Corrine Brown, Diaz-Balart Blast Redistricting Push
Two members of Congress, one Hispanic and one African-American, who say they probably owe their seats to the way districts were drawn, said Monday they fear two amendments meant to “take the politics out” of redistricting will lessen minority representation.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown told a joint meeting of the state Senate Reapportionment Committee and the House Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning that the Fair Districts.org group's push to prevent lawmakers from trying to protect incumbents or particular parties when drawing districts in 2011 and 2012 will reduce the number of minorities in the Legislature and Congress.
Diaz-Balart and Brown reminded the committee that it took years before minorities represented Floridians in either legislative body. And Diaz-Balart pointed out that most African-Americans vote Democratic, and in South Florida, most Cuban-Americans vote Republican. If lawmakers go out of their way to design a mostly Cuban district, it guarantees minority representation, he said. But it also favors the GOP, which would be barred by the proposed constitutional amendments, which are likely to be on the ballot in November.
“The district that I'm privileged to represent, as well as the district represented by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and the district represented by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, favor the Republican Party, right? So how do you do this?” Diaz-Balart said.
Brown noted that it took a federal court's intervention to create her district, and if her oddly-shaped - some would say gerrymandered – district weren't allowed, African-Americans in northeast Florida and in the Orlando area could lose the ability to elect a black member of Congress.
“I am very concerned that we don't regress, that we don't go back to pre-1992 when (Florida) had no African-Americans in Congress,” said Brown.
But backers of the amendment – who didn't address the committee meeting on Monday – say the concerns are a red herring, and note they're not shared by most minority politicians. Continued deference to the need for minority access to Congress and the Legislature – required by federal law – would continue to be required by the amendments, supporters of the “Fair Districts” effort say.
Backers of the amendments say that the party in power can strongly lock down power by creating safe districts. The amendments, if approved by voters, would prohibit legislators from being able to favor parties or incumbents when drawing districts. The Legislature redraws its own boundaries, as well as those of Florida's congressional seats every ten years after the Census. The process will start in 2011 and must be finished by the summer of 2012, in time for elections in November 2012.
While the current head of the Legislature's Black Caucus, Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has expressed concerns similar to those held by Brown and Diaz-Balart, several African-American lawmakers support the proposed amendments. Ellen Friedin, campaign chair of Fair Districts.org, said the proposal has beeen endorsed by 20 African-American state legislators. It also was endorsed by the Black Caucus itself before Siplin took over the chairmanship, and is supported by the state chapter of the NAACP.
“You have heard from two minority members, you have not heard from all of them,” Friedin said Monday.
The concerns of Brown and Diaz-Balart are “not based on what's in our amendment,” Friedin said. “It's very much a smoke screen.”
Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, one of several black lawmakers on the House committee, noted that the amendments appear on their face to protect minority interests, and said he doesn't see how a redistricting plan that allows minority representation to decrease could be allowed under the proposed amendments. The federal Voting Rights Act would also prevent that, backers say.
“My reading is that nobody would be diminished,” Thurston said.
Brown said that ultimately, it would likely be up to the courts to decide whether that was the case.
“The question is not your intepretation or my interpretation,” Brown told Thurston. “But what intepretation the court is going to give it.”