TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Both sides claimed the moral high ground Monday on the issue of minority representation in the debate over a pair of redistricting initiatives designed to stop political gerrymandering that favors incumbents and the party in power.
Reps. Corrine Brown, a black Jacksonville Democrat, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Hispanic Miami Republican, said at a news conference that Amendments 5 and 6 would reduce minority representation in Florida's congressional delegation and the Legislature if approved by 60 percent of Florida voters on Nov. 2.
However, backers of the Fair Districts initiatives, including two minority rights groups, argued just the opposite: that the amendments for the first time would put protections for minority representation in the Florida Constitution.
Adora Obi Nweze, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Florida chapter, and Jorge Mursuli, president of Democracia Ahora (Democracy Now), also questioned the motives of Brown and Diaz-Balart.
"It should frighten all Floridians to know that some elected officials will stop at nothing to protect their political status by trying to avoid having any rules to stop them from continuing to draw districts that serve themselves rather than the people,'' Nweze said in a statement.
Mursuli said politicians oppose the initiatives so they can “continue drawing district lines behind closed doors to protect their political power.''
"That's an outright fabrication and frankly a lie,'' Diaz-Balart said. He defended Brown, saying, “Because of her efforts African Americans have been able to get elected to Congress, the state House and the state Senate.''
Brown and Diaz-Balart said they've been fighting for minority representation since serving together in the Legislature in 1992.
A federal court then took over congressional redistricting and drew a map that enabled Brown and two other blacks to win a congressional seat in Florida for the first time since Reconstruction. A second Hispanic, Diaz-Balart's brother, Lincoln, also was elected to Congress that year.
"If I walk out of here and die … I want to make sure that we have an opportunity,'' Brown said. “I want to make sure that minorities have an opportunity to elect someone of their choice.''
Fair Districts backers say that's exactly what the initiatives would provide.
Amendment 5 is for the Legislature and Amendment 6 is for Congress. Each says "districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.''
Diaz-Balart said initiative backers were trying to turn back the clock and “bleach'' Florida. Besides the NAACP and Democracia Ahora, those supporters include the Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause, ACORN, AARP and the American Civil Liberties Union. Fair Districts' leaders include former Gov. and ex-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican.
Brown and Diaz-Balart are drawing support from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida. They have formed an organization called Protect Your Vote with former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who said they expect to raise about $4 million.
That's about what Fair Districts has raised, spending most of it on a petition drive to get the amendments on the ballot.
Diaz-Balart is not seeking re-election to his current seat but is running without opposition to succeed his brother, who is retiring this year, in a neighboring district.
Brown, Diaz-Balart and the Legislature filed a legal challenge to the initiatives but it was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court.
The justices though removed from the ballot a proposal offered by the Legislature that critics said would have gutted the initiatives. Supporters argued Amendment 7 would simply have clarified them.