A new set of congressional districts that could alter the futures of several members of the state's U.S. House delegation was released by the Legislature on Wednesday, days before the beginning of a special session where redrawn lines will be approved.
The initial draft of the map, drawn by legislative staff members in near-seclusion, is just the first step in overhauling the state's 27 congressional districts to comply with an order by the Florida Supreme Court.
But legislative leaders say that any changes to the plan will have to be thoroughly justified to make sure that the final map doesn't violate one of the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010. Lawmakers will consider the map during a session that starts Monday.
Some of those potentially affected by the proposal were wasting no time in taking action. Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, whose lengthy district would be reconfigured under the draft released Wednesday, announced she would hold a press conference Thursday outside the federal courthouse in Orlando. It is widely assumed that Brown will at some point launch a legal challenge under the Voting Rights Act.
The plan would make many of the changes that the Supreme Court recommended in its July 9 opinion striking down eight of the 27 districts. Brown would no longer represent a district winding from Jacksonville south to Orlando; instead, her district would run in an east-west direction and extend from Duval County to Gadsden County.
Meanwhile, Congressional Districts 13 and 14 would no longer cross Tampa Bay; South Florida Democrats Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel would be thrown into the same district; and the Democratic-leaning city of Homestead would no longer be split between the districts of Republicans Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, but would be entirely within Curbelo's district.
Consultants who looked at the first draft of the map said the changes would likely not dramatically alter the partisan balance of the state's congressional delegation, which has 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats despite Florida's reputation as a swing state. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 election carried 14 of the newly proposed districts, to 13 for President Barack Obama, but other political factors and incumbency might offset the raw partisan numbers.
Instead, analysts on both sides said Democrats would mostly likely net one seat. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, would likely win a reconfigured Pinellas County seat being vacated by Republican David Jolly. Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who represents a North Florida district, would be seriously endangered in 2016 as many of the voters who helped her win last year would be shifted into Brown's seat.
But the movement of Brown's seat also would mean Republican Congressman Daniel Webster's new district in Central Florida would become far more Democratic; Obama carried the newly proposed district by 22 points in 2012.
Matt Isbell, a Democratic consultant, said Webster was "a major loser" in the new map.
"He is taking in a lot of the African-American voters that were originally in Corrine Brown's seat, as well as some additional voters in south Orlando. ... It's becoming much more diverse," Isbell said.
But even as partisans looked over the map, legislative leaders took steps that they said were designed to insulate it from political pressures. Stung by previous court rulings that have invalidated much of the work done in 2012 during the state's once-a-decade redistricting process, leaders ordered staff behind closed doors to draw the lines and told legislators they would have to document the reasons for any changes made to the proposal.
In a memo to House members, Speaker Steve Crisafulli said representatives offering amendments would have to reveal who was involved in drawing the maps, the criteria they used and any data they looked at that is not in the House's own redistricting software.
"The member should also be able to provide a non-partisan and incumbent-neutral justification for the proposed configuration of each district, to explain in detail the results of any functional analysis performed to ensure that the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice is not diminished, and to explain how the proposal satisfies all of the constitutional and statutory criteria applicable to a congressional redistricting plan," wrote Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also announced that any meeting that involved two people from a list including Crisafulli, Gardiner, Gov. Rick Scott and the chairs of the House and Senate redistricting committees would be open to the public. The courts have raised questions about a closed-door meeting between the heads of the Senate and House redistricting process in 2012 to make final decisions about the shape of the congressional map.
Still, some Republicans remain skeptical about the intent of the voting-rights organizations that have repeatedly challenged the Legislature's redistricting work and the Supreme Court majority that has generally ruled against lawmakers.
"These maps meet the criteria (the court) set," said GOP consultant Rick Wilson. "We're just going to have to see if it works out that way."
The map was revealed hours after a pair of Republican county chairmen filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have the Fair District amendments struck down on the grounds that they infringe on the right to free speech.
Walton County GOP Chairman Tim Norris and Pasco County GOP Chairman Randy Maggard filed the lawsuit late Tuesday, saying legislative attempts to avoid partisan input on the maps had hobbled their ability to weigh in.
"Plaintiffs wish to exercise their First Amendment rights and speak with legislators and the Legislature as a whole about their concerns with redistricting maps for Congress and the state Senate. This includes any concerns regarding the partisan composition of the redistricting maps," said the lawsuit, first reported by Politico. "But the plaintiffs are chilled in their speech because their intended speech risks embroilment in the inevitable legal process to follow this remedial round of redistricting."