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    Senate takes stab at redistricting

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 26, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- A state Senate committee on Friday approved the first redistricting plan of the 2002 Legislature, creating 25 districts for Florida's U.S. House seats.

    The GOP-crafted plan helps the Congressional ambitions of Republican Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville at the expense of a Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon.

    It also leaves intact three districts created in 1992 that sent blacks to Congress from Florida for the first time since Reconstruction. The plan was approved one day after Florida's three black House members sued to get a judge the draw the lines instead of legislators.

    As expected, the plan doesn't help House Speaker Tom Feeney in his bid for a new Congressional seat he wants drawn in the Orlando area.

    "It's early yet," Feeney said. "But that doesn't surprise me."

    Senate President John McKay is expected to use Feeney's congressional ambitions as a bargaining tool to win approval of his controversial plan to overhaul the state sales tax.

    Friday's vote is the beginning of a long process in which myriad personal and partisan battles will be waged over redistricting, which Republicans control for the first time in more than 100 years. The GOP hopes to increase its hold on political power while Democrats hope to regain some.

    The plan includes two new Congressional seats, the result of population growth in the 1990s. Neither district -- one is in Central Florida, the other in South Florida -- includes an incumbent member of Congress.

    Party registration in the new districts is closely divided, but voters in both went for George W. Bush in 2000, which suggests Republican candidates would fare well.

    The plan, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, extends the current district of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, north to Gulf to Bay Boulevard in Clearwater and redraws the district now served by U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, to include areas of West Pasco and Northwest Hillsborough County that were in his district 10 years ago.

    U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, would get a district essentially the same as the one he now represents. U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, would get the Sun City Center area now represented by U.S. Rep. Dan Miller, R-Bradenton.

    The new Central Florida district appears almost tailor-made for Brown-Waite because it includes much of the area she now serves in the state Senate.

    But Thurman would be the most adversely affected. The new map takes Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties out of her district. The new lines would begin in the northern tip of Citrus at the Gulf of Mexico and stretch northeast across the state to the northern tip of Nassau County at the Atlantic Ocean.

    Thurman's current district has 174,007 Democrat and 119,230 Republicans, while the proposed district would have 201,202 Democrats and 103,658 Republicans. But George W. Bush got 54 percent of the vote in the proposed district. In her current district, Al Gore won by 10,000 votes.

    Adding to her problems, Thurman would lose counties where she has campaigned for 10 years and gain counties that don't know her.

    Democrats didn't like it one bit, but Latvala had his own complaint: They didn't take him up on his offer to submit alternatives.

    "This map reflects a lot of what we heard at public hearings," Latvala said.

    The bill passed 11-3, with Sens. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, and Walter G. "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, voting with the Republicans. Sens. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach; Daryl Jones, D-Miami; and Les Miller, D-Tampa, opposed the plan.

    Although U.S. Reps. Carrie Meek, D-Miami; Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, have already gone to court to block redistricting, Latvala defended the plan.

    The districts, each with about 639,000 people, are compact and preserve coastal areas with common interests, including one in the Fort Myers-Naples area long requested by residents, Latvala said.

    Political scholars in Florida predict a contentious year for redistricting, with multiple lawsuits before the dust settles.

    They completed a 600-page encyclopedia on redistricting that focuses on the 1992 redistricting battle, which stretched on for several years in state and federal courtrooms.

    The book, Mapping Florida's Political Landscape, is available from the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University for $75. It was edited by Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

    With changing racial and ethnic balances, MacManus predicted that redistricting will be particularly fractious among blacks and Hispanics struggling to gain control of minority access districts. The number of black voters has declined while the number of Hispanic voters has escalated.

    MacManus said the state also could see some "election 2000 fallout" in some lawsuits because some voters remain bitter over the outcome.

    She also predicted that some black lawmakers will join forces with Republicans as they did in 1992 because Democrats are trying to persuade black legislators to accept districts with fewer minorities in an effort to put more Democratic voters in neighboring districts to elect Democrats.

    "It will be interesting to see if blacks buy that argument," MacManus said. "I think you will see a split because this is self-survival politics. If you are a black lawmaker and see no hope the Democrats will take either chamber back, what do you do?"

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk