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Politics

Weekly Roundup: A Big Supply of Demand

November 14, 2014 - 6:00pm

It was a demanding week in Tallahassee.

The Florida Supreme Court demanded that a Republican political consultant turn over documents related to the state's 2012 redistricting process, continuing a legal battle that has raged for more than two years. That ruling will also give the public a look at documents that a Leon County judge said were key to his decision over the summer to toss the state's congressional districts.

Florida Democratic Chairwoman Allison Tant demanded that a group of Democratic "bed-wetters ... shut up" instead of continuing their attempt to unseat incoming House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. Pafford and his allies spent the week more quietly attempting to show that the challenge would die out on its own.

And a group of students demanded that new Florida State University President John Thrasher make a series of changes to prove that the university wouldn't be in the thrall of conservative forces.

Of the demands, the only one that seemed certain to produce results was the one by the Florida Supreme Court, which has the authority to compel people to follow its orders.

'DESIGNED TO DELAY AND OBFUSCATE':

Two things stood out in the Supreme Court's decision to reject GOP consultant Pat Bainter's efforts to keep his redistricting records private: the harshness of the language used by the majority opinion in the case, and the fact that all seven justices on the famously divided court agreed that Bainter's documents should be publicly released.

The decision means that evidence from Bainter and his consulting firm, Data Targeting Inc., will no longer be kept under seal. Justices said Bainter waited too long to argue that releasing some of the documents would violate his First Amendment rights. And in writing for five members of the court, Justice Barbara Pariente accused Bainter of stalling at best and dishonesty at worst.

"We simply do not countenance and will not tolerate actions during litigation that are not forthright and that are designed to delay and obfuscate the discovery process," Pariente wrote.

Joining Pariente in the opinion were Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. In a separate opinion, Justices Ricky Polston and Charles Canady supported the outcome.

The documents were used during the summer as part of a trial over a challenge by voting-rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, who argued that the Republican-dominated Legislature drew congressional districts that violated a constitutional ban on gerrymandering.

But the documents have remained under seal, and the public was barred from the courtroom during Bainter's testimony.

"Today?s ruling from the Florida Supreme Court will finally force sunshine into the shadow process that has robbed the citizens of Florida of their right to fair representation in Congress," said David King, one the coalition's lawyers, in a statement following the decision. " ... We think it is beyond time to lift the veil of secrecy and ensure that all proceedings going forward are open and fully transparent."

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled in July that GOP consultants managed to taint the redistricting process by submitting maps under the name of another individual. In his decision throwing out two congressional districts that he said were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, Lewis wrote that the documents were "very helpful to me in evaluating whether (the voting rights groups) had proved that first prong of their theory."

The maps were later redrawn during a special session in August.

'MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH':

The fact that Tant was upset with House members threatening a revolt against Pafford doesn't come as much of a surprise. Depending on what you count as a decision to keep or get rid of a leader, Democrats in the chamber have made seven such decisions in the last two years.

But it was a little surprising that Tant held so little back in a lengthy criticism of those backing a rebellion by Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. The rebellion came after Democrats lost the governor's race and six House seats in the Nov. 4 elections.

"I'm ready for the bed-wetting to stop. You know, you can go ahead and continue to whack each other over the head about what went wrong, what didn't go right, what we could have done better --- the coulda shoulda woulda," Tant told The News Service of Florida in an interview this week. "Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it's a done deal!"

The statement came in a five-and-half-minute harangue aimed at the dissidents. It was a none-too-subtle message to drop the challenge before a caucus meeting Monday.

Whether that will happen is another matter entirely. Incoming Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said Wednesday that Pafford has "more (votes) than he had the last time he ran," when Pafford won on a 29-12 vote with one abstention.

Jenne said he hoped the caucus could avoid a contested election next week.

"It's just not necessary," he said. "The votes are where they are."

Meanwhile, Pafford announced that he would keep Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, as the No. 2 Democrat in the House. Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat who was supposed to be leader before a fundraising dispute with Tant, narrowly defeated Jones last year when he won the initial race to head up the caucus.

"I look forward to working with Mark to solidify the caucus as one body, to recognize the importance of standing as one, and fighting as one, for the things we believe in," Jones said in a release announcing her appointment. "Now it really becomes a greater responsibility to stand united as Democrats to fight for what's most important to us."

'A PRODUCTIVE DIALOGUE':

There are many ways Thrasher could have spent his first morning as FSU president: Measuring the drapes is a popular clich He could have learned how the coffeemaker worked.

Instead, the 70-year-old former state senator from St. Augustine spent the first hour in his new position engaging with a group of about 25 confrontational students who had vocally opposed his recent appointment and now refuse to recognize him as the school's new president.

If there was good news in the confrontation, it's that the students were not uncompromising in their position toward Thrasher. Instead, they came with demands.

Those demands included ensuring that grants and agreements involving the school and the FSU Foundation were open to public review, and ending a 2008 contract the school has with the Charles Koch Foundation to help fund the economics department.

Rather than agreeing to or rejecting each item, Thrasher said he would need time to research the demands.

"As long as they want to have a productive dialogue, I'm more than willing to do it," Thrasher said after the meeting. " ... This university, by the way, has 42,000 students, and I'm interested in all of their interests and making sure the university thrives."

The students, who also listed in their demands that Thrasher admit he "lied" to the students about campaign funding received from the politically influential Koch bothers, called his refusal to accept their demands "insulting" and "disappointing."

"We're going to keep pushing the administration to protect the university from violations of academic freedom," said Ralph Wilson, a seventh-year graduate student who is among the leaders of the student group. " ... We have to harness the power that students have, and thanks to people like John Thrasher and politicians, it's a decreasing amount of power that students have."

Meanwhile, the chain reaction of special elections set off by Thrasher's resignation from his Senate seat kicked up a stampede of lawmakers and politicos hoping for their chance at legislative fame (or infamy, depending on what you think of the Legislature).

On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott set elections for Thrasher's seat and the seats of two House members who have decided to run to succeed Thrasher. Voters will fill the seat in Senate District 6, Thrasher's Northeast Florida district, along with the House District 17 seat held by state Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and the House District 24 seat held by Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton.

Special primaries for the three seats would be held Jan. 27, with the special general elections set for April 7. District 17 is in St. Johns County, while District 24 includes Flagler County and parts of St. Johns and Volusia counties.

At least three Republicans were already lining up to succeed Hutson. Paul Renner, who recently moved to Palm Coast after running for a Jacksonville-area House seat, and Sheamus McNeeley of St. Augustine have both filed for the special election. Also, Palm Coast Republican Donald O'Brien has opened an account to run for the seat in 2016, a move that could be a precursor to running in the special election.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court orders the release of redistricting records belonging to GOP consultant Pat Bainter.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We have to marshal our energies, put on our big-girl pants and move the heck down the road. The bed-wetters need to shut up, and we need to move on." -- Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, on a fight within the House Democratic caucus over the leader for the coming legislative session.

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