Bob Sparks: Despite court requirements, new congressional maps will put few incumbents at risk

The dartboard known as the draft Florida congressional district maps is receiving the kind of comments and attacks one might expect. Some are happy, but others fall into the range of sad and outraged. In the end, few new faces are likely to join the Congressional Club in 2017.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, for one, is content. The proposed map reflects no changes to his Western Panhandle district.

Miller’s Republican colleague, U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, sees the writing on the wall in what he describes as an “uncompetitive” district for a Republican.

“This new plan not only disfavors an incumbent, but it appears to be an attempt to eliminate an incumbent,” Webster said.

That is a pretty strong indictment against the map drawers from within his own party. Webster certainly has reason to at least scratch his head.

The hoopla surrounding the Florida Supreme Court’s July 9 decision focused a great deal on its reversal of Judge Terry Lewis, who approved the redrawn District 2, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. Unlike Brown’s district, Webster’s revised District 10 actually met constitutional muster as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

You can’t blame Webster for feeling a bit disrespected. Where’s the love from Republicans for the guy in a Supreme Court-approved district who also did Central Florida a favor by ousting U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in 2010?

Falling into the category of “outraged” is Brown. The court wants her current “serpentine” district originating in Jacksonville and running north to south replaced by a district running from Jacksonville to the west that includes Gadsden County.

Brown is fighting the state’s highest court in the only way possible. On Wednesday, she filed suit in federal court alleging legislators will violate federal voting laws if they comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. To avoid this suit, the Legislature merely needs to ignore the court.

“As a people, African Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly are not taking any steps backward,” Brown said.

Perhaps the federal court will not even consider this lawsuit. While the districts involved are for federal offices, the Fair Districts criteria are ensconced in the Florida Constitution.

Legislative map makers are required to use “political boundaries” wherever possible instead of good old fashioned gerrymandering. At the same time, they are also required to allow “racial and language minorities to … elect representatives of their choice.” This can create some counter-intuitive districts in a geographical sense.

That is how Brown’s redrawn ink blot district received the go-ahead from Judge Lewis. The Supreme Court not only vetoed the new and improved District 5, along with seven other districts, but in effect told the Legislature how to draw them.

To make its point, the 5-2 Supreme Court majority actually embedded some maps more to its liking. The unwritten message: “This is what we will approve.” That doesn’t sit well with some legislators.

“How does the court come in here to run roughshod over the Legislature?” asked state Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon). The unusual step of embedding preferred maps into justices’ July ruling gives, at the very least, the appearance of judicial overreach.

Brown’s lawsuit will likely ask Lee’s question (within the context of voting rights) if given the chance to go to trial. Some say the lawsuit is premature.

Webster and Brown are clearly on the record with their displeasure. Also affected is District 2 held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham.

Districts in Tampa Bay and South Florida are also involved, but many more will require tinkering as the Legislature succumbs to the Supreme Court’s wishes.

To accommodate the court’s preference for Brown’s district, the current map sends a significant chunk of Graham’s base of Tallahassee and Gadsden County to Brown. It is difficult to see how Graham could win in the proposed new district.

The freshman Democrat from Tallahassee has kept a rather low profile up to this point. While stating her opposition to turning over significant parts of her base to Brown’s district, Graham has said little else other than her focus is running for re-election.

No matter the look of the final congressional district map, there are likely to be just as many or more content incumbents like Miller as there are sad or outraged members like Webster and Brown. We can also expect South Florida to provide fascinating lessons on political cartography as well.

Most important of all: What does Donald Trump have to say about all of this?

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee.  Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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