Redistricting Lawsuits Helped by GOP Senators' Cash

By: Michael Peltier
By: Michael Peltier

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 17, 2010 --

The voters may have spoken, but at least one senator says he may not be finished in his quest to derail a pair of constitutional amendments that will change the way political boundaries are drawn.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton , said Wednesday he hasn’t ruled out continuing to assist a pair of Florida members of Congress -- Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami -- who filed suit in federal court to scuttle Amendment 6, which passed Nov. 2 with nearly 63 percent of the vote.

In June, Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth, a political spending committee led by Bennett and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, gave $5,000 each to the legal defense funds of Brown and Balart, who contend Amendment 6 violates federal voting rights protections for minority candidates.

Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has said he is considering challenging Amendment 5, which deals exclusively with state House and Senate district.

Bennett has been an outspoken critic of Amendments 5 & 6, which will regulate how state and federal political districts will be drawn. He told News Service of Florida Wednesday that he may not be ready to throw in the towel.

“I’m not sure we have any money left in the fund, but I might,” Bennett said of continuing his support. “The people have made their decision… but people do have the right to sue.”

Another group, The Florida Leadership Alliance, a group headed by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also gave $5,000 a piece to Brown and Diaz-Balart in June. The two members of Congress used the money to help finance an unsuccessful challenge to the redistricting amendment in state court in an attempt to keep the measure from voters.

Their latest lawsuit was filed in Miami federal court within hours of voters approving the redistricting measures this month..

Gaetz now heads the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

“I think it was fair before the election for all of us who have views on both sides of this to play,” said Gaetz, who now chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

Gaetz said Wednesday that his committee has not made additional contributions to the defense funds since voters approved Amendments 5 & 6 on Nov. 2.

“I’ve not contributed a dime to any kind of legal action for or against anything having to do with reapportionment since the election,” Gaetz said Wednesday during a break in Senate Medicaid hearings. “I’m a partisan. I think 5 and 6 were wrong-headed and very difficult to comply with. But that was then and this is now. “

Led by FairDistrictsFlorida.org, backers of Amendments 5 & 6 said the new proposals will provide some rational criteria for the way political districts are drawn. The amendments are likely to further strain relations between the Legislature and the judiciary, especially the Florida Supreme Court, which shot down three legislative proposals during the recently concluded election cycle.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Westin, said a judicial clash is inevitable regardless of whether the amendments had passed, since the courts historically have had the final say if the newly crafted boundaries are fair.

But Rich said Republican leaders should be careful in how forcefully they oppose the amendments now because many of the same voters who elected them to office also supported the measures.

“In an election where Republicans won from top to bottom, it’s amazing to me that 63 percent voted for the Fair Districts amendment,” Rich said. “That means Republicans and independents joined Democrats who voted for it because we know Democrat turnout was low.”


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