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Tailored Congress districts approved

Now the court battle begins over the districts drawn to keep the U.S. House firmly in GOP hands.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2002


Now the court battle begins over the districts drawn to keep the U.S. House firmly in GOP hands.

TALLAHASSEE -- Drawing lines that will help determine which political party controls Congress, the Florida Legislature on Friday approved a new congressional map that divides St. Petersburg into two districts and plays into the hands of three Republican state lawmakers hoping to move to Washington.

The vote, along strict partisan lines, sets the stage for a protracted legal struggle.

For the first time, St. Petersburg would be carved into two districts. The congressional district held for three decades by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, no longer would include a large portion of south St. Petersburg that has a large concentration of registered Democrats. The change is intended to ensure Republican control of the district, which includes the rest of Pinellas County, after Young retires.

The portion of St. Petersburg carved out of Young's current district would be added to the Tampa-based congressional district now held by a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.

Republicans hope the new map also will help them win new seats in Central and South Florida. They also are taking aim at a third seat held by Karen Thurman, a Dunnellon Democrat.

Florida's reshaping of congressional lines has national implications. Democrats need to gain just six seats to take control of the U.S. House.

The reshaping of political boundaries is required every decade by the Constitution to reflect new census figures. Florida will gain two U.S. House seats, increasing the total to 25. But redrawing the districts is a cutthroat process controlled by the party in power. Friday's 25-14 Senate vote reflected those divisions: Every Republican but one voted for the map; all but one Democrat voted against it.

The Legislature also passed a final map of House and Senate districts, designed to strengthen Republican control, with the House casting the 74-43 vote over Democratic objections and Republicans squelching debate.

Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, urged lawmakers to approve the plan because the alternative would be a lot worse. "Postponing it isn't acceptable," Byrd said. "We must do it now. If we are unable to agree, the courts will take over the process."

Both plans must withstand scrutiny by state and federal courts.

The congressional redistricting logjam broke when senators drew a suburban Orlando district for Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who has spent months stockpiling money for a campaign. What lawmakers call "Feeney's seat" emerged Thursday just as the House got serious about the Senate's top priority, tax reform.

"We did try to approach this from a standpoint of what is best for the people of Florida, and keeping communities of interest together," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, head of the Senate's congressional redistricting subcommittee. Latvala said another goal was protecting incumbents, which he said voters emphasized at public hearings.

Latvala said the plan protects areas with similar characteristics and helps minorities. Two more districts include majorities of black and Hispanic voters: one, in Tampa, is now represented by Democrat Jim Davis, and the other, in Miami-Dade and Collier counties, is drawn to satisfy the congressional ambitions of state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

Senate Democrats reminded Republicans that Florida was evenly divided in the 2000 presidential election but no one would know it from the congressional plan, derided as "political gerrymandering" by Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach.

"This map is dictated solely by partisan politics, not the best interests of the people of the state of Florida," said Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Tamarac. "The final version of this congressional map is the result of a deal that was made in a closed room that was designed not to benefit all Floridians, but only one Floridian."

He was talking about Feeney, though he never mentioned his name.

The Democrats' criticism of partisan intent cast aside history and their own role in it.

As Republicans pointed out, Democrats did exactly that a decade ago when they they were in control. The map was tossed out by a federal court that ultimately drew the map, but it helped some ambitious Democratic legislators get seats in Congress.

In 1992, Senate President Gwen Margolis of Miami-Dade demanded a congressional seat, just as Feeney is now. Both leaders of the congressional reapportionment panels, Thurman and Rep. Peter Deutsch, wanted to go to Congress -- and did.

Now it's the Republicans' turn, and their No. 1 target is Thurman.

The Republican architects of the map hope to boost the GOP's 15-8 advantage in the Florida congressional delegation by three seats.

They hope to do that by winning a new seat in Central Florida with Feeney and in South Florida with Diaz-Balart, and a third seat held by Thurman, a Dunnellon Democrat.

Thurman's seat has been redrawn to help Brown-Waite by taking in large parts of Hernando and Pasco counties that are in Brown-Waite's Senate district and by eliminating Thurman's Democratic base in Alachua County, including the precincts surrounding the University of Florida. The district is evenly split along party lines but it votes Republican.

Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, mocked the map, inviting senators to join a make-believe betting pool to see how quickly the courts would reject it as unfair. "Five days is the longest any federal court upholds this map," Smith predicted.

The congressional plan (HB 1993) still must be approved by Gov. Jeb Bush, and the U.S. Justice Department will review for compliance with voting rights provisions in five counties, including Hillsborough. Democratic lawyers already have sued.

-- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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