St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Democrats want redistricting panel

A lawmaker pushes a proposed ballot initiative to have a bipartisan panel redraw legislative boundaries.

Published October 7, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Democrats will try to get an initiative on next year's ballot to shift the power to redraw political boundaries from the Republican-controlled Legislature to a bipartisan commission.

A similar drive withered five years ago when organizers failed to raise enough money to collect the nearly half-million signatures needed to get on the ballot. Money could again be an obstacle during a busy presidential election year.

But state Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, a leader of the new effort, said democracy is at stake. Political gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts has virtually wiped out competitive races, with most incumbents facing token opposition or none at all, he said.

"What redistricting does is significantly reduce the ability of candidates to run for office," Ryan said. "It closes the door to qualified candidates for elected office at the state and congressional level."

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, disagrees. A commission with no elected officials serving on it would not be accountable to voters, he said.

"I believe that the Legislature is probably the best representative body you can have to do that kind of thing and you're deluding yourself if you think you can take politics out of anything," said Byrd, who headed the House redistricting effort from 2000 to 2002.

Republicans spent more than $7-million on lawyers, consultants and experts in 2002 to solidify their control over the state Capitol and the Florida congressional delegation.

Although Florida split 50-50 in the 2000 presidential election, and the two parties are nearly even in voter registration, Republicans have two-thirds of Florida's seats in Congress and the Legislature.

Ryan is chairman of the Committee for Fair Representation, which is proposing a 17-member panel to draw the lines for the next reapportionment before the 2012 elections. The two major parties would each appoint eight members, and those 16 members would choose the 17th.

Lobbyists, members of Congress, party officials and their relatives would be prohibited from serving, and commission members could not run for office or work as paid lobbyists for four years after serving.

In 1998, a group called People Over Politics collected nearly 23,000 signatures in support of a similar initiative before disbanding. Supporters included Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Silver-Haired Legislature and Dexter Douglass, a Tallahassee lawyer who was the general counsel to former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Ryan said Douglass supports the latest effort and hopes other groups would join. He said he is exploring raising "seed money" over the Internet in amounts of $25 and $50.

The Broward County lawmaker said an example of the Legislature's partisan line drawing is the House district of Rep. Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg Democrat.

Peterman's District 55 was altered dramatically in 2002 from a mostly urban St. Petersburg district to one that now snakes south, along Interstate 275, across the Sunshine Skyway, and through parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties. Ryan said the change was done to remove black voters - who overwhelmingly vote Democratic - from a Republican House district in Sarasota. Peterman lives three counties away from some of his constituents.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.