Florida redistricting plans include a surprise – praise from Democrats (so far, so good)

By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK—FLORIDA, Nov. 27, 2021.

TALLAHASSEE – With Florida’s political future riding in the balance, lawmakers and analysts predicted a bitter, partisan clash over the state’s unfolding attempt to redraw state House, Senate and congressional boundaries.

But the first redistricting plans emerging from the Republican-controlled Legislature have been greeted calmly, maybe even welcomed by the outnumbered Democrats.

“I just think you’ve done a terrific job,” Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, told Jay Ferrin, staff director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, after eyeing four congressional plans released this month, along with four versions of Senate maps.

“I have heard no negative feedback on any of these to date,” she added.

How long such harmony will last is unknown. But in what many see as a script flip, Democrats generally accepted the congressional and Senate plans produced by Ferrin and the Senate redistricting staff.

The mood in Florida so far contrasts that of other states.

In Ohio, Republicans are crafting boundaries that could leave Democrats with only two of the state’s 15 congressional seats, and in North Carolina, the Republican-led legislature has approved a plan that could allow 10 of the state’s 14 congressional seats to be won by GOP candidates.

In Maryland and Illinois, Democrats are advancing maps that expand their hold.

The eight Florida Senate maps don’t dramatically disrupt the state’s current partisan balances. While the House hasn’t released any maps yet, in coming weeks it will produce its own state House and congressional proposals.

Stinging from a decade ago, when Republicans violated the state constitution by gerrymandering maps in an attempt to maximize their hold on state power, Democrats had been bracing for a fight over the latest proposed contours.

Instead, the plans are not as bad as many Democrats feared.

They “don’t move the partisan needle so much,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic data consultant.

For Democrats, status quo not bad

For Democrats in a state where Republican voter registration has overtaken them for the first time in modern history, keeping something like the status quo in legislative and congressional boundaries may be a victory.

The plans seem certain to keep Democrats in a minority, where they’ve been this century in Florida. But Isbell’s conclusion is that the 23-17 Republican edge in the Senate and 16-12 GOP margin within the congressional delegation that is included in the package of plans is reasonable.

Similarly surprising to many, Florida’s ruling Republicans appear wary of doing anything that could be viewed as illegally gerrymandering districts to enhance their political strength.

The state’s Fair Districts constitutional amendments, approved by voters in 2010, require that congressional and legislative districts be drawn without intentionally favoring incumbents or a particular political party.

There is pressure on Florida Republicans. The GOP nationally is looking to increase its congressional seats to wrest control of the U.S. House from Democrats, in command by a tenuous margin.

Republicans wary of missteps

But Florida Republicans also may be seeking to avoid a repeat of the three years of lawsuits, depositions, hearings and trials that followed redistricting in 2012.

“These are the beginning,” said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Green Cove Springs, chair of the Senate’s congressional reapportionment subcommittee, when discussing the maps.  “We are going to continue to make them better.”

With the four plans creating 23 Republican-leaning Senate districts, that’s a one-seat GOP increase from the state’s current map, crafted by a Leon County judge in 2015 following the lengthy courtroom clash.

But Florida Republicans already exceed these voter performance numbers in the Senate, where they now hold 24 seats in the 40-member chamber.

Because of population growth over the past 10 years, Florida is gaining a congressional seat – bringing its complement to 28. The partisan breakdown based on how the districts performed in the 2020 presidential election shows the balance of the maps released by the Senate are 16 Republican-tilting districts to 12 for Democrats.

The state’s current congressional map has 15 districts that voted for President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, and 12 that sided with Biden.

Florida currently has 16 Republican members of Congress, 10 Democrats and a vacant South Florida seat that leans heavily Democratic and is likely to be won by Democratic nominee Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick in a Jan. 11 special election.

The state’s current congressional boundaries were cast by the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled unconstitutional the legislative efforts of a decade ago.

Still plenty to fight over

But there are still issues certain to prove contentious as lawmakers consider even more maps in the weeks ahead. The Legislature isn’t expected to complete redistricting until the 2022 session’s scheduled end March 11.

Court challenges are virtually certain to emerge to whatever is approved by the Republican-led Legislature.

Questions have already been raised by Democrats about whether the Senate maps in play maximize minority voting strength.

A flashpoint has emerged with Senate District 19, which in all four plans links Black communities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, crossing Tampa Bay to do so. It’s been largely configured the same way for 30 years and is currently represented by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

About one-third of the district’s voting population is Black, but Democratic-allied analysts say it is possible to create a similar minority access district in Hillsborough alone, leaving Black voters in Pinellas County to slide into neighboring District 24.

Currently a Republican seat held by term-limited Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, District 24 could tilt Democratic with the change, analysts said. Republicans say the districts must be kept mostly as they are to avoid risking an unconstitutional “diminishment” of black voting strength.

Democrats aren’t so sure.

“What constitutes diminishment?” asked Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando. “You can reduce the Black population in one district and those voters could still elect a Black candidate in another district. Then they can have more power.”

The congressional maps avoid that cross-Tampa Bay question.

New seat may not be so new

They also anchor the state’s newest congressional seat, the 28th, in Republican-heavy Polk County, with the district also containing parts of Lake and Sumter counties. But this new seat may not be exactly up for grabs – or maybe all that new.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland, would see his current District 15 change into a Democratic-leaning Hillsborough County district, under the Senate proposed maps, and he would, instead, be the favorite for Florida’s new 28th, which includes much of his current district.

Meanwhile, the new 15th District could be open for a Democratic pick-up in next year’s critical election year.

But the maps also shore up for Republicans the Miami-Dade County district held by freshman Republican Rep. Maria Salazar, making it more favorable for electing a GOP member.

Salazar and U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Miami, unseated two Democratic incumbents last November when Democratic-heavy Miami-Dade provided less backing for Biden than it had four years earlier, when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee.

Keeping those seats in Republican hands next year could be pivotal to Republican chances of flipping Congress to the GOP.

Steven Romalewski, director of the City University of New York Mapping Service, has been tracking how Florida’s political boundaries may change on a website, Redistricting & You. He said Florida’s early calm belies the redistricting clashes already underway in other states.

He said an underlying theme driving redistricting should be remembered as Florida moves forward.

“If a party is in power, it’s going to try to consolidate power,” Romalewski said.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport