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Money Lost, Mutual Recrimination & Saving Seats: It Must Be Senate Redistricting

The Florida Senate took its first step toward a new map this week, but lawmakers likely still have a long way to go.
Nick Evans

The tension was just too much in the halls of Florida’s Senate.  Relations finally ruptured this week, with lawmakers taking the floor to bash one another over past sins and misdeeds.  But they did get their map.  Now the only question is whether they can gain approval in the House and in the courts.

Just beneath every back and forth, every amendment and debate, there’s been a quarrel steadily rumbling.  But Wednesday that ‘crust of civility’ was broken.

“In this Senate we can disagree,” Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), “and we can disagree fiercely and sharply, but there’s always a crust of civility that separates us from disagreeing in a way that is personally offensive.”

When Florida began its regular reapportionment process after the 2010 census, Gaetz chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee.  Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater)—Gaetz’s chief antagonist of late—points to this last role and suggests Gaetz should be held responsible for the state’s three-year, multimillion dollar struggle over where to draw district lines.

“So far it’s cost the taxpayers—this whole process—has cost the taxpayers $11 million,” Latvala says.  “I predict that if we pass this map today we’re probably in it for a million more, at least.”

That bill includes the cost of three special sessions to redraw borders for both the Senate and congressional maps.  But most of the money goes to the Legislature’s legal team.  And Latvala pulls no punches when it comes to them.

“For the most part we’ve gotten our butt kicked,” Latvala says.

“We’ve gotten our clock cleaned in court,” he goes on.  “And as attorneys, those of you in the chamber who are attorneys, you know that if you get your butt kicked repeatedly, most of the time your clients start looking around and questioning what you’re advising—questioning what you’re doing, instead of just continuing to blindly follow you.”

He says if the Legislature settles on the map Senators passed Wednesday, the Legislature is going to keep losing.  Latvala says, just as it did with congressional maps earlier this month, the court will likely side with the voting rights groups and choose their map over the one approved by lawmakers.

“The plaintiffs have represented that on the metrics—which Judge Lewis said should be the tiebreaker—on the metrics, this map is better than the one we’re passing,” Latvala says.  “So don’t be surprised when we finally, when time rolls around and we finally work this through the process in January, February or March, if that’s the map we see back.”

But it isn’t just compactness scores. 

The Legislature chose a map keeping most incumbents from facing off against one another—offering fig leaf sized justifications for the decision.  Latvala harps on the argument St. Johns and Alachua County remain in separate districts because the St. Johns River represents an important natural boundary.  He points out districts cross the river in two other counties, and using it as the border in Alachua ensures two Republican senators—Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) and Matt Hutson (R-St. Augustine)—won’t have to fight over one seat. 

Tuesday Senators amended the map in the Miami area accomplishing a similar feat.  Sen. Miguel Diaz De La Portilla (R-Miami) argues the changes are meant to ensure the Hispanic community maintains its ability to elect a candidate, but it also keeps him from having to run against fellow Republican, Sen. Antiere Flores (R-Miami). 

Latvala argues little has changed since Gaetz was at the helm of the Senate’s redistricting efforts. 

But on the question of culpability—who ate the apple at the beginning of this reapportionment mess—Gaetz is pointing right back at Latvala.  The Niceville Republican allows he should’ve put every public commenter under oath, but after that small mea culpa, he read from plaintiff’s case against the Senate—the portion about Latvala.  And the allegation might sound familiar.

“Senator Latvala’s amendment put them in two separate districts: District 21 [Denise] Grimsely, District 26 [Bill] Galvano, so that Grimsley would not have to run against Galvano,” Gaetz said.  “When asked about his intent on the Senate floor, Senator Latvala did not deny that this was the purpose and effect of his amendment.”

The Senate’s current map is already raising concerns with the plaintiffs and down the hall in the House.  State representatives will take up the map Monday.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.