Amid an ugly political brawl in which one senator publicly accused another of being a bully, the Florida Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved a new map for the state’s 40 senate districts.
But some senators predicted shortly after the 22-18 vote that the proposal may not pass the Republican-controlled Florida House. That’s because the Senate made last minute changes to a handful of districts in Miami-Dade County that some Democrats said were aimed at helping an incumbent GOP senator from Miami.
“There is not a magic solution to anything,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner. “Today was the first inning. We have a long way to go.”
Florida legislators are holding a 19-day special session to redraw Senate districts after the Florida Senate admitted in court filings this summer that it violated the constitution when it drew the current Senate seats back in 2012.
Voters in 2010 approved the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendment that requires compact political districts that don’t benefit parties or incumbents. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed a lawsuit contending the existing state senate districts violated those standards.
The Senate has struggled so far to come up with a replacement map. At the last minute, they altered the lines in Miami-Dade at the urging of Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. Diaz de la Portilla insisted the change was needed to boost the chance that three senators from Miami-Dade would remain Hispanic. He also said his proposal would keep the well-known Cuban community of Little Havana intact.
But 14 Democrats sided with four Republicans in opposition to the new map. Several senators predicted that the same groups that challenged the existing map would prevail in court if they decided to oppose the new one. A lawyer representing the coalition of groups that sued lawmakers sent a letter this week to legislative leaders contending the Senate map violated the “Fair Districts” amendment.
“The people who elect us, the people who pay our salary, said we need to do districts a new way,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. “As we take this vote today I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is the vote we are taking today a vote to uphold the constitution of the state of Florida?’”
Part of the problem in reaching an agreement on a new map is an ongoing contest over the Senate presidency between two veteran Republicans. Both State Sen. Joe Negron and Latvala are both vying to succeed Gardiner and a vote is expected to come this December. Some observers have contended that the Senate map has been shaped in a way to aid those senators pledged to Negron.
“It’s been polarizing. It’s debilitating the caucus,” conceded Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican.
The bad blood building up flowed onto the Senate floor on Wednesday. After the close vote, Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, took time on the floor to chastise Latvala for comments his fellow Republican had made to reporters.
Latvala said that Gaetz owed Floridians an apology because he oversaw the redistricting plans that wound up getting challenged in court. The Supreme Court at one point said legislators had allowed GOP consultants to taint the process.
Gaetz, who is backing Negron in the leadership battle, asserted that Latvala also had a role in the Senate map that came under fire. “I’m sorry for my mistakes; Senator Latvala should be sorry for his,” Gaetz said. “I take no satisfaction from this exchange, but when a bully throws a sucker punch you hit back and never give in.”
Latvala, who wasn’t on the floor when Gaetz criticized him, later stood by his previous comments. He said the court files showed the extent of Gaetz’s involement.
“He’s just trying to deflect some of the blame on other people,” Latvala said.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.