A liberal group involved in a lawsuit to make Florida’s congressional districts less partisan engaged in its own partisan efforts by drawing Democratic-heavy Hispanic seats or trying to "scoop" Jewish voters into a district for U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair, emails show.
The emails between the leaders and consultants of what’s known as the Fair Districts Coalition became a central piece of evidence Wednesday in the Republican-led Legislature’s legal defense of the congressional districts it drew in 2012.
Some coalition members sued the Legislature to have the congressional maps cancelled, saying they violate a new state constitutional amendment forbidding lawmakers from drawing districts that favor or disfavor political parties or incumbents.
To show how unfair the Legislature’s maps were, the plaintiffs submitted their own plan as an alternative.
Never miss a local story.
But Republicans note that the emails involving Fair Districts leader Ellen Freidin and the consultants show that the plaintiffs’ proposals were drawn to strengthen Democrats, in general, and Wasserman Schultz in particular.
“I just got off the phone with Ellen,” consultant Brad Wieneke wrote in a Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011, email to members of the team in discussing Wasserman Schultz’s district.
“They want to scoop as many Jews out of Tamarac and Sunrise as they can,” Wieneke said.
Freidin didn’t return emails or calls seeking comment. Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday that she knew “absolutely nothing” of the incident.
“This is the subject of a lawsuit, so there’s not much I can say,” she said.
Fair Districts lawyer, Dan Gelber, downplayed the impact of the emails.
Gelber, who participated in some of the strategy sessions, said Fair Districts and its consultants talked about Jewish voters only because it wanted to make sure that voters in the same community weren’t divided between two districts that were Democratic anyway.
Gelber acknowledged they drew proposed congressional maps with a partisan eye, but only because the map for the 27 new Florida congressional districts were so unfairly imbalanced in favor of Republicans.
“If the legislature’s argument is that our map drawers were trying to achieve fairness in a state that had been illegally manipulated to create partisan imbalance, we fully agree,” Gelber said.
“The Legislature broke the law in the way they drew districts,” he said. “The only intent that matters under the Constitution is the Legislature’s intent.”
To that end, the Fair District-drawn map in question was withdrawn from the case after Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled against the plaintiffs’ motion to throw out the Legislature’s congressional maps.
The case is ongoing. A trial is set for August. And Lewis on Wednesday declined to give either side the right to sanction the other or the rights to attorney’s fees.
Until recently, Republicans had their secret correspondence aired in the case.
Emails indicated the staff of top legislative leaders used private email accounts, personal “dropboxes” and engaged in “brainstorming meetings” with Republican Party of Florida consultants in attempting to draw favorable political districts.
One GOP consulting group, Data Targeting, is fighting with the plaintiffs over whether it should disclose more information.
The plaintiffs, including the Florida League of Women Voters and the National Council of La Raza, also resisted turning over their emails but finally relented after Lewis ordered them.
Privately, Fair Districts supporters acknowledge that the emails look bad. The group was behind the anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments, but one email chain makes it look as if the group was putting on an act.
The Fair Districts map-maker, Wieneke, noted in the same email that the constitution bans favoring or disfavoring incumbents or parties.
“OK, generally we want a map that looks like it is doing this, but Democrats currently have 6 of 25 seats and all 6 of those seats are minority majority or minority coalition seats,” he wrote Oct. 16, 2011. “Underlying goal is to increase the number of safe Democratic seats and the number of competitive seats.”
That apparently bothered Freidin, who was careful not to commit anything in writing.
“Ellen had a mini freak out over this email and asked me to do the follow up email as she didn’t want our actual principles in writing,” he wrote.
He suggested it was no big deal, however, because the emails probably wouldn’t come up in a court case due to the fact that Freidin’s a lawyer and her communications are confidential.
But after a conversation with Freidin, he reiterated the goals without the offending language. Gelber, speaking on Freidin’s behalf, said she was angry that the consultant misrepresented the group’s goals. Republicans suspect Freidin was angry because he told the truth.
The hundreds of pages of emails show how Freidin and the other consultants struggled with drawing Democratic-heavy seats from Tampa Bay to Miami-Dade. Using data from a Democratic pollster, they tried to draw so-called “surge Hispanic” seats that are breaking Democratic, especially in Miami-Dade.
Freidin and the others also analyzed proposed districts over how they would have voted for President Barack Obama or Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2010.
Protecting Wasserman Schultz was a top priority as well. She’s one of the most-recognizable faces of the party, leads its national committee and is a prodigious fundraiser. Her 23rd congresional district runs from Miami Beach to Weston.
A Wasserman Schultz’ aide, Steve Paikowsky, was cc’d on some of the emails although the group said he wasn’t involved in plotting the proposed congressional districts. “Please do not invite Steve,” Freidin wrote in one email about a conference call.
In another email, Wieneke summed up the sentiment of many Democrats: “Probably best if we preserve Debbie Wasserman’s Seat.”