TALLAHASSEE — A Harvard University political science professor hired to help the plaintiffs challenging the state’s congressional maps in court faced a blistering round of questions Wednesday from attorneys representing the Legislature.
The questions came during a hearing held as part of a trial before Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. In July, he ruled that two Florida congressional districts were unconstitutional in the way they were drawn. As a result, lawmakers redrew congressional maps during a special session earlier this month. That map now needs Lewis’ final approval.
Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere took the witness stand to defend a map that he initially said he drew for the plaintiffs. They argued it represents a better version than the map passed during a special legislative session.
During his testimony, Ansolabehere briefly mentioned that Eric Hawkins, a consultant with Washington-based NCEC, “cleaned up” some areas of the map. NCEC is a Democratic law firm that specializes in map-drawing.
Because of the statement that a Democratic firm was involved, George Meros, an attorney for the Florida House, pounced.
“Did you ever say is there any partisan intent here … did you ever try to determine if this was being done with Democratic motivation?” he asked as part of a series of questions.
“No,” Ansolabehere quickly replied.
The admission that NCEC was involved in the map is notable because, after a July hearing, John Devaney, an attorney for the plaintiffs, was asked by a reporter if the “NCEC folks were involved at all” in the plaintiffs’ maps.
“Dr. Ansolabehere is presenting and endorsing this map,” he answered without acknowledging the Democratic firm’s involvement.
Meros pointed to the 5th Congressional District, a seat held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, that has been at the heart of the redistricting fight.
It currently winds from Jacksonville to Orlando, a shape that was maintained in the map passed during the special session. Plaintiffs have argued the seat was “packed” with Democratic-leaning black voters to strengthen surrounding Republican districts.
The plaintiffs’ map draws that seat from Jacksonville to Leon County (Tallahassee). The change moves 17,000 black voters into a Northeast Florida seat that is likely to elect a white candidate, but also allows for a second seat in Central Florida allowing blacks to elect a candidate of their choice.
It initially seemed that Ansolabehere drew the district himself, but during questioning he said he drew a “rough version” of the district and allowed Hawkins, with the Democratic firm, to draw the final product.
Lewis will rule on the maps passed by lawmakers, not the plaintiffs’ version, but an admission they used a partisan map-drawer partially undercuts charges of partisanship the plaintiffs have thrown at the GOP-led Legislature.
Lewis said he would rule on the Legislature’s map and whether he will call a special election for the affected districts “soon,” but didn’t give a date for ruling.