Each side adds twist to voting map fight
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- The partisan brawl over Florida's new congressional districts intensified Wednesday as Republicans announced they had sent the map to Washington for a crucial legal review, rather than let the Democratic attorney general do it, as in the past.
At the same time, Democrats won the right to challenge the congressional map in a state lawsuit in heavily Democratic Broward County, where they think they have a better chance of victory than before a panel of three federal judges.
Democrats will argue that in a state where they outnumber Republicans, and where Al Gore got 50 percent of the presidential vote in 2000, Republicans gerrymandered the districts so that they dominate two-thirds of the state.
The developments came as a battery of lawyers representing the Legislature, Democratic members of Congress and others met before the three-judge panel. The judges are juggling three lawsuits, each one attacking the congressional map as a political gerrymander or for allegedly violating the rights of black and Hispanic voters.
The map creates 25 congressional seats, 17 of which favor Republicans. They include districts for three Republican lawmakers: House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who hopes to join his brother Lincoln in Congress.
Attorneys for the Legislature shocked a courtroom by announcing that Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay sent the map to the U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday.
The decision underscores a gnawing worry among GOP leaders that another closely watched Florida election could be disrupted, this time as a result of legal challenges to the new lines.
GOP leaders were angry at Attorney General Bob Butterworth for not sending the map for clearance under the Voting Rights Act for its effect on minority voters in Hillsborough and four other counties.
Feeney suggested Butterworth is trying to delay the election. "I think he's in a tough spot, and I don't blame him for succumbing to political pressure," he said. Butterworth accused the Legislature of failing to turn over information needed to complete the Justice Department submission.
"We kept asking for stuff. We wanted to do our analysis and get it out of here," said Butterworth.
Senate lawyer Jim Scott, a former Senate president, said federal rules allow the attorney general "or other appropriate official of the submitting authority" to submit the map for review.
The three-judge panel's decision to let the state lawsuit move forward was a blow to Republicans. Lawyers for Democratic U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Carrie Meek filed the Broward lawsuit, accusing the Legislature of diluting black voting power.
J. Gerald Hebert, a Virginia lawyer who has traveled all over the country attacking Republican redistricting maps on behalf of Democrats in Congress, called the Legislature's plan "shameful."
"It's as if Republican voters get two votes and Democratic voters get one vote," he said.
The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Robert Andrews, 61, a lifelong Democrat whose wife, Carole, is a Democratic Broward County School Board member.
-- Staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.
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