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Dramatic Shift Possible for FL Congressional Delegation

New Congressional Districts are proposed for the Tampa Bay area.
New Congressional Districts are proposed for the Tampa Bay area.

Florida's political landscape could undergo a dramatic shift under a proposed new map for Congress released Wednesday by the state Legislature.

The new map could help resurrect the political career of former Gov. Charlie Crist who will likely mount a run for a reconfigured House seat in Pinellas County.

But if ultimately adopted by legislators, several incumbent members of Congress - including U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster - could find it hard to hold onto their current seats. 

The new map could also lead Florida's congressional delegation - which now includes 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats - to become more evenly split.

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg
Credit AP file photo
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Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg

The Legislature released the map just days before lawmakers return to the state Capitol for their third special session of the year. They were forced to return after the state Supreme Court in early July threw out the current congressional map and said it had been tainted by partisan influence.

Legislative staff, working only with lawyers hired by the House and Senate, drew up the new districts without any involvement of legislators ahead of time. A memo distributed to legislators contends that the revamped congressional districts comply with the court ruling.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered legislators to change the boundaries of eight districts, but the changes outlined by the new map show ripple effects across the state.

One of the biggest changes ordered by the court required that the current district of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, be changed from a north-south alignment to one that runs from east to west. Brown's new district now stretches from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee.

The proposed change splits Leon County and throws Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat and the daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham, into a district that is now is solidly Republican. But the overhaul shifts Democrats living in central Florida from the seat held by Brown into the district represented by Webster, an Orlando Republican.

Matthew Isbell, a Democratic-leaning consultant based in Tallahassee, contended that both Graham and Webster are "losers" with the changes. Crist, who ran in 2014 as a Democrat, could benefit because more Democrats are now included in a revamped Pinellas County seat. The proposed map could also lead to turnover in South Florida.

The changes are a result of the "Fair Districts" amendments passed by voters in 2010 that are designed to prevent gerrymandering. The amendments prohibit drawing political boundaries to favor incumbents or a political party and there has been a three year legal battle over whether legislators violated the standards when they drew the maps.

That fight appears to be far from over. While legislators are drawing new maps, a new lawsuit was filed this week in federal court contending that the "Fair Districts" amendments violate free speech rights. Two GOP county chairmen from Walton and Pasco counties filed the lawsuit on Tuesday in Pensacola.

The lawsuit, which was first reported by Politico, argues that the standards violate their 1st Amendment rights since they can no longer talk to legislators about redistricting because that would risk having "infected" any maps.

The Fair Districts standards "provide that these forbidden speakers face a choice of either refraining from speaking, or speaking and risking entanglement in costly, expensive, and lengthy legal processes," the lawsuit claims.

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