Fred Grimm: Florida lawmakers can’t be trusted to put public interests over their job security

08/04/2014 7:39 PM

09/12/2014 7:40 PM

Out in California, the redistricting process was once as nefarious as Florida's.

After the 2000 census, a Democratic consultant (who happened to be the brother of a California congressman) took charge of redrawing the state’s district maps. He charged incumbents $20,000 each to load up districts with friendly voters.

They got their money’s worth. In the 2002 election, his gerrymandered maps worked so well that not a single seat changed hands in the state senate, state assembly or in the congressional delegation.

It was a job protection racket for incumbents, much like Florida’s own redistricting mess. Except that California voters were so appalled that they approved ballot initiatives designed to insulate redistricting from political interference.

California now consigns the map-drawing to a 14-member citizens commission (whose members or their immediate family members can’t have run as a candidate within previous decade or served on party committees or worked as lobbyists or given any sizable campaign contributions).

California’s new maps withstood the inevitable legal challenge. Florida’s congressional maps, still drawn the old-fashioned way, by legislators in league with a cabal of partisan political consultants, didn’t fare so well in court.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis ruled last month that Florida legislators had “managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.” He said lawmakers, conspiring in secret with political consultants had “made a mockery” of the Fair District constitutional amendments voters approved in 2010.

Fair Districts, supposed to clean up blatant gerrymandering, barred districts drawn “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.” The mistake was that we entrusted our legislators to follow the law.

Instead, legislative leaders rigged the maps and then, as the judge noted, “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and participation in it.”

Legislators, heeding the judge’s order, will slouch back to Tallahassee Thursday to fix two of the congressional districts most out of whack. They don’t sound all that chastened. Rather they’re offended that Judge Lewis might consider ordering them to fix their illegal maps before the Nov. 4 general election. Or even postpone the election.

“I remain firm in my objection to disrupting the 2014 election that is already in progress with overseas military and absentee ballots,” Senate President Don Gaetz said.

Judge Lewis knows that he’s facing a legal conundrum. He’s loathe to deprive voters in the gerrymandered Fifth and Tenth Districts “of their right of having a say in who represents their interests for the next two years.” But he’s aware that ordering an immediate fix might not be “legally authorized or logistically practicable. But I’m not there yet.”

Of course, if Gaetz and the good ol’ boys in Tallahassee had followed the law instead of undertaking a surreptitious conspiracy to rig the elections, the state wouldn’t be in this mess.

We know now that they can’t be trusted to put the public interests over their own job security. Not hardly. We need another way. California, with an independent redistricting commission, might have the answer.

About Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm

@grimm_fred

Fred Grimm joined the Herald in 1976. Since 1991 he has written a column about crime, politics and life in Broward.

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