Politics

Weekly Roundup: Overtaken by Life, Death, in Real World

By: Brandon Larrabee News Service of Florida | Posted: March 24, 2012 3:55 AM
This was supposed to be a week focused on the drawing of political lines.

Instead, Florida was forced this week to think about the definition of other lines -- the line between self-defense and murder, and the racial lines that evidently still divide who can consider themselves safe on a walk back from the store.

As the Legislature recovered from the end of its regular work period and got into its session on redistricting, the prevailing assumption was that lawmakers this week would be neck-deep in the most political of processes, carving up the state into new political boundaries, lining up the state's political representation for the decade to come.

Legislators were in Tallahassee to do that, but as so often happens in government and politics, the week's focus was overcome by something in the real world.

The agenda for the state's lawmakers and its governors gets hijacked all the time -- and it usually involves someone's death. Lawmakers in the past didn't intend to spend nearly half the session writing laws named after murdered little girls like Carlie Brucia or Jessica Lunsford, or dealing with whether the autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt should be public, or whether Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die. Sad events occur and take over the best laid plans of politicians.

This week it was the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Martin was shot to death while walking through a gated community in Sanford where his father's girlfriend lives. He was black. He was unarmed, coming back from the store with some Skittles and an iced tea. He was being followed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, 28, who after shooting Martin to death, claimed he was defending himself against the unarmed teen. Zimmerman hasn't been charged.

That's about all that's known by the general public about the actual circumstances surrounding the shooting.

The case raised again this week the oft-asked question about whether justice is blind to skin color. Trayvon Martin was a black kid walking in a mixed-race neighborhood where there had been some tension, and where there had been some crime. Zimmerman is a white man of Hispanic heritage. Several black lawmakers this week asked: If each man had had the other's skin color, would there have been an arrest immediately?

But the case also got attention in Tallahassee circles this week because it touched on the nature of the law. The shooting raised a question, in the highest profile case yet, about a relatively new law on Florida's books that opponents had warned would lead to indiscriminate shootings.

In 2005, the Legislature voted to change the self-defense statute to say that when someone feels threatened and isn't breaking the law themselves, they no longer have a duty to retreat from the situation and instead, in the words of the statute, the person "has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so."

By week's end, not only had the Central Florida community of Sanford seen the usual responses to questionable acts of violence with racial undertones -- an outpouring of support for the victim, political grandstanding, a march, calls for healing, and calls for justice -- but there was another reaction that wasn't so expected.

Gov. Rick Scott called for a more thorough look at the issue -- and the state's self-defense law. After being quiet on the subject for a couple of weeks, and seemingly caught off-guard by the story's eruption into the national consciousness, Scott then went further than many expected. He announced the creation of a task force that will actually hold hearings at which people, presumably, may be allowed to criticize the existing law.

For a white Republican to agree with black and Democratic lawmakers over a new look at a law that was championed by the right -- and in particular the gun lobby -- was a surprise to many who had suggested that some in the "white power structure" were likely hoping the case would simply go away quickly.

"As we exercise our right to be free and secure both in public and in the privacy of our own homes, it is important that we have an open and honest discussion on these issues so that we might help avoid such tragedies in the future,'' Scott said.

Backers of the Stand Your Ground law were largely quiet this week, although the sponsors of the 2005 legislation, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and former Sen. Durell Peaden, a Crestview Republican, both said the law shouldn't really be at issue in this case, that it didn't apply. The law was meant to protect people who were defending themselves against truly threatening assailants, said Peaden. And that didn't appear to be the case in the Martin shooting.

"It sounds like he shot a guy who was innocent," said Peaden. "That has nothing to do with this law."

Or as Baxley put it: "Nothing in that statute authorizes people to pursue and confront people. That's the problem in this case."

The local prosecutor stepped aside for a new one, appointed by the governor, and the local police chief has also stepped away from the case, at least temporarily. The feds and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating.

The Trayvon Martin shooting got attention well beyond Sanford and far beyond the halls of the state Capitol this week -- becoming an international phenomenon, one of those occasional events that becomes omnipresent for a time on cable TV and the Internet. The case was on the front page of the New York Times. Even President Obama took note of it on Friday, saying: "When I think of this boy, I think about my own kids. I can only imagine what his parents are going through. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

REDISTRICTING

Redistricting is a hard sell for the general public anyway, and the subject could have been easy to overshadow. For the political people in Tallahassee, they had to keep some focus on the subject this week, with a deadline approaching for getting in place new political maps acceptable to a Supreme Court that rejected the first attempt at drawing state Senate districts.

The Senate tried again this week, passing 31-6 a new map that Democrats complained was worse than the first one in its ignoring of the court's objections, namely that it seems to favor incumbents too much, in violation of the Constitution.

But with the bill's passage, it heads now to the House, which had been expected to largely rubber-stamp the Senate's drawing of its own districts. That isn't a total given -- there's some push among Hispanics for changing the Senate-passed map to allow for a fourth Hispanic-friendly seat in Miami-Dade County.

That could blow up a lot of other well-laid plans, however, forcing other districts to be redrawn, and angering Senate leadership, so it's not fully certain whether the House will simply pass what the Senate did, or will try to alter it. The plan, once passed in some fashion, goes back to the Supreme Court, which if it doesn't approve of the new map, will craft a plan of its own.

ELECTION LAW

Meanwhile, another effort to control who is in office and who isn't came back into view this week.

Last year, when lawmakers passed an elections law that changed several processes for voter registration, initiative proposals, and the number of early voting days, they also quietly changed a law that spells out how long you must be registered in a particular political party before you may run for office as a member of that party. It was six months, now it is a year before qualifying, which is 17 months before an election.

That caught at least one candidate off-guard, and changed her plans. Former state Rep. and Sen. Nancy Argenziano, a Republican throughout her legislative career, left the party a while back, and wanted to run for Congress as a Democrat. Only she didn't join that party in time under the new law. She sued over the law but lost, and was facing the prospect of running as a member of the Independent Party, which she decided would likely mean she'd lose.

So this week Argenziano, an outspoken character who is either really well-liked or pretty much despised, said she'll move from Tallahassee back to her old home of Citrus County, where she'll run for a House seat currently held by Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness.

At the very end of the week, on Friday, Scott signed into law a controversial measure allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages" at compulsory school functions. The idea was admittedly aimed at increasing public Christian prayer in schools, though technically it would allow students to say pretty much anything at an assembly, because it says adults can't have a say in what message the child wants to deliver.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin captures the attention of Florida, and much of the nation. Talk of the way the state's self-defense law works, and whether blacks are unfairly treated by law enforcement, overtook events at the Capitol this week.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Put the guy in jail. It sounds like he shot a guy who was innocent. That has nothing to do with this law." -- Former state Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, arguing that George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin was totally unrelated to the Stand Your Ground law.

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