“Step right up and guess your district”: Senate Redistricting process becomes carnival sideshow

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Racial and even moral conflicts entered the already-contentious redistricting process Wednesday as a key Senate committee sent a proposed map to the floor despite Hispanic and conservative Christian disagreements with some elements of the plan, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The maps passed the Senate Reapportionment Committee on a day that at times veered between the unusual and the surreal.

District numbers for the upper chamber’s new redistricting plan — necessary because the Florida Supreme Court threw out the maps — were selected in part by a raffle-style drawing. That prompted one Senate Republican to accuse the panel of breaking the state’s gambling laws.

And the racial politics of Miami-Dade County, which had been relatively muted throughout the redistricting process, have begun to boil over in a battle over whether to create a fourth majority-Hispanic district in the county.

The most unique flare-up of the day came when senators essentially raffled off odd and even seats. Because of the way the state’s term limit laws work, an odd or even seat can mean the difference between a lawmaker serving an eight-year term or getting an extra two years.

The original Senate map gave almost every incumbent in the chamber an opportunity to serve as long as 10 years, one of several aspects of the plan that the Florida Supreme Court said violated the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments approved by voters in a 2010 referendum.

But the raffle upset some lawmakers who are opposed to gambling and said the new system sent the wrong message.

“I believe that there are people all across the state of Florida that will be very, very deeply offended by the Florida Senate casting lots to make a decision,” said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

Storms later called a point of order and asked for an opinion by Attorney General Pam Bondi during the raffle, saying Senate staff might be committing a misdemeanor by running the operation. Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, rejected the point but said Storms was free to ask for an opinion from Bondi.

“This isn’t a lottery,” he told reporters. “This is the minority leader and the majority leader advising me as to what they believe ought to be put in the amendment that describes the assignment of senatorial district numbers.”

Storms said she would file an amendment to reorder the districts and make sure incumbents serve no longer than eight years — though she admitted the measure was likely to fail. The current way, she said, would damage the institution over the long term.

“Even though these particular 40 Senators are serving, I think that we have diminished the decorum and the stature of the state of Florida by twirling balls around in a basket and having the secretary of the Senate call out numbers,” Storms said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said he would take his fight to create a fourth majority-Hispanic seat in Miami-Dade County to the Senate floor. Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, would turn the district represented by Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-North Miami Beach, into one where non-black Hispanics would comprise 66.2 percent of the voting-age population.

But he brushed aside claims that the effort was meant to help his brother, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who has filed to run for Margolis’ seat.

“Whoever wants to run for that district, that potential fourth Hispanic seat, will have to run and compete with a number of other people, because it will be an open seat,” Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said.

Margolis, in a debate with Diaz de la Portilla in front of reporters, dismissed those claims and said Diaz de la Portilla’s amendment could lock whites out of the county’s delegation.

“This amendment, if it makes a fourth seat in Dade County a protected seat, disenfranchises every Anglo,” said Margolis, who is white. “There will never be an Anglo member of the Florida Senate from Dade County if this amendment passes.”

Diaz de la Portilla portrayed Margolis as an incumbent attempting to cling to power and said deciding not to create the fourth district could open the map up to a challenge under the federal Voting Rights Act.

“You have incumbency protection on the one hand versus enfranchising language minorities on the other,” he said.

The map ultimately passed on a 21-6 vote, with Margolis and three other Democrats joining every Republican in approving the plan. In a separate vote, five Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, opposed renumbering the districts through the raffle.

Democrats who opposed the overall plan said it didn’t go far enough to address justices’ concerns about eight districts, the numbering system and the division of the city of Lakeland.

“We have fixed a few things,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston. “But I think the map simply does not fix a number of the things that the court suggested to us that needed to be corrected.”

Republicans, though, said the map was a success despite the arduous process.

“This is as good a product as you can possibly get,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

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.