Florida state senators defend redistricting maps as ‘free of political taint’

The Florida state Capitol.
The Florida state Capitol. Tallahassee Area CVB

After admitting they violated the law three years ago when they allowed political operatives to infiltrate the redistricting process, lawyers for the Florida Legislature Monday described how they have reformed the process and drawn a Senate map that is now “free of political taint.”

The claim came at the opening of the weeklong trial in Leon County Circuit Court after which Judge George Reynolds will recommend a map to the Florida Supreme Court that will reshape the boundaries for the state’s 40 Senate districts in time for the 2016 election.

At stake are as many as six seats around the state that now favor incumbents or Republicans, but which could become more competitive as boundaries are redrawn by the court. There are now 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate.

Reynolds must decide between a map that was chosen by Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, but never voted on by the Legislature, or four maps drawn by the challengers.

Each side argued Monday that the rival’s maps are tainted by intent to favor partisans: the Legislature’s allegedly helping Republicans, and the challengers’ — a coalition of voting groups led by the League of Women Voters — allegedly helping Democrats.

David King, attorney for the plaintiffs, focused his criticism on Galvano, saying he single-handedly selected the Senate map with no input from anyone including Senate President Andy Gardiner. But, King said, the Legislature’s lawyers have no plans to call on Galvano to defend the map he chose to submit to the court.

“Nobody wants to be close to this map,” King said of Galvano’s proposal. He added, however, that the challengers will call on Galvano, who is hoping to become Senate president in 2018, because they believe he systematically chose maps that favor Republicans in an attempt to “protect the majority” for him to win election.

The map Galvano selected for the Senate to vote on “was the one that performed best for Republicans — both from a standpoint of political performance and from the standpoint of protecting incumbents,” King told the court. “We’ll establish this is simply business as usual in the Legislature.”

But Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice and attorney for the Senate, argued that while the Senate has reformed its process, the plaintiffs “will admit they had a map drawer who drew maps in his apartment with no supervision.”

“This is the story of two different processes,” he said.

The Legislature sequestered its staff map drawers in “the tower of the Legislature” to draw the maps and instructed them to record all conversations while drawing maps, and to not to talk to any senators, political consultants or the public — with the exception of discussions with the lawyers.

By contrast, he argued, the plaintiffs waited to submit their map until the House and Senate maps were ready for a vote, leaving little time for lawmakers to pivot and make changes.

“It’s easy to wait to draw a map to see somebody else’s map,” he said.

The trial began with a concession by the Senate that two maps submitted in the 2012 redistricting fight as public maps were actually drawn by Republican political operatives.

The Legislature agreed in July that because of evidence that showed the GOP operatives had infiltrated the map drawing process, the map violated the Fair Districts standards to prohibit drawing maps to favor incumbents or a political party. But, after failing to get enough votes for a final proposal that would have created political winners and losers, the burden now rests with the court.

The two parties agreed not to dispute findings by the challengers, a coalition led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida, that Gainesville political consultant Alex Patton submitted a map on Nov. 1, 2011, as part of the public submission process but it was not drawn by Patton but by Republican operatives working together with the Republican Party staff. Another map, submitted by Republican political activist Remzey Samarrai of Micanopy, was drawn by the group of Republicans working with GOP operatives Pat Bainter and others.

The rare concession comes after the GOP-led House and Senate spent more than $11 million in taxpayer money defending maps that have been consistently rejected by the courts as examples of the kind of political gerrymandering banned by the landmark Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution.

The agreement also helped to catapult the arguments at trial from the past to the present and accelerate the pace of the case that involves complex legal arguments, political intrigue and the gritty detail about geographic boundaries throughout the state.

By the end of the day Monday, the lawyers had agreed Galvano will appear on Wednesday and the trial could wrap up by Thursday.

King introduced the audio recording of a one-minute phone call between Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and the staff redistricting director, Jay Ferrin, as evidence that many senators know where each other lives and worked to protect each other when drawing maps.

The phone conversation, which occurred at 9 a.m. Oct. 26, came in the midst of the Senate redistricting session as Simmons was attempting to draft his own alternative to a Senate map that was widely unpopular with several senators after he realized his draft merged the districts of Sens. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, with Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. 

“Go ahead and revise the maps to get what I would consider to be more aesthetic situation. I want Highlands County out of District 18,” Simmons told Ferrin.

“There’s another reason that I have,” he said, “and that is that I do not want two of our female senators running against each other because I don’t think it’s appropriate ... So I want you to work it so that it looks better.”

Ferrin, sounding bit flustered, responded: “I don’t have any knowledge of where people are living. If you want me to separate Highlands County from District 18, just tell me that.”

The brief exchange is one of more than 80 hours of recordings of House and Senate staff as they drew maps and discussed them with lawyers and senators. After the exchange, Ferrin drafted a letter disclosing the conversation to Gardiner saying that Simmons had instructed him to “alter a draft map specifically to unpair two sitting female senators.” 

“You learned from that that there was one senator who had a pretty acute understanding of where senators live,” King suggested as Ferrin was on the stand. Ferrin agreed. 

Reached late Monday, Simmons, a lawyer, said he made the phone call because “the state constitution says you cannot favor or disfavor an incumbent or a political party and that would have been disfavoring political incumbents,” and “I consider putting them in the same district discriminating against them.”

Meanwhile, as the clock ticks, Ron Labasky, the general counsel for the Florida Supervisors of Elections, told Reynolds that supervisors must have a final map approved by mid-March for them to meet the deadlines for the legislative primary in August.

Labasky was granted a motion to have the supervisors join the lawsuit to advise the court about what they will need to match the new districts to political precincts.

Mary Ellen Klas: @MaryEllenKlas and meklas@miamiherald.com