Proposed redistricting maps retain sprawling boundaries
TAMPA - Last year, 63 percent of Florida voters approved Amendments 5 and 6, which called for compact voting districts that are as politically neutral as possible. But maps released Monday by the state Senate staff draw district lines that are only slightly more compact than the present versions and whose political neutrality is hard to fathom. "That's one of the frustrating things -- we can't see the party make-up in these maps, though that was one of the key prongs of Amendments 5 and 6," said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida who has written a book about redistricting. MacManus said at first glance, the new district lines in the proposed maps do little to tilt the political status quo in the Tampa Bay area.Congressional districts 10 and 11, represented by Republican C.W. Bill Young and Democrat Kathy Castor, respectively, seem to be slightly more Democratic, MacManus said, though it's hard to tell. "What's missing that will be frustrating to a lot of people who are really interested in this is information about the party make-up and where the incumbents are located," she said. State legislatures are charged with drawing new voting districts once a decade after the national Census. Lawmakers in the majority party often use the opportunity to solidify their hold on power, devising serpentine district lines that split cities and towns and meander across multiple political and geographic boundaries. Democrats say that was the case after the 2000 census when Republicans used their majority to draw safe districts for many of their members. That redistricting, Democrats say, resulted in lopsided GOP majorities in the Legislature despite Democrats holding a 500,000 advantage in registered voters over Republicans. A Democratic-leaning group called Fair Districts Now gathered enough petitions to put Amendments 5 and 6 on ballot, and then voters overwhelmingly approved the initiatives at the polls. But after the Senate staff maps were released, Democrats cried foul. "The people said what they wanted done in Amendments 5 and 6," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, whose district sprawls from central Tampa to into Manatee County. "If these maps don't comport with the (state) constitution, then we have to go back to the drawing board and make it right." But the amendments' goals of compactness and political neutrality are complicated by the federal Voting Rights Act, which says that redistricting can't dilute minority voting strength. For instance, Castor's District 11 was drawn as a minority-access district, MacManus said, which means minorities have to be present in numbers sufficient to make electing one of their own possible. Failing that, the minority voters should be able to have an impact on the election if they vote as a bloc. Since the current lines were drawn after the 2000 Census, the district has been practically unwinnable for Republicans. The current District 11 includes most of Tampa, but reaches across Tampa Bay to include heavily black south St. Petersburg and extends south to pick up more minority voters in Manatee County. The Senate staff made slight changes to the district, extending the line north to include downtown St. Petersburg and more of the well-to-do areas along the bayfront. "They probably tried to keep the minority numbers in that district the same," MacManus said. "So you can't really alter (Castor's) district that much." Castor said she doesn't know if the newly drawn district improves her re-election chances. Under the proposed district lines, she would lose the Forest Hills and Citrus Park neighborhoods just north of Tampa as well as the university area. "I don't have control over drawing the district boundaries," Castor said. "All I can do is focus on what's in my control." Castor's likely opponent in next year's election, Republican Mark Sharpe, said he expects the final maps to make District 11 less Democratic and more "Hillsborough-centric." "I think when the Legislature is through, what you will have is a district that's less gerrymandered and more central to Hillsborough County," Sharpe said. "It may be closer to the one that (Democrats) Sam Gibbons and Jim Davis represented. It won't be overwhelmingly Republican." Young's 10th district would pick up Clearwater and Dunedin. Young could not be reached for comment. Congressional District 12, represented by Republican Dennis Ross, now includes the more heavily populated areas of east Hillsborough, as well as most of Polk County and a small slice of Osceola. If the new map is approved, the district would lose the voter-rich areas of Brandon, Bloomingdale and Valrico but would pick up all or parts of seven counties south of the current district lines. "If it stays as drawn, it's a more conservative district than we have now. So in that regard it's a good thing," said Ross' chief of staff Fred Piccolo. "He'll have to put a lot of new miles on his truck." U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis' District 9 would gain the Brandon area from Ross and a northern slice of Castor's district under the new maps. The Senate staff also drew new districts for state senators. These were some of the changes: Senate President-Designate Don Gaetz said if the House-Senate Reapportionment Committee votes to introduce the maps as bills on Dec. 6, they could go back to the committee for a final vote as soon as the Legislature convenes in early January. Members of the public can still comment on the maps via phone, e-mail or through various social media. To see how, go to www.flsenate.gov/redistricting.
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