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Friday September 19th 2014

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IN Interview: State Sen. Don Gaetz

REDISTRICTING POINT MAN TALKS CANDIDLY
By Rick Outzen

State Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) must have upset Senate President Mike Haridopolos. The former Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools was appointed by Haridopolos to chair the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

In the past, that chairmanship gave a senator the opportunity to build his political power base and make a run for Senate president or a statewide office. Dan Webster (R-Winter Garden) chaired the committee in 2000 and went on to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gaetz may find it hard to keep his own Florida Senate district in tact, thanks to Amendments 5 and 6 that passed last November.

The two amendments require that the district lines for Congressional and Florida legislative districts be drawn so as not to favor or disfavor an incumbent or a political party. The voting districts must also be compact, contiguous and respect city and county boundaries when possible.

U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami) have filed a lawsuit to overturn Amendment 6. The Florida House, led by House Speaker Dean Cannon, asked last month to join it.

Gov. Rick Scott and his Secretary of State Kurt Browning sent on Jan. 7 a letter to the Department of Justice withdrawing Gov. Charlie Crist’s preclearance of Amendments 5 and 6. Preclearance is required in five Florida counties before any law regarding voting in those counties may take effect. That delay prompted a lawsuit to be filed by the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts Florida for delaying the implementation of the amendments.

All this is happening before Gaetz and his commiteee have even drawn their first district boundary.

“As Churchhill said about Russia, ‘It’s going to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,’” Gaetz told the IN when he dropped by the office last week. “We have the Federal Voting Rights Act, which is dominant. We have state laws, and now we have Amendments 5 and 6.”

While the two amendments create some standards which by themselves sound very good, Gaetz believed the challenge will be to maintain all those standards consistently. Experts have told him that no state has ever had a template to apply to redistricting that is as inconsistent as the one his committee is required to use.

While Gaetz opposed the amendments during the election, he has not been in favor of the Florida Senate intervening in the federal lawsuit filed by Brown and Diaz-Balart.

“I did everything I could to make sure the Senate didn’t intervene, and we didn’t intervene,” said Gaetz. “As chairman of the Reapportionment Committee, I believe we should follow the law, but I’m not insensitive to the apparent inconsistencies in the law.”

According to Gaetz, the amendments have a hierarchy of requirements. “The preeminent requirement is that no line may be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor any incumbent or any political party,” said Gaetz. “Well, draw the first line.”

He believes that when that first line is drawn, a cause of action is created. “It’s pretty hard to draw any line distinguishing one district from another without someone taking a position that you’re favoring or disfavoring an incumbent or political party,” said Gaetz.

“Thus this becomes rich ground for litigation for a politician who thinks the district isn’t drawn as favorably as he would like. Interest groups that thought 5 and 6 would be some sort of electoral Nirvana creating a desired election result may find the lines drawn might favor or disfavor a political party. Then they may sue.”

Gaetz says ordinary citizens have sent him what they believe are fair redistricting plans. “Any of those plans that I’ve seen could be attacked for favoring or disfavoring,” he said.

There is a second tier of values: compactness and contiguity. “Compactness by itself you can achieve, but compactness where you don’t favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party creates another level of problems,” said Gaetz.

The state senator sees a similar problem with contiguity. “Contiguity in some people’s minds shouldn’t involve water,” he said. “I live in Niceville. My senate district and the house district in which I live cross Choctawhatchee Bay and includes Destin and Okaloosa Island. Some people believe contiguity means land touching land and you can’t cross water. We have thousands of bays, rivers, estuaries, bayous and coves. We’re not North Dakota. Florida isn’t shaped like a rectangle.”

On top of Amendments 5 and 6, the Senate Reapportionment Committee must almost satisfy the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. “We must ensure we don’t go backwards and regress in providing minority representation,” said Gaetz. “We can draw our districts with the 5 and 6 amendments as your standards and be accused of not being serious about the federal standards.”

Can Gaetz complete the assignment given to him by Senate President Haridopolos?

“We’re going to try,” said Gaetz. “I am advised by wise scholars in this field to expect that we will be in court a good deal of the time because of these different values that can be played off of each other.

“Depending on how you draw the lines, somebody, somewhere is going to arguably have a cause of action.”

rick@inweekly.net