News Section: Opinion
Redistricting Trial Provides Inside Glimpse of Our Crooked Legislature
Wednesday, Florida's redistricting trial came to a close, with lawyers agreeing to submit closing arguments in writing next week. Whatever the ruling, it's sure to be appealed and we'll be lucky to have it sorted out by the 2016 elections. What the trial did give us, however, was an inside look at how little regard the corrupt Florida Legislature has for the very constitution it is sworn to uphold.
In 2012, Florida voters, tired of rigged elections in which gerrymandered districts rendered the vast majority of races moot, used the ballot referendum process to pass a simple but revolutionary constitutional amendment dubbed "fair districts." Guided by the common sense premise that voters are supposed to pick their representatives and not the other way around, it mandated that legislative districts must be created based on distinct community and geographic boundaries and not for the political benefit of any party or candidate.
Of course the legislature was fiercely opposed to something that would promote actual democracy and battled it every step of the way, but ultimately the people were victorious ... sort of. The Florida Constitution grants citizens the unique ability to effect change even when their "leadership" remains deaf to its constituents' pleas. If 60 percent or more of them come together and decide to amend the law of our land, they can circumvent our bought and paid for legislature ... sort of.
You see, even when we pass an amendment, it's that very legislature who is then responsible for crafting the related legislation. As a referendum has to be short and simple to fit on a ballot, while a law has to be more thorough and detailed in order to be properly enforced, the process leaves much room for shenanigans. We've seen this time and again; referendums for which legislatures can create a law designed to fail because they don't like the policy.
Fair Districts, however, is so straightforward that it would seem to be an end-game for gerrymandering districts. Look guys, the jig's up. It was nice while it lasted, but now we gotta play it straight. Not so. Here are just some of the things we learned over the 13-day trial:
* Legislators illegally met behind closed doors with staff and political operatives to work out deals in the redistricting process.
* Legislators routinely and systematically destroyed emails related to redistricting despite admitting they knew they'd likely face a lawsuit contesting the way they conducted the process.
* A map was fraudulently filed under an FSU student's name to make it look like it was the subject of public input and not legislative horse trading. That map was nearly identical to a map drawn by a GOP consultant, and the student, who admitted under oath that he had not had anything to do with drawing it, and wound up working for a company run by the House Speaker's brother!
* A legislative staffer gave a flash drive containing maps to a GOP political operative two weeks before they were made public.
* The maps that were ultimately used clearly attempted to pack Democrats into safe seats, while giving Republicans new districts they could comfortably win.
* One political scientist testified that it would have been "virtually impossible" for such oddly drawn and clearly-advantageous districts to be created without it being done intentionally for political benefit. Another, who had studied gerrymandering practices all over the country, called Florida's districts the most biased he had ever seen.
* House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) and Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) met behind closed doors to reach agreement on a final congressional map that clearly benefited the GOP.
* The vice chairman of the House Redistricting Committee and the co-chairs of the Congressional Redistricting Committee — all Republicans — knew almost nothing and asked almost nothing in the process, which was mostly the work of staff, political operatives and whatever backroom deal Weatherford and Gaetz ultimately struck.
Despite all of this, one after another, legislators told the court with a straight face that they did not intend to favor or disfavor any party or incumbent. The whole thing reads like some sham trial from a Kafka story and though it might have been commonplace in the notoriously corrupt Florida Legislature of 75-100 years ago, it is nothing short of disgraceful that it is happening in one of the United States today. Just think of what a laughing stock we look like when we traipse all over the world condemning other countries for their lack of democracy while events like this are happening out in the open here.
This is also much more than a partisan issue. Yes, the Florida GOP has been at the helm of the machinations, but they've been assisted by Democrats like Congresswoman Corrine Brown and others in the African American and Latino political community who have conceded to protecting a couple of safe districts to catch crumbs from, over a chance to have fair representation for all Floridians.
The NAACP, who would normally be up in arms over such political tomfoolery, has sided with the legislature. Their position is that it is more important to make sure that African Americans have adequate representation in Congress than to have fair districts. So we end up with Brown's Congressional District 5, which snakes through no less than eight counties from Duval to Orange, packing in black (and enough other Democratic) voters to not only keep Brown's seat safe, but make sure that surrounding districts are easier to win for Republicans.
Now I get that Brown's original district being drawn in response to a suit resulted in the first African American from Florida being elected to Congress since reconstruction, but Fair Districts does not include room for gerrymandering districts in order to ensure a certain number of minorities in office. Creating racially safe seats has given us little more than embarrassing politicians just like Brown, who has a two-decade plus record of ethical lapses and corrupt relationships that she's used to the benefit of herself and her family and will ultimately be remembered for little more than her bad wigs and inarticulate tirades at the expense of Democratic voters at-large who deserve better (not to mention potential qualified candidates).
Locally, we need look no further than Gwen Brown, who won a Manatee County Commission seat right around the same time, under the exact same circumstances, then went on for 16 years to do the bidding of the developers who kept her in office, while trying to tread water amid scandals and ethics complaints. The idea that the overall interests of African Americans – or anyone else in her district who doesn't build houses – were better served by Brown than incumbent District 2 Commissioner Michael Gallen, who unseated her in 2010, just because she shares their skin color, is nothing short of laughable.
If we are going to insist that there is a minimum number of African Americans or Latinos in office, then we ought to hold separate elections exclusive to people of their ethnicity, rather than this quasi-official policy that comes at the expense of other voters who happen to live in the districts that are carved for minority representation. And if we do, why stop at African Americans and Hispanics? Why not American Indians, Indian Americans and every other minority? I suppose the obvious answer is that elections are not supposed to be about race, but democracy.
So whether you're a Republican who currently benefits from rigged districts, or an African American who might see less people of your race in Tallahassee or Washington; or any other race, religion, creed or political stripe that might feel aggrieved, there seems to be one way to best work it out, and that's the way that is now in our Florida Constitution. Create districts that adhere to the amendment, and let the voters in them decide who most represents their interests. The people voted for fair districts, and it's time for the courts to see that that's what they get.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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