GOP, Dems Spar Over Redistricting Panels as Meetings Begin
House Republicans and Democrats squabbled about the perceived snub of a top Democrat from the chamber’s redistricting panel Tuesday, the day before the first meetings about the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing Florida’s political boundaries.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, issued a memo late Monday naming the members of the House Redistricting Committee and the subcommittees that will handle the lines for House, Senate and Congressional districts.
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel and Cannon’s designated successor, had already been named chairman of the full committee. Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, will serve as vice chair.
Co-chairs will run the subcommittees drawing each of three categories of lines, with Reps. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, and Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, chairing the House subcommittee; Reps. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Peter Nehr, R-Palm Harbor, heading up the panel on Senate lines; and Reps. John Legg, R-Port Richey, and Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, overseeing the crafting of Congressional districts.
But House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, sent a letter to Cannon on Tuesday saying the party would not name a ranking member on the main committee.
“I anticipated Representative Perry Thurston being selected to the Redistricting Committee and expected to recommend him as the Democratic Ranking Member of the House Redistricting Committee,” Saunders wrote. “Because he was not appointed to the committee, the Democratic Caucus will not recommend a Ranking Member to the committee.”
Thurston, D-Plantation, is the informal Democratic lead on redistricting matters and is scheduled to take over as House minority leader after the 2012 elections.
But a spokeswoman for Cannon, R-Winter Park, said Thurston had the same opportunity as every other House member to be considered for the panels.
“The Speaker sent an e-mail asking members to indicate whether or not they wanted to serve on the redistricting committee or subcommittees given the extensive time requirement expected over the course of the summer months,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. “Rep. Thurston did not respond to that e-mail.”
A spokesman for House Democrats said it wasn’t immediately clear if Thurston’s office had emailed Cannon following a recent call for volunteers to the redistricting panel, but that Thurston had asked to be on the committee before the session and had “extensive conversations” with Weatherford about serving on the redistricting committee.
The scuffle over Thurston’s absence from the committee was a reminder of how contentious the redistricting battle is likely to be, particularly as lawmakers try to come to terms with the requirements of the Fair Districts amendments passed by voters last November.
The meetings scheduled for the Redistricting Committee and its Congressional subcommittee on Wednesday, and the subcommittees charged with drawing House and Senate lines on Thursday, will largely serve as educational sessions for the members of the committee, said Redistricting Committee Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
“It’s kind of a Redistricting 101 day,” Weatherford said Tuesday.
Lingering over the process almost from the beginning will be the prospect of legal action undoing whatever the committee draws up. Florida already has a history of lawsuits over its redistricting plans, and the list of standards included in the new amendments could provide new ammunition to groups who want to overturn the maps the Legislature approves.
“Take any of the elements, and there’s a prong for a disgruntled party to sue,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Weatherford said he’s not sure how big a role the amendments will play in Wednesday’s discussion, and largely brushed off a question about the potential for them to spark a court challenge.
“My job is not to worry about lawsuits. … I can’t control what legal issues may or may not come up in the future,” he said.
By Brandon Larrabee