Fallout From Redistricting Rules Remain To Be Seen

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Two members of Congress most affected by a redistricting ruling issued late Monday by a federal court did little Tuesday to clear up their intentions, as qualifying for this year’s elections continues to edge closer.

Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, whose efforts to keep her current district intact were rejected by the three-judge panel, did not issue an expected statement Tuesday about the outcome of the lawsuit. A spokesman said Brown hopes to respond at length in the next few days.

On Monday, Brown issued a terse statement that did not indicate whether she would appeal the judges’ ruling, the latest in a wide-ranging legal battle over congressional districts that has entered its fifth year. Brown said she was “extremely disappointed” with the decision.

Unless the federal court’s decision is overturned on appeal, Brown’s Congressional District 5 will now run 200 miles across the top of the state, from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west. Parts of Tallahassee would be included in the seat.

For more than 20 years, Brown has represented a seat that ran from the north to the south, and she has cruised to election wins with support from voters stretching from her power base in Jacksonville to Orlando.

Former state Sen. Al Lawson, who represented a Tallahassee-based district in the Legislature and plans to challenge Brown in the Democratic primary in the redrawn District 5, said Tuesday he was pleased with the ruling.

“What it does is make these districts less gerrymandered and more amenable to the citizens that live in them,” Lawson said.

The reorientation of Brown’s district was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court last year. In a landmark case, a majority of justices ruled that her Jacksonville-to-Orlando district was drawn to carve Democratic-leaning African-American voters out of districts in Northeast and Central Florida, making the surrounding districts better for Republicans.

The court said that ran afoul of the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” amendments, approved by voters in 2010. Brown claimed the new east-west arrangement of her district violated the federal Voting Rights Act by making it less likely that the district would elect a candidate favored by African-Americans, but the federal court rejected that.

“Although the victory percentages may drop slightly from those in the north-south configuration, the evidence demonstrates that black-preferred candidates should generally continue to win east-west District 5 with about 60 percent of the vote,” said the opinion, signed by judges Robin Rosenbaum, Robert Hinkle and Mark Walker. “And a win is a win, regardless of the margin of victory.”

While much of the population of the district is still concentrated near Brown’s stronghold of Jacksonville, Lawson said a larger chunk was in an area stretching from Gadsden County to Madison County. He also said turnout could swing the seat.

“We tend to vote more up this way in North Florida than they do in the Jacksonville area,” Lawson said.

Steve Vancore, a Democratic political consultant based in Tallahassee, said Brown likely still has the edge in the new district. But Vancore, who worked for Lawson on a statewide legislative campaign when the Tallahassee Democrat was the minority leader in the Senate, said he wouldn’t rule out the challenger.

“Al can definitely give her a run for the money,” said Vancore, who considers Lawson a friend.

Meanwhile, Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham remained mum on her intentions for 2016. The new configuration of Brown’s district dramatically altered Graham’s neighboring District 2, which changed from a swing seat with a history of sometimes electing moderate Democrats to an overwhelmingly Republican seat.

In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Graham seemed resigned late Monday to the new map.

“Now that the lengthy legal challenges to the maps have been completed, I will make a decision as to what’s next as soon as possible,” she said in a prepared statement. “Though the maps may have changed, my commitment to public service has not.”

Graham is widely regarded as a strong Democratic candidate for statewide office in 2018, either for attorney general or governor. She could also run for the U.S. Senate if incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson changes his mind about seeking re-election.

Vancore said Graham, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham, could decline to run for re-election and instead launch a bid for one of those positions. She would remain in Congress until January, and being out of office is less important now because of longer campaigns, Vancore said.

“There’s no reason she couldn’t immediately jump into a statewide race,” he said.

Graham could also attempt to run in Congressional District 5, hoping that Brown and Lawson would split the black vote in the Democratic primary, but Vancore said that would be a “long shot.”

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