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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

My slogan for 2016: Elect grandmothers

Once again, one of the two chambers of the legislature picked up its marbles and went home in a snit. Last time it was the House; this time it was the Senate. And this happens despite the fact that Republicans have big majorities in both. Their “leaders” – overwhelmingly white, male, and too young – seem to view state government as little more than a game and prefer scoring personal points to mature decision-making. My slogan for 2016: Elect grandmothers. Beginning with Hillary.

So the judiciary will do what the legislature did not do, while the head of the state’s executive branch probably will be jetting out of Tallahassee to one of the glad-handing events that seem to be his sole skill. This is a governor who has proven to know less about governing than anyone in the office during modern times. He simply doesn’t care that the capital is in chaos. And that’s probably a good thing, given that whatever he would do might well worsen the situation. But it is important.

To begin at the beginning, the founding fathers mandated a census every ten years. Yes, federal mandates are part of our revered Constitution – and this one was created because the new American leaders saw the results of failing to take censuses in Britain. Its House of Lords, of course, was hereditary, but the House of Commons was composed of representatives elected by (male) commoners. No mechanism existed for population shifts, however, and when rural peasants began moving to new jobs in the cities, the result was great inequality in the House of Commons. Lawmakers from Liverpool, Manchester and other burgeoning industrial areas had hundreds of thousands of constituents, while other House members “represented” more sheep than people. Indeed, at least one man came from a coastal district where most of the land had fallen into the sea.

Seeing this, and knowing that the problem of shifting populations would be magnified with the vast frontier of the new United States, the writers of the Constitution specified that we would count ourselves at the beginning of each decade. Then we would redistribute seats in the US House of Representatives according to where people lived. Thus, ever since the nation began, states in the Original Thirteen have voluntarily given up power in the House as their children and grandchildren moved west. California, which was under Spanish governance when the Constitution was written, now has the most members, with a delegation of 53. Texas, also a Spanish colony back then, comes in second with 36. Florida, now third in population, has 27 seats in the 435-member House.

We were the first of these Spanish territories to come under US governance, but our population boom was slower. In 1928, when Ruth Bryan Owen was elected as the first congresswoman from the South, we had just two districts. Hers ran from the Georgia border down to Key West, while the other stretched from the Panhandle south on the Gulf side of the peninsula. Our population, and thus our number of House seats, steadily increased through the twentieth century, especially after World War II and the invention of air conditioning.

That became common in the 1960s, and that decade also included the US Supreme Court case that was, until recent feminization of language, known as “one-man, one-vote.” The decision essentially outlawed “at-large” or “multi-member” legislature districts that had been used, especially in the South, to keep poor and minority areas from having any real representation at all. Florida was one of the most egregious states in ignoring this: as late as 1978, when I managed Helen Gordon Davis’ campaign for the Florida House, she ran in a multi-member district. Except for Elvin Martinez in West Tampa, she and all of the other five members lived in South Tampa. It wasn’t until the 1980 census and reapportionment thereafter that Florida finally had a system of legislative representation that replicated the model the founding fathers had set up for Congress in 1789. The ideal is and remains one person representing one area – and all of those districts as equal possible in population. This is not only the fairest methodology, but also the best way to hold individual lawmakers accountable for their individual actions.

* * *

So that is why we are where we are. The last census was in 2010, and as usual, Florida gained seats in the US House. The distribution of them, however, was not the open and fair process that it should have been, and the League of Women Voters led other organizations in taking the case to court. Recent document recovery has shown that while legislative leadership promised to be fair, that was far from the case. I’m sorry, Republican friends, but your party’s consultants even drafted faux testimony, supposedly from ordinary citizens, to support their version of district maps. This manipulation resulted in a congressional delegation that has 17 Republicans and ten Democrats – even though Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and even though the Democratic presidential nominee won the majority of Florida’s votes in both 2008 and 2012. (Actually 2000, too, but we’ve agreed to forget about Katherine Harris and that fiasco.)

We voters adopted a Fair Districts amendment to the Florida Constitution at the last election, but lawmakers pretty much ignored it in their special session that imploded last week. It was supposed to redraw congressional maps, and the schedule calls for them to meet again in October to redraw the maps for our own state Senate. The acrimony between House and Senate Republicans, however, is so great that some have given up already and are joining the call for an independent commission to do the job. Many political scientists and newspaper editorials have supported this goal for years, and even the conservative Tampa Tribune effectively threw up its hands and joined the chorus last Sunday.

But I’m against it. No commission appointed by this governor and legislature will be truly independent, and besides, it would take more years to add such an amendment to the state constitution and then to implement it. Meanwhile, the courts will be pursuing a different course, and again the result will be chaos that is unfathomable to all but the in-crowd. A commission may be better than allowing legislators to draw maps that affect them so personally, but better is not best.

Here’s what I think would be best: We should turn the task over to our supervisors of elections (SOE). As you know, each of our 67 counties elects its SOE. Although they have their party’s designation on the ballot, voters have shown a great willingness to trust both Republicans and Democrats as SOEs, and people from both parties have done well. Pinellas and Pasco have Republicans in this office, while Hillsborough and Polk have Democrats – and all have run many scandal-free elections. Unlike Tallahassee’s appointed officials, these close-to-home elected officials have records that voters applaud with re-elections.

And supervisors know their territory, especially the communities in each county whose common interests should be represented with a common lawmaker. They understand, for example, that people who live in southern Hillsborough County should be represented by Tampa’s Kathy Castor -- not by the incumbent, Tom Rooney, who lives in Okeechobee and is elected in slices of ten counties. That is not at all the commonality of interests that a congressional district should have. Hillsborough easily can be split into two congressional districts, one east and one west (or perhaps north and south), but none of its citizens should be linked with people who live from Sebring to Punta Gorda.

A second reason why SOEs should draw these maps is that it will prevent mistakes that can matter in a close race. Consider, if you will, how many variables go into creating ballots that are appropriate for each voter. You may live in school board district #3, while your neighbor across the street lives in #4. The same variables apply for city councils, the county commission, the state House and Senate, and all the way up to the US House. Combining these multiple “ballot styles” for Hillsborough’s 400-some precincts takes great precision -- and those who have this experience obviously (to me) should be the ones best equipped to draw lines on maps. This data-driven approach seems so imperative that I can only conclude its opposition is motivated by self-interest.

We have a good state association of election supervisors, once headed by our own Pam Iorio. I hope we citizens can persuade that body to create committees that will draft maps and present them to the legislature – or even amend the constitution to task this job solely to the SOEs. I’ve talked about this idea with several SOEs from various parts of the state over the years, and it seems to me that they are afraid of offering their input because the legislature controls their budgets. Given the sort of legislators we have in Tallahassee right now, that is a legitimate fear – but nothing ever is accomplished by being fearful. Let’s promote the idea of a redistricting commission that truly can be both independent (because SOEs are elected by voters in their own counties) and knowledgeable (because they routinely implement elections). Governing is complex, but we can do this and ensure a truly representative democracy.

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As mentioned above, the League of Women Voters took the lead on fair districts, and over its 95 years, it has been responsible for many reforms that made democracy more real. Deirdre Macnab headed Florida’s league during these recent victories, and a new president, Pam Goodman, will make her first Tampa appearance soon. It’s Wednesday, September 16, and for $25, you’ll get lunch at the University Club. Check it out www.hclwv.org/events.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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