was reconfigured to favor a candidate supported by black voters — who make up 48 percent of the district’s voting-age population, according to the 2010 Census — Brown is the only person who has represented the district.

For opponents, the 3rd is the example of everything wrong with the redistricting process, an extreme gerrymander aimed at carving out a special district that favors a single politician. For supporters, it represents a hard-fought victory in the battle over equal rights in Florida.

For some of those supporters, it is also a source of concern as lawmakers prepare to craft congressional lines under the Fair Districts constitutional amendments for the first time. While the NAACP and other voting-rights groups have defended the amendments, saying they provide plenty of protection for minority districts, Brown and others have fought the amendments tooth and nail.

Brown and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from a heavily Hispanic district in Miami, spearheaded the campaign against the amendments in last year’s elections. When the amendments comfortably won approval by Florida voters, Brown and Diaz-Balart filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying they violated the Legislature’s right under the U.S. Constitution to draw lines as lawmakers see fit. Oral arguments in that case are set for next month.

“You better believe that I’m concerned, because I’ve seen what can happen if this process is used to disenfranchise communities of interests,” said Diaz-Balart.

In remarks to a redistricting public hearing in Jacksonville, Brown puzzled at the attention given to her district.

“And so, you know, I wonder why?” she said. “I don’t have more counties than anybody else. I have nine; there are several districts that have more than nine.”

Instead, Brown suggested something more might be at play, and referred to a period when access to Congress for Florida’s African-American population went “dark” as more than 130 years passed between black representatives elected to Congress.

“I am committed that we will never go dark again in the United States Congress. Never,” she said.

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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.