Court brouhaha brews over redistricting
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House today considers new maps for congressional and legislative boundaries for the next decade, but the debate is expected to be a prelude to an inevitable court battle.
Democrats already are divided, with some focused on a likely court fight while others work with Republicans on a political compromise.
A new map preserves a seat for St. Petersburg Democrat Frank Peterman by stretching from southern St. Petersburg to northern Sarasota County. The east Hillsborough seat held by Rep. Sara Romeo, D-Lutz, would become much more Republican.
A few Pinellas seats would extend into neighboring counties because Pinellas' growth in the '90s lagged far behind the statewide rate of 23.5 percent.
"Overall, it's a good product," said Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor, a co-chairman of one redistricting panel. "When you get down to three or four people screaming about the whole state, that's pretty good."
Much of the complaining is coming from South Florida. That same Republican map would force two incumbent Broward Democrats, Nan Rich and Mark Weissman, to run against each other in the same district. The South Miami-Dade seat of Democrat Cindy Lerner would become strongly Republican.
The final shape of the districts is still in question, but the political outcome is certain. With their 77-43 advantage, Republicans have more than enough votes to prevail, and the map that leaves the House is expected to contain an open congressional seat for outgoing Speaker Tom Feeney of Oviedo.
About a dozen Democrats, including Rep. Bob Henriquez of Tampa, huddled privately with lawyers from the First Decade Fairness Project, which is advising some Democrats on legal strategy.
House Democratic caucuses are usually open, but reporters were barred from the session with Miami lawyers Norman Powell and Thomasina Williams.
"They won't meet with us if we let reporters in," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who is running for governor. Frankel cited attorney-client privilege for excluding reporters and said the discussion was about "a record for a court case. They advised us what questions to ask."
Other House Democrats are boycotting the sessions with the lawyers. Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, described them as fixated on litigation.
The House is sending three congressional plans to the floor. Much of the disagreement has been over southwest Florida's Collier County.
"Your bigger hope is that the courts draw the plan, and even that's rolling the dice," Henriquez said. "At its root, it's a political process."
Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, who heads the Broward delegation, with 11 House Democrats, said the lawyers' "only interest is in filing a lawsuit."
"My focus is Broward County, and I think they're proposing a fair map for Broward County," Ritter said. "I'm working with individual Republican members to help Broward County. We have to work with the Republicans. They're in charge."
One map to be debated today would keep U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in a St. Petersburg-based district, but Tampa Democrat Jim Davis' district would meander along Interstate 4 to Orlando.
"I have no control over it," said Davis, a former state House member who was in the Capitol Monday. "An I-4 district would deprive Hillsborough County of having its own representative and be a travesty. Whoever represents it would spend all their time on the interstate."
-- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.
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