TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The first day of the special session on congressional redistricting exposed how raw and divisive the next few months may be in Florida politics as the congressional map drawn by the governor was advanced by two Republican-controlled committees Tuesday, while Democrats and minority voting advocates blasted the maps as a “racist” attempt to send the state backwards, and likely to result in lawsuits.
“I am no longer calling it a culture war. It is racist tactics which the governor is doing right now,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, at a rally of about 100 supporters and Black lawmakers on the steps of Florida’s historic Capitol in Tallahassee hours before the session began. “I am confident that we have seen this before, and we’ve been here before.”
The governor’s chief map drawer revealed for the first time that the governor’s office hired a Republican redistricting expert to help craft the governor’s map, raising questions about whether the governor can defend the maps as having no partisan intent, as is required under state law.
Democrats accused the governor of bullying Republican legislators into accepting his map instead of overriding his veto, noting that the maps that passed the Republican-controlled Legislature did not divide Black communities in North Florida as the governor’s map does.
And both the House and Senate decided to dedicate only $1 million in legal fees for the governor to defend his plan. In the 2012 cycle, the Legislature alone spent $11 million in litigation and attorney fees.
Both House and Senate redistricting committees made no changes to the boundary lines drawn by the staff of Gov. Ron DeSantis that eliminate two of the state’s four districts now held by Black Democrats U.S. Reps. Al Lawson of North Florida and Val Demings of Orlando.
The governor’s congressional map creates 20 districts that favor Republicans, including the district Florida gains because of population growth, and only eight that favor Democrats. The current congressional delegation is comprised of 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
The House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee voted 15-7 to approve the governor’s map, and the Senate Reapportionment Committee approved it 8-4 along party lines.
The full Senate met into the night Tuesday to give the map preliminary approval. It will be up for final approval on Wednesday.
An unrevealed outside expert was hired
J. Alex Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, told the Senate Reapportionment Committee and the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee that the governor’s office hired Adam Foltz, a Republican redistricting expert who worked as a legislative aide to the former Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly.
Foltz was part of the team that helped craft Wisconsin’s legislative maps after Republicans took control of that legislature in 2010. After the map was challenged, a federal court ruled that it violated the Voting Rights Act in two districts where map drawers improperly diluted Latino voters.
In his veto message when he overruled the Legislature’s maps, DeSantis cited federal court rulings relating to the Wisconsin map and a ruling related to an Alabama map to defend his decision to eliminate the districts that have elected Black Democrats to Congress.
Kelly told both committees that his primary goal when drawing the governor’s map was to keep districts “aesthetically compact” and that he avoided drawing districts based on race or partisan intent.
“Race and political partisan data in no way related at all to my drawing,’’ Kelly told senators and repeated the sentiment in his testimony before the House committee. “I did not consider even looking at political party registration voting data. In other words, I do not know voting history or party registration.”
He called the proposal “a compromise map” that incorporates 10 of the Legislature’s districts and 18 modified districts.
Democrats push back on diminished opportunity for Black voters
But Democrats blasted Kelly for his indifference to the provisions in the Florida Constitution that prohibit legislators from diminishing the voting strength of racial and language minorities under the Fair District standards approved by voters in 2010.
“If you do not protect the Voting Rights Act ... you are violating the Florida Supreme Court’s stating of the law,’’ Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, told the House committee. “This is all backwards.”
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, asked Kelly how he could have drawn a district that split the Black population of Congressional District 10, which is represented by Demings, a Black former chief of police “who was a potential Democratic vice presidential nominate” and shifted the district to Lake County, where Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini is running for Congress and “is known for blackface.”
Sabatini told an Orlando television station in 2019 that he dressed in blackface in 2005 as part of a high school costume contest and he was dressing up as his best friend.
Bracy said he considered the governor’s map as “going against the Voting Rights Act” and said Kelly’s suggestion that he had no idea it would affect the ability of Black voters “to elect a candidate of choice is a joke, and it’s insulting.”
Kelly replied that because only 26% of the voting age population in the district is Black, dividing it can’t be accused of violating the Voting Rights Act.
Democrats argued the governor’s map is part of a broader systematic effort by Florida Republicans to target Black voters.
“It’s always that feeling of hurdles and the lack of voter access that continues to be a situation for Black people,” said state Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville.
She referred to a ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker last month that declared Florida’s right to vote “under siege” and struck down multiple parts of a voting law signed by DeSantis in 2021. Walker said that the state has attempted to “burden Black voters” so many times that any future voting law passed by the Legislature must now get approval from a court for the next 10 years.
“These last two sessions, the attack and the systematic racism that is not wanting to be talked about has been blatant. It has been unapologetic … and that is why people are angry,” Davis said.
Defending Senate action but not governor’s
Redistricting Chair Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, defended the Senate’s decision to reverse course but carefully chose words that continued to put the responsibility for the change in legal interpretation on the governor, not the House or Senate.
Asked by Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, why Congressional District 5 was no longer acceptable, he said: “I believe because it was not visually compact and believed to be a gerrymander,’’ he said.
Rodrigues also did not offer a conclusion as to whether the Fair District provisions in the Florida Constitution might be in conflict with more recent federal rulings but suggested they could be.
“It is a legitimate legal question about whether a portion of the Fair Districts amendment is in conflict with the Voting Rights Act,’’ he said. “That will ultimately be a decision for the courts to decide whether there is a conflict or whether there is not a conflict.”
Kelly told the Senate that District 5, held by Lawson, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment “because it assigns voters primarily on the basis of race and is not narrowly tailored to achieve it.” Because of that, he said, there was no obligation to protect the voting rights of the Blacks in that district.
Bracy, who said he still plans to run in the Orlando district now held by Demings despite the changes, accused the Legislature of being afraid of countering the governor.
“You are being bullied by the governor,’’ he said. He suggested that the governor has threatened to endorse opponents against them if they don’t support his map. “Once you give in, it doesn’t stop. This is going to continue and you will not be able to defy him again.”
Kelly did not elaborate on what role Foltz played in drawing the governor’s congressional map. Representatives of the governor’s office were asked by reporters why the office failed to disclose Foltz’s role as required by the Legislature of any redistricting map submitted for consideration. There was no reply.
The governor’s staff also rejected a reporter’s request to release Foltz’s contract on Tuesday and disclose the amount of money spent on him to date.
New Broward senator comments
Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Tamarac Democrat who was sworn in on Tuesday after a special election in March, asked Kelly how he could claim he didn’t have partisan intent when “we’re eliminating two seats that gave minority access. One political party is being diminished in numbers and another one is gaining?”
Before Kelly spoke to the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee, Democrats on the panel asked to put him under oath. Republicans rejected it.
“This is a statehouse, not a courthouse,’’ said Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, the subcommittee chair.
Lawmakers clearly expect litigation. The Senate amended its map on a 24-14 vote along party lines, requiring that if the map is challenged on a state issue, the lawsuit may not be filed in federal court, only in state court.
Democrats accused legislators of “forum shopping” by attempting to avoid having the map challenged in federal district court in North Florida, particularly before Walker, who has rejected numerous laws passed by DeSantis and the Legislature.
“This is an autocratic act once again by a petulant, punitive, punishing governor,’’ said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point. “This is worse than forum shopping. This is outcome determinative language. It is a dereliction of duty.”
“We’re the legislative branch, not the judicial branch,’’ said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami Beach.
“We put our hand on the Bible saying we were going to do right by the Constitution,’’ Jones, the West Park Democrat, said. “We lied.”