State Politics

Fight over Florida congressional map fueled by Senate power struggle

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, testifying during a hearing Friday on the congressional redistricting map.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, testifying during a hearing Friday on the congressional redistricting map. Courtesy of The Florida Channel

Sen. Tom Lee, one of the Senate’s most powerful Republicans, took the stand Friday in the ongoing trial over how to configure Florida’s 27 congressional districts and said that he did not draw a district to benefit himself and he had no intention of running for Congress.

It was a rare, personal moment in the unprecedented process that has reshaped how redistricting works in Florida.

But, while the testimony was designed by the Senate to undercut attacks by the Republican-led House that the Senate map was drawn to benefit incumbent Republicans, it also exposed how the congressional trial is really just a practice run.

Leaders in the House and Senate have concluded that the outcome of the trial will have a direct impact on the drawing of something more personal than congressional districts — the Senate map — because how the case is resolved could decide how much input legislators will have in shaping that plan.

“A lot of this is about precedent as we proceed with developing the Senate maps,” said Lee, R-Brandon, after testifying on the second day of hearings. “There are a lot of strategic decisions that will come back based on how the court treats the maps.”

The House is arguing that its map, drawn primarily by staff in a sequestered room with input from only lawyers hired by the GOP-led House and Senate is more constitutional because it shielded legislators from any improper partisan intent.

The Senate argues that the staff-drawn base map is the “starting point” and legislators should not be penalized for changing maps — even if they inadvertently benefit themselves — as long as there was no improper intent.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis has until Oct. 17 to recommend a proposal to the Florida Supreme Court for the state’s final congressional map. The hearings resume Monday.

After the Florida Supreme Court invalidated the congressional redistricting map in July, Senate leaders conceded that the Senate map they enacted in 2012 violated the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution. After Lewis makes his recommendation, lawmakers will be back in Tallahassee for a three-week special session starting Oct. 19 to redraw the Senate map.

The House and Senate announced Friday they had reached agreement on how to proceed with the special session, including recording all conversations and having staff build five or six base maps. But they must still wrestle with appeasing the needs of lawmakers with a personal stake in the outcome.

Eight House members have opened campaigns to run for one of the 40 Senate seats on the ballot in 2016, and another 10 are rumored to be considering it depending on how the districts are drawn.

In Broward County, for example, Rep. Gwen Clark-Reed has filed for Senate District 31, as has former Rep. Perry Thurston, to replace Democrat Chris Smith. In St. Petersburg, Reps. Betty Reed and Darryl Rouson have filed for Senate District 19 to replace Democrat Sen. Arthenia Joyner. And in Miami, Rep. Erik Fresen has filed to replace Republican Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla.

A handful of senators are worried about being pitted against each other in newly drawn districts — such as Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. And others are fearful of losing large chunks from districts that they won easily.

Complicating the issue is the House leadership’s interest in using the redistricting process to emerge as an influential player in dictating the direction of the Senate map — allowing them to potentially influence who gets elected to the upper chamber and, ultimately, who is elected Senate president.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Latvala are locked in a fight over who will become Senate president after the 2016 elections. Negron says he has pledges from 14 Republicans, a majority in the Senate, while Latvala refuses to concede and argues that with the upended election cycle the final vote should not occur until after Election Day.

Meawhile, Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Land O’Lakes Republican who has been designated to be House speaker in 2016, and his closest allies privately prefer to work with Negron.

The allegation that the Senate map was drawn for personal, partisan benefit, is at the unspoken core of the public feud between the House and Senate over congressional redistricting.

“You have very different interpretations with regards to the process and rationale,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee. “The Senate seems to believe they have greater latitude, and the House has taken a more strict approach.’’

Lee testified that he prepared an amendment to keep Hillsborough County whole because it had been a “donor” county for years to several congressional districts.

The reconfiguration of Hillsborough, which gutted the congressional district now held by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, prompted Oliva and House leaders to reject the Senate map and dissolve the special session in August without resolution.

The issue emerged in court Friday as Senate lawyer Raoul Cantero attempted to show that Lee’s motives were pure. He asked Lee whether he drew the Hillsborough configuration to benefit himself.

“No, sir,” Lee replied.

How the court decides will not only dictate how the Senate maps are drawn, it will decide how the Fair Districts amendments are applied in the future, Lee said.

“I realize everyone’s seeing ghosts because of what we’ve been through over the last few years in this reapportionment process,” Lee told reporters. “But I think it’s very important that we establish the individual legislators’ right to impact these maps.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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