Tea Partiers Hail Judge's 'Fair Districts' Ruling, Agree With ACLU
Around the State
Denting the stereotype of tea parties as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, tea activists around Florida are applauding a federal judge's decision upholding the Fair Districts amendments.
"The voters of Florida spoke loudly and clearly. They want more compact districts and no gerrymandering," said Henry Kelley, head of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party.
Ruling in Miami last week, U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro upheld Amendment 6 and threw out a challenge by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
The two members of Congress argued, among other things, that Fair Districts could curtail minority representation and, thus, run afoul of federal guidelines.
Additionally, Republican state lawmakers have argued that Amendments 5 (legislative) and 6 (congressional) impinged on their authority to draw district boundaries. GOP lawmakers' attempt to place alternative amendments on the 2010 ballot was blocked in state court.
John Long, spokesman for the Florida TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party, said his group "is always pleased when the will of the people is recognized and in a well-reasoned ruling, Judge Ungaro sided with the 63 percent of voters who pulled the lever for this amendment.
"The judge's ruling puts to rest a thinly veiled attempt to protect the practice of gerrymandering," Long said.
Republicans, who drew the state's current congressional boundaries in 2002, produced several geographically contorted districts, including Brown's which winds from the Georgia state line to Osceola County in Central Florida. Likewise, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings' district extends in snakelike fashion from Miami to Fort Pierce.
In both cases, the objective was to concentrate minority votes while creating more GOP-friendly seats. Brown and Hastings, both African-Americans, have been in Congress since 1993 -- both beneficiaries of lines drawn by the then-recently elected Republican majority at the Florida Legislature.
"Every Floridian should have an equal opportunity to win, but gerrymandering has made some candidates more equal than the rest," Long said. "We believe Judge Ungaro has affirmed the rights of all to expect representation for all, and not a favored few."
Noting that gerrymandering is standard operating procedure for whichever party controls state legislatures, Long said Fair Districts has the potential to level the playing field for third parties in Florida. TEA, the only registered political tea party in the state, fielded more than 30 candidates last year.
"Growing a third, or alternative, party is a challenging task. When districts are carefully constructed to benefit an incumbent, change is even tougher to achieve," Long observed.
Maureen Siebold, executive vice president of the Lakeland Tea Party and 9/12 Project, agrees.
"Gerrymandering is the reason the same people keep getting back into office," she said.
Siebold, who recently switched her voter registration from Democrat to Republican, predicted, "If we have Fair Districts, Democrats come out better than Republicans."
Using online software on the state's redistricting website, Kelley has drawn congressional maps that appear to bear out Siebold's scenario.
By adhering to Fair Districts' guidelines for contiguous and compact boundaries that respect established political jurisdictions (notably counties), Kelley said four congressional districts would be "solid" Democrat compared with just two "solid" Republican districts. The rest would be tossups.
Three of the safe Democratic seats he outlined would be in the Miami-Dade area. The fourth would be the North Florida district that encompasses Tallahassee and Leon County.
Currently held by freshman Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, that 2nd Congressional District would turn bluer with boundaries that include all of Leon County, which is heavily Democratic.
Republicans hold a 19-6 advantage in Florida's congressional delegation. Due to population growth in the past 10 years, the state will gain two House seats in 2012 -- and that's fueled the political battle over Fair Districts as parties joust for advantage.
In 2002, the Florida League of Women Voters submitted proposed maps for new congressional alignments. "They received about 10 seconds of attention [from legislators]," recalled Deirde Macnab, president of the Florida league.
Instead of drawing maps this time, the league threw its support behind getting Fair Districts passed. Now Macnab & Co. are challenging lawmakers to live up to the spirit and letter of the law.
"We're hopeful that with such clear standards, the Legislature will simply follow the rules," she said.
Joining the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union in applauding Judge Ungaro's ruling, tea partier Kelley said the court heard Florida voters' voice loud and clear.
"For once, I agree with the ACLU," Kelley said. "We're sick of gerrymandered districts. Let's have districts where the best ideas win."
Reach Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 559-4719.