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After Years Of Controversy, Corrine Brown's District Remains In The Spotlight

Corrine Brown
U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. House of Representatives

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — As Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown tells it, the reason for her district's winding path from Jacksonville to Orlando is a matter of history.The enclaves of black voters, who form a majority of the Congressional District 5 approved by the Legislature in 2012, took shape in the wake of the Civil War. Newly freed African Americans took up residence next to the St. Johns River.

"Because the land was prone to flooding, it was only natural that the poorest Floridians, including freed slaves, would settle there," Brown said last week in one of many statements her office has issued defending the district. "Segregated housing patterns, demanded by restrictive covenants and enforced by Florida courts, kept the African-American population together well into the mid-20th Century, which is the central reason why these communities are segregated into those residential patterns across the state."

But after 20 years of controversy and being decried as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation, Brown's district is now one of two that will be changed by the Legislature in response to Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' order in a congressional redistricting case. Lewis ordered lawmakers to draw a new map by Aug. 15, triggering a special session that will start Thursday.

Lewis ruled that District 5, which includes parts of eight counties, does not comply with the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts constitutional amendments adopted by Florida voters in 2010. Republican Congressman Dan Webster's Orlando-area District 10 is also slated to be redrawn, and the changes will likely ripple through nearby seats.

But it is Brown's district, more than any other, that has drawn the ire of activists for years. And it is Brown's district that is already bringing longstanding tensions among Democrats to the surface. It has also complicated the shifting alliances of the battle over the Fair Districts amendments.

Ironically, Brown's district was born as the result of a lawsuit --- a federal case filed in 1992 under the Voting Rights Act. Brown helped waged the battle and points out time and again that before she and two other black lawmakers were elected that November, Florida hadn't sent an African American to Congress in more than 120 years.

In more recent years, though, even some black Democrats have begun to say that an excessive concentration of African Americans in Brown's district and other districts has the side effect of strengthening the Republican majorities in nearby districts by consolidating tens of thousands of Democratic-leaning voters who would otherwise be spread out among several seats.

"It is the case that one of the biggest battles going on right now within the black community, political activists especially, and also within the Democratic Party, is what percent do you need of minorities to give them, in a district, an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, which is still the law," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter upbraiding the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for supporting the lawsuit, though the DCCC was not involved in the court fight.

"There are instances where these types of lawsuits may be warranted," wrote Ohio Democratic Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, the caucus' chair, to DCCC chair and New York Congressman Steve Israel. "However, the recent Florida lawsuit aimed at dismantling the 5th Congressional district is not one."

Some black Democrats in Florida, though, have been more willing to embrace the goals of holding a special session, saying that a new map is needed to give the state constitutional districts.

Credit U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown
Florida's Fifth Congressional District

"Unfortunately, Florida’s Republican legislative leaders failed to accomplish this task the first time around and that is the sole reason the Legislature is being called into special session this week," said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale. "I only hope we will see the new map ordered by Judge Lewis adopted in the transparent and open process Republicans promised but failed to give Floridians in 2012."

Even beyond the confines of the Democratic Party, the battles over Fair Districts and what the amendments mean has long scrambled the traditional political alliances. Sensing danger even before the new maps were passed, Brown went to federal court to try to block the Fair Districts amendments from taking effect. She faced opposition from several voting rights groups, including the Florida NAACP.

In the case before Lewis, though, the NAACP sided with the Legislature to oppose any major changes to Brown's district. In a June filing with the court, the NAACP's lawyers argued the wandering lines was still necessary.

"Despite living in different cities and counties along the district, these voters are all faced with impediments to participating in the political process, from inadequate public services to constantly moving polling places," they wrote. "Black voters in this region are struggling with the lack of affordable housing, segregated housing and segregated schools, glaring disparities in the criminal justice system, lack of city services, and urban renewal encroaching on affordable housing And significantly, they face the persistent inability to consistently elect black candidates in local elections."

Asked Tuesday if her organization was concerned about the special session that starts Thursday, state NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze said: "Of course we are." She declined further comment because of the ongoing litigation.

But opponents of the district say it's not necessary to put so many black voters together to elect a candidate favored by African Americans. Brown has won several elections with a high percentage of black voters in her district without needing an African American majority.

And Lewis found one of the key changes to the congressional map before its final approval --- extending the district into the city of Sanford, which bumped the proportion of black voters up over 50 percent --- was a political act not justified by voting-rights considerations.

"I also find that the decision to increase the district to majority (black), which was accomplished in large part by creating the finger-like appendage jutting into District 7 and Seminole County, was done with the intent of benefiting the Republican Party," he wrote.

Lewis' ruling has already sparked speculation that Brown or someone else might return to federal court after the special session to challenge the redrawn plan under the Voting Rights Act. While voting-rights groups like the League of Women Voters have suggested more radical changes, including an east-west configuration for the district, legislative leaders have signaled that they will use a light touch when crafting new lines.

"Because the court held intact 25 of the state's 27 congressional districts as the Legislature drew them, I believe we can and should meet the court's requirements with minimal impact on the rest of the state," said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in a statement issued this week.

Brown doesn't appear to be ready to back down, casting the battle as one with nationwide implications.

"In addition, as I have stated previously, I firmly believe that the lawsuit concerning the Florida congressional district maps is, in reality, part of a bigger movement to diminish congressional districts represented by minorities not just in Florida, but across the nation," she said last week after Lewis issued an order triggering the special session. "If successful in the state of Florida, those behind this movement will continue to attack minority seats and minority voting rights in every state throughout the nation."

News Service of Florida reporter Margie Menzel contributed to this report.