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Senate advances new congressional districts

Lawmakers might need a special session to resolve differences between House and Senate plans.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002

Lawmakers might need a special session to resolve differences between House and Senate plans.

TALLAHASSEE -- A reconfiguration of Florida congressional districts that won tentative Senate approval Tuesday reflects the state's explosive growth and the Republican goal of keeping control of Capitol Hill.

One of the biggest changes involves St. Petersburg, which would be represented for the first time by two members of Congress, one from Tampa.

U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Indian Rocks Beach Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would lose 36,000 voters, many of them African-American Democrats in south St. Petersburg.

Instead, the area roughly south of 5th Avenue N would be linked to a new Tampa-based district with a majority of blacks and Hispanics and represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Davis. Another slice of south St. Petersburg, south of Pinellas Point Drive and overwhelmingly white, would remain in Young's district.

The changes to Young's seat were designed to keep District 10 winnable for Republicans after he retires, said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, chairman of the Senate congressional redistricting panel.

Black voters in St. Petersburg were linked with Tampa's urban core to meet legal demands to draw minority-access seats whenever possible, Latvala said.

In a heavily scripted, three-hour debate, Senate Republicans rejected every attempt by Democrats to increase Democratic power and add a Hispanic district in the Orlando area. A stenographer recorded every word, creating a record for an inevitable courtroom struggle between the two political parties.

Fifteen of Florida's 23 members of Congress are Republicans; eight are Democrats. The state's staggering population growth rate of 23.5 percent in the 1990s netted two more congressional seats for a total of 25.

Florida is one of the last states to complete congressional redistricting. Pressure is on Republicans to avoid a repeat of 1992, when a Democratic meltdown forced the courts to draw the districts, and the GOP wants to win both new seats.

"Control of Congress could very well rest on the mapmaking skills of our legislators as they head down the home stretch," wrote state GOP chairman Al Cardenas on the party's Web site.

To accomplish that, Republicans made Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon vulnerable by drawing a seat for state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite at Thurman's expense.

Thurman would be forced to run against Brown-Waite in a district dominated by Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, or challenge Rep. Cliff Stearns, an Ocala Republican.

But the Senate, locked in a session-long struggle with the House over tax reform, did not draw a district that helps Speaker Tom Feeney's congressional aspirations.

In an obvious snub, the Senate's new congressional District 24 barely grazes Feeney's home county of Seminole. Swerving east and north as far as St. Augustine, it's anchored by Volusia County. That could entice a better-known Daytona Beach-area Republican to run.

The Senate could take a final vote on the plan as early as today. The House has passed its congressional map -- one with a seat Feeney likes -- and a special session could be needed to resolve differences between the House and Senate plans.

Earlier the Senate, by a vote of 28-9, gave final approval to a new map of state House and Senate districts (HJR 1987) and sent it back to the House.

Democrats argued that Florida voted 50-50 in the 2000 race for president, but Republicans who control redistricting drove a map that is likely to ensure that at least 25 of 40 Senate seats will stay Republican.

Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, criticized Republicans for drawing him into a new district that runs from Citrus County north to the Florida-Georgia line, while divvying up many of his current North Florida constituents among four Senate districts.

Latvala, an architect of the Pasco portion of the Senate map, disagreed. Pasco is the dominant county in the new Senate District 11, which takes in 183,000 Pasco residents.

"For the first time, in this plan, we have offered Pasco County the opportunity to be the big dog in a Senate district," Latvala said. "So we have done the job."

-- Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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