Every 10 years the members of both state legislature chambers redraw the districts in which they will run, a process called redistricting.
Alachua County used to make up the entirety of state senate District 14, and about half of its voters are registered Democrats. Drive north along Northeast Waldo Road, and the political composition begins to change.
At the border of Alachua and Bradford counties, there’s a white wooden sign that has “Save America” written across it in red. Beneath it, Obama’s name is painted inside a circle with a slash going through it like a no smoking sign. The sign is topped with American flags that flap along with the breeze created by the passing cars.
A majority of voters in Bradford and Clay counties are registered Republicans and so are the majority of voters slated to vote in the Florida senate District 7 race. The newly-drawn district has tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor. The shift led Alachua County insurance salesman Brian Scarborough, who had originally filed to run as the Democratic candidate for District 7, to drop out of the race.
“First, I was talking with Rod Smith and the folks up in Tallahassee about running. They got their folks together to meet with me and talk about the district as it was drawn and proposed according to the new maps and it was their opinion that the map as drawn wasn’t a favorable district for a Democrat to win,” Scarborough said.
After Scarborough dropped out, the state Democratic Party called 21-year-old University of Florida student Will Mazzota, who filed to run as the Democratic candidate against Republican challenger Rob Bradley, 42, a lawyer from Clay County.
Mazzota said the race has not been easy to run.
“It is an extremely stressful process,” he said. “I think that anybody that runs for any office could tell you that. Fortunately for them, they usually just get to quit whatever job they’re doing or put it on hold and put full effort into their campaign. However, I did not have that liberty. I am a full-time student. I am actively involved in several student organizations, and I am in the process of applying to law school if I am not lucky enough to be elected by the people of District 7.”
Rob Bradley has raised a little under $200,000 for his campaign. Will Mazzota raised a about $3,000. The tight purse strings on Mazzota’s campaign have required him to be clever in rounding up as much free help as he can find to run his campaign.
“My campaign manager is an unpaid student who is a friend of mine from back home,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people offer me advice, offer me help. I don’t have enough money to hire a staff, but I’ve been met with a lot of positive reaction to my campaign and thus have received a lot of free advice and free help.”
Rob Bradley said he is running a strong campaign regardless of what his competition is doing.
“When I entered this race, I assumed that I would be having to run a robust campaign to be successful because not a lot of people, particularly in Alachua County, know who I am,” he said. “So, I don’t enter this endeavor focused on what my opposition is doing. I focus on what I need to do to be successful. Whether my opponent has raised $2,000 or $200,000, I was going to do — and I am going to do — the things I think I need to do to be successful.”
Running a campaign in this sort of politically tipped district has le
ad Bradley to make some decisions that differ from those made by candidates in more competitive races. He said he’s running a campaign on his own values, which means he isn’t afraid to function independently from the Republican Party, particularly when it comes to cuts in education. As a state senator, Bradley would officially designate UF, his alma mater, the state’s flagship university. He also made sure not to make personal attacks against his opponent.
“I was 21 years old at the University of Florida once, and that’s a tough age,” he said. “I’ve never met Will, my opponent, but I’ve met people who know Will, and I understand he is a very nice young man and that he’s got a bright future. The last thing Will needs is someone out there talking negatively about him as he goes about trying to build a life for himself.”
As part of efforts to prevent gerrymandering, a few lobbyist groups put two amendments on the November 2010 ballot, declaring all of Florida’s legislative districts to be drawn fairly. Both amendments passed with overwhelming support. Districts, like senate District 7, have left a few supporters of the fair districting amendments scratching their heads. University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said just because a districting map is fair, it doesn’t mean every district is going to be competitive.
“People tend to live in communities or neighborhoods or areas with other like-minded people from a political perspective, so you have certain parts of the state that are much more solidly Democratic like South Florida or college communities or a Republican side would be a heavy concentration of Republicans in the Naples area,” MacManus said. “It’s not possible because of the residential location patterns of Floridians to have equally competitive legislative districts in every single part of the state.”
The current make-up of the state legislature is about three-fourths Republican. MacManus said despite the existence of districts like District 7, the new map isn’t all bad news for Democrats, who are expected to pick up a few seats in the fall election. In the end, MacManus said, the fair districting amendments could even out the political composition of the state legislature.
Emily Miller edited this story online.