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One word sums up redistricting: divided

It's not quite final, but the Senate plan splits the county between two districts: one tied to Pasco and Pinellas, the other with a power base in Lakeland.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


Before the beginning of this year's legislative session, Hernando County Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson sent a letter to local legislators asking them to fight for better Senate districts.

The early plans called for Hernando to be divided nearly in half, which concerned both the commissioners and residents, Robinson wrote. Most worrisome of all, she said, western Hernando was linked with western Pasco and northern Pinellas counties.

"Specifically, in such issues as water, a senator representing this district may be more strongly inclined to consider the desires of Pinellas and Pasco counties than the desires of Hernando County," Robinson's letter said.

As the session draws to an end, little has changed.

The Legislature is coming close to an agreement on the final Senate lines. And, though the final plan must be approved by both houses, as well as survive reviews by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Supreme Court, it seems almost certain Hernando will be split. Its residents will make up a relatively small portion of the population in each of two Senate districts, and the senators likely will come from elsewhere.

State lawmakers redraw districts for their own seats as well as the U.S. House of Representatives every 10 years to account for changing populations identified in each census.

Like the Senate map, the districts for state representatives have also nearly been established. Unless the courts order significant changes -- or the Senate unexpectedly alters the plan the House has already approved -- Hernando's situation will change little.

The U.S. House of Representatives map, on the other hand, is far from complete. And because so many powerful lawmakers are maneuvering for favorable seats so they can run for Congress, the upcoming controversy is likely to dwarf any created by drawing the Senate districts.

"The Republicans have said openly they are targeting (U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon)," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

"They are playing political games, and it's a shame because the people in her district (which includes Hernando County) really like her."

Dom Cabriele, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Executive Committee, singled out state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. She has been so concerned about isolating Thurman and securing a good congressional district for herself that she has abandoned the county's interests in Senate redistricting, Cabriele said.

"That's absolutely true," he said.

In fact, Brown-Waite said, "I think the Democrats are obviously going to play partisan politics. I've never played that game, and I'm not going to play it now.

"(Democrats) were much more concerned about keeping Karen Thurman in her existing district than they were about the Senate lines."

Brown-Waite said she has fought for Senate districts favorable to Hernando.

Unfortunately, she said, lawmakers from all over the state are doing the same thing.

"Keeping Hernando (in one district) is a goal. I'm not sure it's an achievable goal," she said Wednesday.

As the map is currently drawn, District 11 includes western Hernando, Citrus, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Only 14.9 percent of the district's residents live in Hernando County compared to 36.8 percent in Pinellas and 45.9 percent in Pasco.

That distribution makes it likely the district will be represented by a resident of western Pasco, she said. State Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has been mentioned as an early favorite although Sen. Jack Latvala, one of the most influential figures in the redistricting fight, is backing a more moderate candidate, state Rep. Larry Crow of Palm Harbor.

District 15 includes the eastern part of the county. The line through Spring Hill is near Deltona Boulevard and moves slightly farther east in the northern part of the district; about 55 percent of the county's residents will live in District 15, about 45 percent in District 11.

District 15 stretches through Sumter, Lake and Osceola counties and takes in a large part of Polk County, which is home to 60 percent of the district's population. That includes Lakeland, the district's largest city, and the home of its most likely future senator -- state Rep. Paula Dockery -- Brown-Waite said.

Despite the influence of Lakeland, the district connects an area with similar interests, said state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville. The counties are all somewhat rural and are likely to see development in the coming years.

And, he said: "I don't object to Hernando County having two senators. I think that's a benefit."

But he acknowledged that the alignment is not ideal.

"I object to Hernando County being linked to Pinellas County. Pinellas is built out. There's really very little common interest shared between those two counties."

He said last week he intended to introduce a bill placing Hernando and Citrus in the same district, but he acknowledged that the Senate usually has final say in drawing its own district, just as the House of Representatives has more influence over House districts.

Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, said she would support a map that joined her county with Hernando. The Senate's proposed map, however, benefits Citrus -- and her as a Senate candidate -- far more than the current one.

Citrus is now divided, with its western portion representing a relatively small portion of a district that extends to the Panhandle. Although the new district also includes many northern counties, Citrus would now easily be the most populous county.

"This represents a major difference for Citrus County," said Argenziano. "This has always been a northern senator's district. Citrus now has a chance to have a resident senator."

Argenziano's current House District 43 will, as it does currently, include a portion of western Hernando County. It contains the U.S. 19 corridor and the land around State Road 50 in the western part of the county.

The rest of the county will lie within District 44, as well as portions of north-central Pasco and southern Sumter counties.

The congressional seats, on the other hand, are not nearly as well established. The House proposal, which emphasises a favorable Central Florida district for current House Speaker Tom Feeney, places veteran U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns in the same district as Thurman.

The Senate plan carves out a favorable district for Brown-Waite -- one with a strong Republican majority that covers much of the area she has served as a senator for the past decade. It denies Thurman most of her current district and leaves her with several rural northern Florida counties populated with conservative voters.

"I can tell you, there are a lot of people on the Republican side that aren't terribly happy with the (Senate) plan. Cliff Stearns isn't terribly happy," Russell said.

Neither is Thurman, who said both plans are clearly designed to give Republicans an advantage in as many districts as possible and ignores the rules of designing fair districts, such as keeping counties whole when possible and joining areas with common interests.

"I think it's outrageous," said Thurman.

"I think it's a safe assumption that whatever happens will end up in court."

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

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