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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Family Feuds

October 30, 2015 - 8:30pm

"Ain't nothing but a family thing," the fictional White House chief of staff Leo McGarry once said in an episode of "The West Wing." And while he was talking about his battle with alcoholism, he might as well have been discussing the past week in Tallahassee.

The state Senate redistricting battle descended into a personal and political quagmire that involved no fewer than three of the Legislature's almost dynastic families. The fight has also ripped apart the Republican caucus in the upper chamber, which has started to resemble a dysfunctional family.

Meanwhile, the tight-knit community centered on Florida A&M University's campus continued to be buffeted by a heated clash between President Elmira Mangum and the school's board of trustees, prompting one member to resign.

And family values always come into play when Florida talks about expanded gambling.

Alas, unlike the great television shows of the past, there is not a matriarch or father figure in Tallahassee to straighten things out, come up with a compromise and make sure everyone moves forward together. For now, the family things will just have to play themselves out.

'YOU HIT BACK AND NEVER GIVE IN'

It's not like the battle over how to redraw the state Senate's 40 districts wasn't contentious enough before former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, stood up Wednesday and laced into Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who would like to be among Gaetz's successors in the chamber's top job.

Already, the issue of how to ensure that Hispanic voters in South Florida have adequate representation in the Senate had led to heated debate about a redistricting plan (SJR 2-C). On Tuesday, the Senate approved a proposal increasing the Hispanic share of three seats over objections from Democrats who argued the move was an attempt to prevent incumbents from running against each other.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who sponsored the amendment, said the revised plan would ensure that Miami-Dade County will still have three districts in which Latinos can elect candidates of their choice.

"The (original) plan would basically disenfranchise Hispanics in Miami-Dade County by creating two Hispanic seats, Hispanic-performing seats instead of the three that we've had, as I mentioned, for about 30 years," Diaz de la Portilla told reporters after the Senate vote.

Diaz de la Portilla's proposal drew questions about whether it might violate the ban on favoring incumbents included in the "Fair Districts" redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010. The amendment removed Diaz de la Portilla's residence from a proposed district that also would include the homes of Sens. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

It would also move Diaz de la Portilla's brother, Alex, into the same seat that Miguel Diaz de la Portilla now holds. Alex Diaz de la Portilla is a former state senator who has been angling to run for the chamber again when his brother's tenure is up.

"We've just now made this map unconstitutional," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, during a debate over the amendment. "We've just now said that the court is going to reject this map."

Unconstitutional or not, the Senate eventually voted 22-18 to approve the final version of the proposal, with four Republicans joining all 14 Democrats in opposing the plan. But it was what happened next that threatened to rip apart whatever fragile peace had been reached in a battle for the Senate presidency between Latvala and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Latvala has publicly suggested that Gaetz, who chaired the Senate Reapportionment Committee in 2012, should apologize for the problems that now are forcing lawmakers to redraw the Senate map. That provoked a 17-minute rebuke from Gaetz on the floor Wednesday. Latvala, who was preparing for an event elsewhere in the state, had left the chamber before Gaetz's remarks began.

By the end of the week, Latvala supporters and some others were calling for the delay of a scheduled Dec. 2 vote to designate the GOP's next Senate president, likely Negron. The winner would take over the caucus after the 2016 elections.

Sen. Tom Lee, who has not endorsed either leadership candidate, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday that he has asked "people who are interested in pursuing the caucus" to reconsider.

"If you really care about the institution of the Senate, if you really care about your colleagues, it is not the appropriate time to twist the knife," said Lee, a Brandon Republican who is a former Senate president.

But Senate President Andy Gardiner did not appear willing to delay the vote.

SEE YOU IN COURT. NOW, LET'S TALK

Lawsuits are generally not a sign that negotiations are going well. But as the Seminole Tribe of Florida filed a lawsuit against the state over the tribe's exclusive rights to offer "banked" card games like blackjack at most of its casinos, it also said the Seminoles have made "significant progress" in negotiations with state officials toward a deal that could allow the tribe to add craps and roulette.

The exclusive rights to the banked card games expired July 31, and a 90-day grace period ended Thursday. The lawsuit accuses the state of acting in "bad faith" --- a legal "term of art," according to the tribe's lawyer, Barry Richard --- and asks a federal judge to allow the Seminoles to keep offering the games. The Seminoles are also asking for mediation to try to work out another deal.

Tribal leaders have been meeting with Scott's general counsel, Tim Cerio, and Republican House and Senate leaders for weeks, hoping to expand on a 20-year agreement signed in 2010, called a "compact," that authorized the tribe's slot-machine and table-game operations. A provision of the deal gave the Seminoles exclusive rights to operate banked card games for five years in exchange for a minimum payment of $1 billion

Under the current talks, the Seminoles could pay the state at least $3 billion over seven years in exchange for exclusive rights to roulette and craps, according to sources close to the negotiations. A Palm Beach County dog track could have slot machines, a new gambling operation in Miami-Dade County could start up with slot machines, and dog tracks could stop racing greyhounds while retaining lucrative card rooms.

Meanwhile, amid the negotiations and lawsuit, an anti-gambling group wants to give voters the ability to decide whether Florida should have non-tribal casinos. But the preliminary fate of the proposed constitutional amendment rests in a Supreme Court decision about slot machines at a Gadsden County horse track.

A newly-formed political committee called "Voters in Charge" announced Tuesday it has started a petition-gathering process, with an eye on getting a proposal on the 2018 ballot. If approved, the "Voter Control of Gambling" constitutional amendment would require future statewide votes to authorize casino-style games including blackjack, craps and roulette.

The amendment would take away the Legislature's ability to approve casinos in Florida but would not affect tribal operations, which are regulated by federal law.

Whether or not Voters in Charge intends to pursue a ballot initiative ultimately rests with the Supreme Court's decision in a case over whether a horse track in the Gadsden County community of Gretna, which originally received its pari-mutuel license for rodeo-style barrel racing, can have slot machines.

Committee chairman John Sowinski said his group wants "to have a ready weapon" with the ballot proposal in case the Supreme Court decides that no constitutional action is necessary for pari-mutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties to add slots.

But it could upset the talks over the new pact with the Seminoles, because the provision that would permit the Palm Beach County greyhound track to add slots would be banned without statewide approval under the proposal floated by Voters in Charge.

FIGHT AT FAMU

The week also brought a reminder of the problems at Florida A&M, the state's only public historically black university. When Mangum tried to hold a feel-good press event on Thursday, she kicked up a Tallahassee dust storm when she left without answering questions about the university's governance woes.

Last week, the president barely survived two motions to fire her --- one with cause and one without --- by the university's board of trustees. Within hours, FAMU students marched to the governor's office to support her. The next day, trustees Chairman Rufus Montgomery, seen as Mangum's chief opponent, stepped down from his leadership post, although he remains on the board.

And late Wednesday, longtime trustee Spurgeon McWilliams resigned, effective immediately. The retired physician was the lone vote on the current board against hiring Mangum in January 2014 and supported both motions last week to ax her for unproven "financial improprieties."

But after her remarks at the Thursday press conference about eliminating questions on academic admissions forms asking if applicants have ever been convicted of crimes, Mangum said she'd have to depart.

"Unfortunately, I'm going to have to step away for some other meetings," she said --- and left by a back door that reporters couldn't easily reach.

Trustees spokeswoman Lisa Brock --- the trustees and the president have separate press operations --- said McWilliams had "indicated that the commitment to serve on the board was far greater than he has experienced in the past. And this is obviously a concern, because we need to be able to attract the caliber of leader that Dr. McWilliams is."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Senate narrowly approved its version of districts for the chamber's 40 seats, but not before sparking a bruising fight over Hispanic voting strength and GOP caucus politics.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I take no satisfaction from this exchange. I did not seek it. But when a bully throws a sucker punch, you hit back and never give in."--- Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, during a 17-minute speech attacking Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, over critical remarks about the 2012 redistricting process.

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