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Politics / Issues

Senate Map Highlights Leadership Fight

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Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater

A set of proposed districts for the state Senate passed a key committee late last week on a party-line vote, even as a fight over the future leadership of the chamber and other concerns raised doubts about the ability of the fractious Republican majority to push the plan through the full Senate.

The Senate Reapportionment Committee approved the map (SJR 2C) on a 4-3 vote, with every Democrat opposing the plan offered by Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. The vote came after a fiery speech against the map by Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican running for the Senate presidency following the 2016 elections.

If Latvala's dissident faction of Republicans joins with Democrats on the floor, it could sink Galvano's map -- though two supporters of Latvala with seats on the committee voted for the plan.

"I'm going to have my work cut out for me, frankly," Galvano told reporters after the committee meeting. Galvano supports Latvala's rival for the presidency, Stuart Republican Joe Negron.

Lawmakers are redrawing the districts for the 40-member chamber during a three-week special session following a settlement with voting-rights organizations that challenged the existing map in court. Those organizations said the current plan, drawn in 2012, violates the voter-approved "Fair Districts" standards that ban political gerrymandering.

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The Florida Senate
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton

But the political calculus of a new map was on full display Friday after Latvala, who isn't a member of the committee, appeared before the panel to lambaste the plan. Latvala is locked in a fierce fight with Negron, who says he has the votes needed to win the presidency.

Latvala was careful not to explicitly say that the plan would or should help one side or the other in the leadership battle -- though he vaguely suggested he might make a case that it would help some incumbents when the map goes to the floor.

Instead, Latvala ticked a list of problems where he said the map departs from Fair Districts requirements for compact districts that follow city and county lines as closely as possible.

"I think that what we need to really guard against is falling in the same trap that we fell a couple of years ago when we passed our original plan," Latvala said. "And we did some things that obviously the courts, plaintiffs thought were wrong. We did some things that we've now admitted were wrong. But, unfortunately, I see in this plan today that we have in front of us, that you have in front of you, I see history repeating itself."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT3MVw1ClS0&feature=youtu.be

Many of the problems that Latvala highlighted in the map, though, have a clear connection to the leadership contest. For example, Latvala complained that Galvano's map was the only one of six plans produced by legislative aides that did not keep Alachua County whole.

The map that divided Alachua County also combines it in a district with Clay County. Three of the other maps, though, pair Clay with St. Johns County in a district, which would require two Negron pledges, Sens. Rob Bradley of Fleming Island and Travis Hutson of Elkton, to move or face each other in a primary election.

Latvala also blasted the fact that the committee plan would divide Pasco County, avoiding a showdown between Latvala pledge John Legg, R-Trinty, and Negron pledge Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

"They were really happy down there," Latvala said of the people of Pasco. "They thought maybe once and for all they weren't going to get cut up. ... What we've done is instead of keeping it whole, keeping it predominantly whole, we've picked the one map that splits it not two ways, but three ways."

Latvala's monologue, which was unusual for a senator not on a committee, drew a response from Bradley, who sits on the panel. He said Clay and St. Johns counties should not be combined because they are separated by the St. Johns River.

"I don't think that the St. Johns River should be crossed," Bradley said. "It's a major water body. It's a major geographic boundary. ... I'm not going to be forced to endorse a product just to prove a negative."

Galvano denied that his map was aimed at the leadership contest, though he conceded the fight might contribute to the "weariness" that some lawmakers were feeling after spending more time in Tallahassee than usual between this year's regular session and three special sessions.

"When you have a contested leadership race, that plays into it," Galvano said. "In terms of playing into any product of this committee, the answer is no."

Latvala was not alone in raising concerns about the map. Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who supports Latvala, voted for Galvano's plan despite worries that it didn't go far enough in answering the legal challenges from the voting-rights organization.

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Credit AP Photo/Steve Cannon
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon

  Lee said the admission, from lawyers who helped legislative aides draw the map, that the groups' complaints didn't influence the new districts represented a "fatal flaw" in the Legislature's procedures.

"Simply redrawing maps in a sterile process and somehow coming out with maps that don't address the base allegations ... to me not only lacks common sense, but it seems defiant," he said. "It seems unnecessarily dug into this notion that we somehow have some superiority complex over here that we know better."

Miami Gardens Sen. Oscar Braynon, the leading Democrat on the panel, objected to the idea that lawmakers should not change staff-drawn maps. House members are believed to be reluctant about any bill that alters one of those maps, but Braynon said lawmakers know their communities best.

"I cannot support the message of us voting on a map that just came straight from the sterile process and sending that to the floor," he said.

Senate leaders, however, have made one concession to critics, saying every member of the chamber will have to run for re-election again in 2016. Some Republicans had argued that senators originally set to run for re-election in 2018 shouldn't have their terms shortened.

"I don't know that it's so much a position," Galvano said of the chamber's new stance. "It's probably a legal reality at this point."