GOP, Minorities Partnering to Dilute Redistricting

TAMPA (2011-8-30) -

Voters got so fed up with "gerrymandered" districts that practically assured incumbents would get re-elected that they passed Amendments 5 and 6 in November. But the "Fair Districts" amendments could also dilute minority representation. There's an unlikely partnership forming that might keep the districts looking much like they do now.

There were plenty of comments from people at a public hearing on redistricting Monday night who are fed up with the status quo. One woman wanted to take the lawmakers gathered on the stage of Jefferson High School to the woodshed....

"You need to stop wasting our time and our money on these sham hearings and your desire to overturn 5 and 6."

While another lambasted them for padding their own chances for re-election...

"If you all produce a set of districts where each of you is not absolutely sure that you're going to be re-elected, then maybe you all have done the job."

On the other hand, lawmakers heard several comments like this....

"Please understand the difference between fair and just districts."

That's Willie Lawson of Tampa. He's running for Hillsborough County Commission, and wants minorities concentrated in a handful of seats, like they are now.

It's traditionally been one of the spoils of victory - the party that wins control of the legislature gets to redraw district lines every 10 years. So majority Republicans, naturally, want to keep the districts about the same as they are now.

So do some groups not usually lumped together with the GOP - minorities crammed into many of those snake-like districts. People like Lawson don't want to lose the hard-fought battle to have minority representatives in both Washington and Tallahassee.

"Please keep in mind that for Florida to move forward politically, socially, morally, racially, we must have full participation in the political process by all Floridians," says Lawson. "I am in no way asking for a return to segregation - but a sensitivity to the demographic dynamic that can provide an awareness of the importance to provide access to government and representation to everyone."

But some political observers say this informal partnership has been around since at least 1990. University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus says back then, Democrats had ruled for decades, and there were few minorities in office because their numbers had been diluted.

"It's the genesis of so many of the oddly-shaped districts that people are so vehemently complaining about in this year's redistricting," she says.

So now, she says the Republicans in charge of the legislature writing those district maps have to make sure they don't run afoul of federal laws that guarantee the rights of minorities to elect their own candidates.

"So it is possible that the expectations of supporters of 5 and 6 for compact districts and nicely-drawn districts that keep communities together may not be possible, in order for the state to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act," says MacManus, "and not lose in court because they have retrogressed, or fallen back, the representation of minorities."

And she says the picture is even more muddled in the state's major cities, where the issue isn't just black and white.

"In Tampa, Orlando and in particular, South Florida, you have sizable Hispanic and African-American populations," she says. "And in each of those areas, the clash is not so much between the minority groups and Anglos, as it is competition between the two groups who are both fighting over the same geography."

MacManus says there have been mixed rulings from courts in other states, with some judges saying you don't have to have a majority-minority district to insure proper representation.

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