Martin Dyckman: Helen Gordon Davis, an early victim of racial gerrymandering in Florida

Helen Gordon Davis

The obituaries for Helen Gordon Davis correctly recounted what one called her “trailblazing” career in the Florida Legislature, where in 1974 she became one of very few women – the first from Hillsborough County – in what a colleague famously called “the land of the Bubbas.”

She weathered the sexism and condescension and compiled a luminous record in what some refer to wistfully as the “Golden Age” of Florida politics.

What the tributes didn’t mention, after her death May 18, was the ignoble, cynical way in which some of her colleagues conspired to sacrifice her career to their own political ambitions.

It’s a story whose ending has yet to be written.

Davis and fellow Democratic Sen. Jeanne Malchon of Pinellas County were two of the first victims of race-based gerrymandering in the Florida Legislature.

What happened to them in 1992 set an example of chicanery throughout the South, contributing to the disproportionate power of the Republicans and the impotence of Democrats in Florida and elsewhere.

The decennial redistricting debate in 1992 had been particularly bitter. When Republicans – the minority then – and some black and Hispanic legislators didn’t get what they wanted, they appealed to sympathetic ears at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which was in the twelfth year of Republican rule.

Voting changes affecting Hillsborough – but not Pinellas – were subject to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. The Division refused to approve several Senate districts and demanded they be revised to virtually guarantee the election of a black senator.

When the Legislature balked, it fell to the Florida Supreme Court to comply. The 4-3 decision created a monstrosity promptly named the “bug splat” district for its likeness to something more likely seen on a windshield or in a psychiatrist’s office.

It linked the black neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg to those in Tampa, with tentacles extending south into Manatee County and as far away as Polk.

Other people’s names were on the proposal, but it bore the unmistakable fingerprints of then-Rep. James T. Hargrett of Tampa, who yearned to be a senator.

One of the tentacles took in Malchon’s residence at Pinellas Point. Another conspicuously excluded the home of a black politician in Plant City who might have given Hargrett a hard campaign.

Malchon, a liberal in every sense, was unwilling to oppose a black candidate. She thought of moving into an adjacent district but that would have meant a primary against Davis, and she chose not to do that. Among the reasons: Sen. Pat Thomas, the Democrat hoping to become Senate president, thought Davis had the better chance.

In fact, most of the votes Davis would need were not in her county but in Pinellas. Republican – and future governor – Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg won the district. Hargrett won also, as expected. Two white, liberal Democratic women had been replaced by a white male Republican and a black male Democrat. It left the Senate split between the parties, 20-20. The Republicans were never in the minority again.

Everyone, including a reluctant majority at the Florida Supreme Court, saw that Malchon and Davis were being sacrificed. As the court remarked, Tampa and Hillsborough lacked “economic ties and political cohesiveness.” The majority also acknowledged a point stressed in the dissents: the blacks in Polk, Pinellas and Hillsborough had nothing in common “other than their race.”

However, “the Justice Department seems to interpret the Voting Rights Act as forcing the creation of more districts in which minorities have the opportunity to elect minority candidates rather than the creation of more districts in which minorities have greater influence,” the court said.

That, too, was the predictable result. A friend of the court brief filed by Chesterfield Smith, a former American Bar Association president, in support of Malchon and Davis warned that to pack districts in such ways would relegate blacks and Hispanics to “permanent minority status.”

Dissenting justice Ben Overton – a former lawyer and judge in Pinellas – observed that the scheme rendered the three other Tampa Bay area districts 97, 95.9 and 96 percent white.

“Only the senator will know where the district lines are,” he complained.

The “bug splat” district was so extreme that the federal courts eventually ordered it pared back. But the precedent was set, for the entire Legislature as well as for seats in Congress.

These many years later, the U.S. Supreme Court appears finally to be doubting the legality of packing black districts for the sake of bleaching the white ones. It has ordered courts in Alabama and North Carolina to reconsider recent racial gerrymanders.

In both cases, the NAACP argues that what is best for black politicians is not necessarily best for black voters. Malchon and Davis would be pleased.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in western North Carolina.

Martin Dyckman


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