TALLAHASSEE — It was a crisp mid-February day in the nation’s capital, but a hot topic at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee had a distinctly Sunshine State feel.
A handful of Democratic political operatives, many of Florida’s congressional Democrats, and Nancy Pelosi, the House’s top Democrat from California, huddled in the offices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2012 meeting to discuss an ongoing Florida redistricting lawsuit.
On the agenda was an overview of the newest version of Florida’s congressional map, which was drawn as part of a lawsuit in a Tallahassee court challenging the redistricting process.
Court documents and emails that are part of the redistricting lawsuit show that the map was drawn and paid for by Democratic consultants in consultation with the Florida Democratic Party, which is no longer involved in the lawsuit.
Redistricting is the once-a-decade chore that lawmakers must undertake to redraw state and federal political districts to meet population changes.
Days after the meeting, that map was submitted into evidence as an alternative plan as part of the lawsuit. The suit was officially filed by groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group.
Plaintiffs in the case argue that congressional maps passed by lawmakers in 2012 are political documents that violate Amendment 6, one of the so-called “Fair District” amendments passed by voters in 2010. The amendments were an attempt to remove politics from the redistricting process by no longer allowing new maps to explicitly “favor or disfavor a political party.”
“Now the courts have to step in to implement the will of the people — a job the GOP in Tallahassee failed to accomplish,” then-Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement announcing the 2012 lawsuit.
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But politics is one of the driving factors behind the plaintiff’s maps, the emails and court documents now show.
The lawsuit is being bankrolled by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which was created in 2009 to “provide legal support for Democratic redistricting programs,” according to its website. It’s the group leading the lawsuit.
“Final say would … come from recommendations from the attorneys, and it would go through the Trust,” said Brian Smoot, the trust’s director, during a 2013 deposition taken as part of the case.
Its three-member trust consists of Democratic consultants John Lapp, Peter Carey and Brian Wolff, all former employees with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is tasked with getting Democrats elected to Congress.
John Devaney, a partner with Perkins Coie, which represents the trust, said they were simply filing alternatives to show the judge a better map was possible.
“They (the Legislature) have the constitutional duty,” said Devaney, whose firm represents the trust, in an interview. “They passed a highly partisan map, and the attack on our alternative from two years ago is a diversion.”
He said the map submitted to the court included more Republican than Democratic districts.
“Sure, there is involvement from Democratic entities, but they proposed a map that is very balanced,” he said.
In his deposition, Smith, the former Democratic chairman, said the maps were drawn with Fair Districts in mind, not at the direction of Democratic members of Congress.
“What I’m saying is, that our role was not to, in the end, sit down and draw a map because the incumbents wanted the map drawn that way,” he said. “I didn’t do that, didn’t want it done that way.”
The firm that drew the maps was the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a Democratic group that specializes in redistricting. Thousands of pages of emails and court documents show that “political performance” and political concerns of individual members were driving factors behind the map.
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Throughout the pending lawsuit, filed two years ago, there have been emails showing that political consultants on both sides played a role in the redistricting process. For Republicans, emails already released as part of the lawsuit show an aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, sending at least 23 maps to a GOP political consultant and lobbyist, among other examples.
The Washington meeting came after an initial map was redrawn because Democratic U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz expressed concern over changes made to their South Florida districts.
“My memory is that Congressman Deutch had input and Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz had input,” said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, during his 2013 deposition. “There were changes made.”
Arceneaux, who said the party is no longer involved because of the costs, defended those changes. They are constitutional, he said, because “it was neutral as to incumbency and neutral as to partisanship … I didn’t think it violated Fair Districts.”
The initial map given to the Legislature also was drawn by the National Committee for an Effective Congress and submitted by then-Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, a Sunrise Democrat now running for governor. It was quickly withdrawn, and never fully considered as part of the formal redistricting process.
That map was tweaked, presented at the Washington meeting, and submitted into evidence as part of the lawsuit.
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The map was rejected by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. He was concerned with, among other factors, the black voting age population of a Jacksonville-based district. New maps, also drawn by the National Committee for an Effective Congress, will be submitted.
“We have addressed the judge’s concerns,” Devaney said during an interview.
Attorneys for the Legislature say, however, the fact they were ever filed represents an attempt to commit “fraud on the court” because they were shaped by politics, which is at odds with the Fair District amendments.
They “asked this court to adopt their illegal plans and impose them on Florida voters, misleading the court about the true character of their maps,” reads a motion filed April 1.
The Legislature is asking Lewis to toss the lawsuit, not allow the plaintiffs to file additional maps, and require the plaintiffs to pay attorney’s fees, which court documents show have cost state taxpayers $100,000 for outside attorneys.
In its filing, the Legislature highlights a portion of Arceneaux’s deposition in which he appears to admit the district held by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican who represents Sarasota and Manatee counties, was at odds with Fair Districts.
When asked if he was trying to draw a district that would include a Democratic voting population over 50 percent, Arceneaux responded “correct.”
Attorneys for the Legislature then asked: “And that flatly violates Amendment 6; correct?”
Arceneaux’s answer was clear.
“Yes,” he said.