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Fair Districts Backers Go Before Hostile Legislature

The leader of a constitutional amendment drive to revamp how Florida lawmakers draw political boundaries traded fire with a pair of legislative committees Thursday, contending the plan “is not rocket science.”

Ellen Freidin, chairman of FairDistricts Florida, said the effort to prohibit legislative or congressional district lines from being drawn to favor incumbents or political parties will not hurt minority representation or take redistricting out of the hands of legislators.

“There’s no question these are workable standards,” Freidin told a combined hearing of House and Senate redistricting committees. “This is not rocket science.”

But Republicans dominating the panels took turns pressing Freidin, trying to portray FairDistricts as impossible to implement and a threat to the state's minority-leaning congressional and legislative districts. Senate Redistricting Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, at one point challenged Freidin to submit maps that would meet the conditions outlined by the measures slated to go before voters in November.

Freidin declined, saying such an exercise is useless until the 2010 Census is completed.

“You came up with the idea, you spent $3.5 million and now you say you can’t do it?” Haridopolos said. “Theory is one thing. Practice is another.”

Financed heavily by Democratic-allied organizations, FairDistricts successfully gathered 676,811 signatures for each of two ballot initiatives. 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.

Lawmakers would be barred from crafting districts designed to favor incumbent politicians or political parties, under the measures.

Freidin’s appearance Thursday was the first time an organizer of the ballot effort appeared before a legislative redistricting committee.

With no FairDistricts push-back, Republican lawmakers, who control both the House and Senate, have steadily criticized the proposal in recent weeks. Among the issues raised were that the measures would create new state requirements that clash with the federal Voting Rights Act designed to protect minority voting strength.

The argument was revived Thursday – with Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, at one point displaying a map of Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s wide-ranging district which snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando. He asked whether such boundaries would be barred by the FairDistricts approach.

“It depends on why you are drawing the district that way,” Freidin replied, insisting the ballot measures would not reduce minority representation.

Thrasher also questioned whether testimony at a public hearing could be used against an incumbent. If constituents said they liked a particular lawmaker and wanted to retain the incumbent as their representative, Thrasher asked whether that could affect subsequent line-drawing, Thrasher asked.

“We’re asking you to not look at trying to help anyone” through map-making,” Freiden said.

Thrasher pounced. “You’re saying we should go to these hearings and put earmuffs on, and I’m not going to do that.”

Redistricting in 2012 clearly is pivotal to both Democrats and Republicans. While Democratic registration in Florida exceeds Republican strength by more than 700,000 voters, the district lines drawn in 1992 and 2002 helped the GOP capture two-thirds of the state’s congressional delegation while dominating the state House and Senate

Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale is fragmented into four congressional districts. Brown, the Jacksonville Democrat, represents a district stretching 140 miles and spanning nine counties. Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica represents parts of six counties, including s sliver of Orange County that also contains his Winter Park home.

Inconsistencies also abound in the Legislature. Orange County, once a Republican stronghold, has shifted to where 44 percent of registered voters are now Democrats, compared to 31 percent GOP. Still, Republicans hold nine of 12 state House seats that include a portion of the county, along with three-out-of-four Senate seats.

Republican lawmakers, though, see FairDistricts as a Democratic-backed bid to take redistricting out of their hands. Among the biggest contributors to the campaign have been the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and the Service Employees International Union, both major Democratic contributors.

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