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    Justice Department wants state House districts redrawn

    The Legislature's new House districts violate the rights of Hispanics in Collier County, a federal official says.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 2, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- In a defeat for the Florida Legislature, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled Monday that a new map of state House districts must be redone because it violates the rights of Hispanics in Collier County.

    The decision could force a special session, as early as next week, to revise a plan that dozens of candidates are using as the basis of campaigns. A speedy resolution is crucial to avoid playing havoc with the election timetable.

    Gov. Jeb Bush must call a special legislative session to fix the problem, unless the state challenges the ruling in federal court or asks Attorney General John Ashcroft to reconsider. No decision had been made Monday night.

    "The governor and his legal staff will have to review the decision," said Bush press secretary Liz Hirst.

    Changes require approval by the Florida Supreme Court and the Justice Department. The deadline for House candidates to get on the ballot is July 26, less than four weeks away.

    A six-page letter faxed late Monday by Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd Jr. to legislators declared the plan "legally unenforceable" in this year's elections.

    House District 101 connects eastern Collier with part of southwest Broward. It is overwhelmingly Republican but, Boyd wrote, "the clear effect" diminishes the ability of Collier Hispanics to elect a Hispanic candidate at a time when that area's population has become considerably more Hispanic.

    Boyd wrote that the district effectly replaces District 102, which linked part of Collier to a largely Hispanic area of Miami-Dade County, and is represented by Rep. Ralph Arza, a Hialeah Republican.

    But in the new district, the Hispanic population was reduced from 73 to 30 percent.

    "The state has not met its burden that this reduction will not result in retrogression in Hispanic voters effective exercise of their electoral franchise," Boyd wrote.

    The decision comes even as Republicans congratulated themselves for adding an 11th Hispanic House seat and abruptly ends a string of GOP legal victories in the first Republican redistricting map in state history.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who presided over the invalid map, looked on the bright side. The Justice Department "has found 119 districts to be compliant with the Voting Rights Act," he said. "We will work with the Justice Department to resolve the issues they have on the last district."

    Democrats celebrated.

    Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe said Republican were "caught red-handed trying to rig the state House legislative districts in their favor."

    "We have been vindicated," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, who was highly critical of the district. "The House plan was the most far-reaching in its efforts to partisan gerrymander the entire state."

    Under the Voting Rights Act, Collier is one of five Florida counties in which any voting changes must be cleared by the Justice Department before elections can be held. The others are Hillsborough, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.

    Florida experienced a wave of Hispanics in the 1990s, and few areas attracted as many as Collier, where the Hispanic population more than doubled, from 20,734 to 49,296. Hispanics now account for one-fifth of Collier's population.

    As of Monday, the leading candidate for the seat was Republican Mike Davis, a retired sign company owner from Naples.

    "I can only worry about how it may or may not be resolved, and how that might affect my candidacy," he said.

    -- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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