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Political hand may be diluted by census

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


Let the games begin.

As the Census 2000 numbers begin to trickle out, the political fallout is beginning to take shape in Pinellas County. If you're of a parochial mind in political matters, it's not good news.

While Florida continues to boom, Pinellas isn't picking up people at nearly the same rate. No matter how you add it up, it's going to mean less juice in Tallahassee.

"I think Pinellas County as a whole is going to lose representation in the Legislature," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, a member of the Senate's redistricting subcommittee.

The process will kick off in March when Washington bureaucrats release detailed Census 2000 population numbers. But then it becomes a political strategy game as legislators figure out how to redraw district lines. Since there are a finite number of House and Senate seats that each are supposed to represent about the same number of people, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that Pinellas will lose power.

Whether this comes in the form of an entire Senate or House district, or a slice of a district, is part of what will be bandied about over the next two years.

The good news is that a couple of Pinellas legislators -- Republicans, who dominate both houses of the Legislature -- are on the committees that are going to slice and dice the districts based on the census numbers.

One of the House seats that is a likely candidate for receding out of Pinellas, said Latvala, is the District 47 seat held by Republican Rob Wallace of Tampa. It is mostly in Hillsborough County, but has a sliver of north Pinellas County.

Sticky issues, however, will arise when it comes to taking care of Pinellas' four senators. Latvala's seat, in one form or another, likely will be safe given the growth in north Pinellas and the political capital Latvala has accrued.

Two of the others -- Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, and Donald Sullivan R-Seminole -- are going to have to deal with districts that likely are not going to have the kind of population growth to sustain their boundaries. They would have to get bigger and nibble into other senators' districts. And that usually doesn't happen without some horse-trading.

Sen. Les Miller, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes part of St. Petersburg, is in one of the districts that encompasses prime real estate for the others looking to expand.

"I kind of figured that would happen," he said. "I'm going to see what I can do to protect my district."

But given the majority of Republicans in both houses of the Legislature, Democrats are not going to have a lot to say about how districts are redrawn.

Peter Wallace, the former Democratic House speaker from St. Petersburg, said the signs all point to political devastation for Democrats, who will live with the new districts for the next decade.

"It has to feel to them that they're about to be the victims of a stampede," said Wallace, who practices law in St. Petersburg. "They have very few defenses against what's going to happen to them."

The drill through the summer will be a number of public hearings held throughout the state to take comment on the redrawing. But the real decisions will begin to start when legislative staffers in Tallahassee begin massaging the numbers.

"As soon as they can load the census numbers into their computers, they will begin to draw maps," Wallace said. "Most of those maps will be closely held by the Republicans until they are able to build a consensus for those configurations."

The process will really crank up at the end of the summer, when legislators gather for committee meetings.

The stakes are the sort of thing that legislators hold closest to their hearts -- their political futures.

It promises to be entertaining.

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