By GARY FINEOUT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The political careers of several members of Congress, including a Republican seeking to become the next U.S. House speaker, could come to an abrupt halt under a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s electoral map.
Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis on Friday recommended new boundaries for the state’s 27 congressional districts, some of which would make it nearly impossible for U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, one of the hard-line conservatives who pushed John Boehner to resign as speaker and then turned on Boehner’s No. 2, Kevin McCarthy, to win re-election from his current central Florida district.
Lewis’ ruling caps off a three-year legal battle over the state’s political landscape that has led to lawsuits, special sessions and multiple judicial rulings. The Florida Supreme Court will have the final say, but the decision by Lewis is expected to carry weight since he has been involved with the legal battle from the beginning.
In the end Lewis recommended a series of changes that could lead to the ouster of Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham from her north Florida seat while resurrecting the political career of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to run for Congress as a Democrat. The judge also went along with a proposal that would make it harder for South Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo to get re-elected.
But one of the most dramatic changes would hurt Webster, who tried at the last minute to intervene in the ongoing lawsuit but was blocked by Lewis. There’s nothing that could stop Webster from running in an adjoining and more GOP-friendly district, but he would have to introduce himself to a new set of voters.
Webster, whose maverick bid for speaker has contributed to his party’s chaotic attempt to find a successor for Boehner, said in a statement that the ruling was “just another step in the process of finalizing district lines.”
“I look forward to this process playing itself out to a final conclusion,” said Webster.
Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in Florida, but the GOP holds a 17-10 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. Even if Graham were to lose re-election, Democrats could pick up as many as an additional three seats under the map recommended by Lewis.
Gerrymandering, in which parties in power redraw electoral districts to give themselves an edge, is a nationwide phenomenon that many blame for Washington’s legislative paralysis, since it makes it harder for mainstream politicians who compromise with their opponents to get re-elected.
Florida voters sought to end this by approving a 2010 referendum amending the state Constitution to apply “Fair Districts” standards, which mandate that legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party.
Then, in a stinging ruling in July, the Florida Supreme Court said Republican operatives had “tainted” previous mapping efforts, and ordered eight districts redrawn. The House and Senate gathered in a rare August special session, but deadlocked over a new map drawn up by legislative staff.
The high court then turned to Lewis, who made his recommendation on Friday following a three-day trial, during which he sorted through seven different proposals. Three were made by the GOP-controlled Legislature, and four others by groups that sued over the current districts.
Lewis ultimately sided with a map prepared by a coalition including the League of Women Voters of Florida.
One of the key changes would radically alter the 5th district, now represented by Corrine Brown, a black Democrat, from a north-south configuration to one that stretches east-west across northern Florida, from Jacksonville to just west of Tallahassee. As a result, the city of Tallahassee would be split, and Graham, the daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham, would be placed in a solidly Republican district.
Graham, who is raising money for a 2016 campaign, said she’s “disappointed,” but still hopes the Florida Supreme Court will decline Lewis’ recommendation. “The map isn’t final and there’s no predicting what the Supreme Court will decide,” she said in a statement.
Brown, who has already filed a federal lawsuit to try to block any changes, blasted the ruling Friday and continues to argue that the new district will disenfranchise minority voters partly because some of the black voters counted in the district live in prisons.
“As a people, African Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly are not taking any steps backwards,” she said in a statement.
David King, the lead lawyer representing the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups, called the ruling “a great victory for the people of Florida and for restoration of representative democracy as it was intended to work.”
“If the Florida Supreme Court agrees with Judge Lewis and orders this map to be used, we will have ensured that Floridians have the opportunity to vote in constitutional and fair congressional districts in 2016,” King said.