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New State Senate Numbers Set Off Tampa Bay Scramble

Wilton Simpson
Wilton Simpson

A random renumbering process Tuesday for the newest version of state Senate districts could force lawmakers across Florida into critical decisions --- including a decision that might create a high-profile match-up between incumbent Republicans in Pasco County.

The potential match-up revolves around the likely future Senate presidency of Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Under a redistricting proposal approved last week by Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds, Simpson would be paired with Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, in a district that includes most of Pasco County, along with Hernando and Citrus counties.

Before Tuesday --- when the numbers were assigned to the districts, essentially deciding how long each senator could serve --- Legg suggested he would stand aside if it would clear the way for Simpson to become Senate president ahead of the 2021 legislative session. But Legg said in an interview Tuesday that he was willing to do so if it was the "only pathway" for Simpson to claim the top spot --- something that is no longer the case.

The renumbering process, conducted by the state auditor general's office, was a result of Reynolds' decision to approve a redistricting plan offered by voting-rights groups that have waged a long-running legal challenge to the constitutionality of existing Senate districts.

Random renumbering is required because Senate seats have staggered terms, and which districts go before voters in which year are determined by the numbers. Odd-numbered seats are up for election in presidential years, like 2016 and 2020, while voters in even-numbered districts select their senators in midterm elections, like 2018. Because of the way the state's term-limit law is structured, the numbers can dictate whether senators get eight or 10 years in office.

To get 10 years and still be in the Senate in 2021, Simpson needs to run in an even-numbered district. The district that he and Legg share under the new map would qualify under the renumbering that took place Tuesday.

So would the newly renumbered District 20, which would include parts of Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties and does not currently include an incumbent. Legg suggested that Simpson could run in that district.

"Looking at the numbers now, I feel like there are other pathways for him to remain in the Senate," Legg said.

But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Tuesday he will run in District 20 to avoid another incumbent-vs.-incumbent battle with Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is expected to become Senate president before the 2019 session. Lee said the district has a good chunk of his current district, and would leave Galvano to represent a district that also includes all of Manatee County.

"It seemed inappropriate for me to try to preclude Manatee County from having its own senator," Lee said.

Simpson said he has no intention of moving out of the district he's represented since being elected to the Senate in 2012.

"My community and my friends live in this district ... and I'm going to run in that seat," he said Tuesday. "That's where I belong, and that's where I'm going to run."

Later, he added: "If I can't win there, I don't deserve to win."

Legg said he remains confident that the conflict can be avoided, though he also said he was ready to run against Simpson if necessary and that he thinks it would be a race focused on the issues.

"I don't think he wants to run against me, nor do I want to run against him," Legg said.

There could be other incumbents facing decisions as well. Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, could run against Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, in the redrawn district where they both currently live. If Margolis won the swing seat, she could remain in the Senate until 2020. But if she avoided the showdown by moving a few miles north into a heavily Democratic district, Margolis would have to leave two years earlier.

Overall, senators tended to come out on the right side of the numbering question. While some senators are likely to change districts and a few are considering congressional bids in the wake of a similar redrawing of the map for U.S. House seats, 18 of the 29 members of the state Senate who would be eligible for re-election in 2016 would be able to serve a total of at least 10 years in office.

All incumbent senators will run in 2016 under a provision of the Florida Constitution that requires the entire chamber to face voters after a redistricting.

Some of the changes could also allow incumbents or the parties to hold onto Senate seats. For example, if Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg survives in a Democratic-leaning district in 2016, he could win a four-year term in 2018 --- a midterm election year, when the GOP tends to perform better in Florida.

The Senate still hasn't decided whether to appeal Reynolds' decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which has so far ruled against the Legislature in almost every redistricting case it has considered. Reynolds was charged with selecting a new map after the Senate settled with voting-rights organizations who had sued to overturn the existing plan under a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

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