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District division requires deft touch

The release of proposed maps for new district lines is the beginning of a highly political process. The initial proposal raises some concerns about local representation.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002


When state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite announced in July that she planned to run for Congress this year, she said she would probably face the District 5 incumbent.

"I expect to run against Karen Thurman," she said.

It now appears that Brown-Waite will not run against Thurman, at least according to a proposal from the Senate committee on redistricting, of which Brown-Waite is a member.

The plan places Brown-Waite in a firmly Republican congressional district that includes much of her current Senate district. It comprises all of Hernando and Sumter counties, virtually all of Citrus County and parts of eastern Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

"It is a favorable district," Brown-Waite said.

Thurman, a Democrat from Dunnellon, meanwhile, may have to run in a district that voted overwhelmingly for Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race and covers neither Hernando, Citrus nor western Pasco counties, which she has represented for 10 years.

The committee has also proposed a Senate district that Brown-Waite and the other lawmakers representing Hernando say they oppose because it divides the county down the middle.

"I'm working on that already," Brown-Waite said Friday. "I have made the appropriate calls, and amendments are being drafted as we speak."

State Reps. David Russell, R-Brooksville, and Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, both said they will also work to change the Senate district lines, and they said there is plenty of time to do so.

Of the several redistricting proposals offered so far, the Senate's has the most political weight behind it, including the support of high-ranking members of the committee, Sens. John Laurent, R-Bartow, and Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

But it is far from final.

"We're in the bottom of the first inning," said Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, chairman of the House committee on redistricting.

The release of the proposed district maps is just the beginning of a highly political process that will continue with workshops this week and go on to dominate this spring's legislative session.

Like the state budget, both the House and Senate will pass their own versions of redistricting maps, and members from both bodies will meet to hammer out a joint proposal.

The congressional map also needs the approval of Gov. Jeb Bush. All plans must be reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department. And, as happened 10 years ago, some of the newly created boundaries may be contested in court.

"It's going to consume the Legislature," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida. Wilcox's organization is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would create a citizens group appointed by the Legislature to decide on new district lines.

Having the Legislature decide its own districts presents an inherent conflict of interest, he said, and pollutes the political process.

"Reapportionment drags virtually every other issue the Legislature deals with into the cesspool. What typically happens is, there are all sorts of public policy trade-offs. Positions on health care, the budget, these get traded off for districts that guarantee somebody's election to a higher office."

The Legislature must redraw all congressional and legislative district lines every decade, in response to changes in U.S. Census figures and to ensure equal representation.

Thurman is familiar with the process and has benefitted from it. She served as chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for redrawing congressional districts in 1992 and worked to create the district that has elected her five times.

The same day Brown-Waite announced her candidacy for Congress and said she probably would not get a new district, Thurman predicted she would.

She made that forecast, she said Friday, because Brown-Waite "is a Republican, because she's on the committee, and because in my early conversations with Jack Latvala, he said (Senate president) John McKay had promised it to her."

"No such promises have been made," Brown-Waite said, adding that her only involvement with redistricting has been to attend committee meetings.

Thurman acknowledges she would like to continue to represent Hernando and Citrus counties, as well as western Pasco. The Senate's proposal takes away all that territory -- except for a small sliver of Citrus -- and replaces it with several sparsely populated North Florida counties that extend to the Georgia border.

In her current district, the majority of the registered voters are Democrats. And, in the most recent presidential election, it voted for Al Gore by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent.

In the district that Senate Republicans are drawing for her, Democrats own a wide advantage among registered voters. But in national elections, they tend to vote Republican, including favoring George W. Bush over Gore by a 12.5 percent margin.

Many of the Democrats in the state's rural counties are conservative, as Southern Democrats traditionally were, Russell said.

"The higher up on the ticket, the more likely they are going to lean to Republican candidates," Russell said.

In the proposed district that Brown-Waite may run in, Republicans have a majority among registered voters, and supported Bush over Gore, 53 percent to 44 percent.

Thurman said she does not think the Senate's proposal will be final, at least partly because the Republican Legislature also has to accommodate other members of the party, most notably House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo.

A new congressional district around Orlando has not been created for him in the Senate version, she said, and it almost certainly will be in the House version.

"A lot of things will play into the final decision, and I think we're a long way from seeing the final maps," she said.

That's the same thing the Hernando delegation is saying about the Senate's proposal for the Senate districts.

The map now calls for eastern Hernando to be lumped in with Sumter and parts of Lake and Marion counties.

West Hernando would be joined with the western parts of Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, said he is especially concerned about any district that connects Hernando with Pinellas County.

Not only do the two counties have little in common, he said; on some issues -- most notably water -- their interests clearly clash.

"Frankly, I don't see the linkage between Hernando County and Pinellas County," he said. "I just don't like the way we've been split up."

Hernando and Citrus should be in the same district, he said, because they have much in common. Argenziano agrees.

"Absolutely, they are like sister counties," she said.

In the Senate proposal, Citrus would be the southernmost and most populous county in a district that, like Thurman's proposed district, extends to the Georgia border. It includes sparsely populated counties, including Taylor, Lafayette and Dixie.

As a potential Senate candidate, Argenziano has a personal interest in the results of the process.

"I've said I'll wait until I see what the redistricting is and see if it looks accommodating," Argenziano said. So far it doesn't, she said.

"I don't want to be pulled away from my counties, which are Hernando and Citrus."

Hernando County Commissioner Nancy Robinson also said she does not like the Senate proposal for Senate districts. It would not be in the best interest of local residents, she said.

"It concerns me, for I really want to see Hernando retained in its entirety. ... Otherwise, we may get a senator with limited knowledge and maybe limited interest in Hernando County."

-- Staff writer Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com.

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