Fair Districting Effort Partially Bankrolled by SEUI
While most of its focus is on the national health care debate, the Service Employees International Union has quietly emerged as the leading contributor to a Florida ballot proposal aimed at overhauling how the state draws political boundaries.
State campaign finance records show that SEIU has contributed $225,000 to FairDistrictsFlorida.org, which describes itself as a bipartisan effort to get a pair of constitutional amendments on next year’s ballot to guide the upcoming round of redistricting.
The union’s contributions amount to more than $1 out of every $10 FairDistricts has collected as it works to gather the 676,811 signatures needed for each ballot measure.
SEIU, a powerful, Democratic-leaning union with 2.1 million members nationwide and 40,000 in Florida, was an early backer of Barack Obama and spent $85 million supporting his 2008 campaign, federal records show.
“Our goal is really just to establish some fairness standards when the Legislature begins drawing congressional and legislative boundaries,” said Mark McCullough, a spokesman for SEIU, among the nation’s largest health care unions, representing nurses, home-care workers and nursing home employees.
“If you look at the state of Florida, there are some crazy districts out there. And some might not have to be so crazy if you take political considerations out of the mix,” McCullough added.
FairDistricts has raised $1.9 million through June 30 for its campaign, state records show. The measures – one covering legislative districts and the other congressional -- would require that voting districts be compact, contiguous and respect city and county boundaries when possible. Line-drawing would be prohibited that was designed to favor incumbent politicians or political parties.
The state Supreme Court has ruled that the language of the proposals is constitutional, and can go before voters if the signatures are collected. The next round of redistricting is scheduled to take place in 2012.
The new political boundaries could prove pivotal to both Democrats and Republicans. While registered Democratic voters substantially outnumber Republicans in Florida, the district lines drawn in 1992 and 2002 helped Republicans capture two-thirds of the state’s congressional delegation and dominate the state House and Senate.
Democrats are intent on getting legislative and congressional district boundaries set that are more favorable to their candidates, and realize the Republican-controlled Legislature may blunt these efforts. Most Republican leaders are wary of the FairDistricts plan.
“The political standard that’s in the ballot initiative I think is designed to just get this thrown to the courts to draw the lines, taking it away from the Legislature,” said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, chairman of the Senate’s Reapportionment Committee and in line to become Senate president next year.
SEIU has been at the center of the combative health-care town hall hearings being held by members of Congress across the country, with union members appearing in support of Obama-backed efforts to rein-in costs and extend coverage to uninsured Americans.
SEIU members also have been accused of roughing-up opponents at some of the venues.
Just as SEIU has been active in the health care debate, the union was an early supporter of the FairDistricts initiative, making its first $25,000 contribution in June 2007. Steady donations have flowed to organizers since then, with most of the $1.9 million in contributions being spent on paying petition-gathering firms.
FairDistricts’ chairman is Thom Rumberger, a Tallahassee lawyer and Republican who represented the state GOP during redistricting in 1992. Former Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan and Nathaniel Reed, a former assistant U.S. Interior Secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, are also prominent Republicans on the board.
The campaign chairman, Ellen Friedin, is a Democrat, while former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, and Janet Reno, U.S. Attorney under President Clinton, are also high-profile Democratic supporters.
Along with Democratic-allied SEIU the biggest contributor, other Democratic-leaning top donors include Christopher Findlater ($200,000), a retired Colorado energy executive now living in Naples, the Idaho Development Corp., ($210,000) controlled by Tampa’s Chris Brink, the Florida Education Association, ($100,000), and Frank Brunckhorst of Sarasota ($95,000), the Boar’s Head meats chief.
Only a smattering of Republican-associated cash has flowed to the campaign, notably from Tampa developer Frank Morsani ($25,000) and Fort Lauderdale financier Janet Boyle ($25,000), state records show.
“We don’t really see this as a Democratic or Republican effort,” Friedin said. “We see this as a Florida citizens’ effort.”