What gentlemen’s agreement? House members look to amend Senate map

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Senate Republicans who criticized opponents of their redistricting plans for not proposing alternatives might yet see another proposal for how to draw the districts for their chamber — from an unwanted source, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida

Some members of the House are preparing a last-minute effort to amend maps for the Senate approved by the upper chamber Tuesday, a long shot effort that could nonetheless blow up the once-a-decade redistricting process if it is successful.

“I feel comfortable [saying] there will be an amendment offered in the House, I’m not sure by whom, to the Senate map,” said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, who also acknowledged the hurdle any amendment faces. “Now, unless the Senate green-lights it, it won’t go anywhere.”

The Senate map, which was approved on a bipartisan, 34-6 vote, has stirred up bipartisan and apparently bicameral criticism for the way it carves up the state.

Any plan could build on a map developed by House Democrats with input from some senators, an idea that was discussed as recently as late last week but ultimately didn’t produce an alternative in Tuesday’s floor debate.

While the latest proposals on the Senate map would be initiated by House Democrats, there is the potential for some Republican and Senate support for the measure. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has complained that the Senate-passed proposal divides Polk County among four Senate districts and argued Tuesday that she didn’t have a fair opportunity to amend the map.

“I can’t imagine that the courts are going to approve those under Amendments 5 and 6,” Dockery said, referring to new constitutional guidelines for trying to draw sensical districts.

But any amendment to the Senate plan could shred a “gentleman’s agreement” between Gaetz and House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Under that agreement, the House and Senate would accept each other’s maps for their respective chambers without changes.

During the Senate debate, Gaetz sent a sharp warning to any House lawmakers that might think about changing the maps for the upper chamber.

“But it’s always possible that the House of Representatives might decide to change the Senate maps, in which case I will ask the president to reconvene the Senate Reapportionment Committee so that we can devise House maps,” Gaetz said. “I doubt that that will occur.”

Weatherford, though, has not categorically ruled out amending the Senate plan — even if he also didn’t embrace the idea.

“We’re looking at that,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve told members if they want to file them, they’re certainly welcome to file them, and we’ll look at each one individually and they’ll get an up-or-down vote.”

Indeed, Weatherford told the Tampa Tribune earlier this month that he was wary of changes to the Pasco County area.

“It doesn’t make sense, and I want to make sure my community isn’t shortchanged,” Weatherford told the Tribune.

But he said Wednesday that he wasn’t necessarily unhappy with the Senate’s map for its own chamber.

Lawmakers say there was an attempt to bring changes to the Senate map to the floor, but those efforts fell apart last week. The proposal would have included at least ideas supported by House Democrats and Dockery. Dockery said the map was little more than “tweaking,” but it would have been more legally defensible than the current plan.

But the conversations fell apart because of skittishness among lawmakers after Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich’s efforts exploded in committee and because few senators were willing to buck Gaetz, who is set to take over as president next year.

“Unless you’re suicidal, why would you do something to piss off Don Gaetz?” Saunders said.

A battle for the Senate presidency between House Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also played into the tense negotiations of the map, Saunders said, with both sides unwilling to give the other faction an advantage through the maps.

The only formal alternative put in play during the Senate process came from Rich, D-Weston.

Rich’s plan was set to be considered at the final meeting of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. But she was forced to pull the maps moments before Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, tore into the proposals for what Bullard saw as weakening black voting strength in districts meant to elect candidates favored by minorities.

“I really didn’t care to expose this Senate to the vitriol that we experienced in the committee last week,” Rich said Tuesday.

Dockery confirmed that the experience made lawmakers hesitant.

“They talk about filing amendments, but when you file one, they tear you apart,” she said. “So nobody was willing to file an amendment.”

With no alternative on the floor, Republicans in the Senate savaged critics of the process, including the League of Women Voters, which submitted a map earlier this month after the deadline for public proposals had long passed.

“The people that were yelling at us to have maps apparently couldn’t get maps filed in a timely manner to be considered,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

But in a sharply-worded statement following the vote, groups involved in drafting that alternative — including the League, Florida Common Cause and the National Council of La Raza — said they were waiting to see lawmakers’ proposals before offering potential amendments. The organizations said they asked for any senator to offer the maps for discussion at the final meeting of Gaetz’s committee.

“Yet today, members of the Senate majority excoriated our organizations for not participating in the process in the way they wanted us to,” the joint statement said.

House Democrats said they were still trying to decide whether to offer an amendment to the redistricting proposal for their own chamber. Democrats say they will only propose an alternative if it brings the House maps more in line with the Florida Constitution’s new redistricting standards, a decision they’ll make after seeing which of the three current proposals is approved by the House Redistricting Committee next week.

“If we have a map that improves the situation, that can make it better, we’ll explore that at the right time,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the party’s lead on redistricting issues in the House.

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.