During a July redistricting hearing in Jacksonville, Fla., Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown called her district the “most popular” one in the country. Because of its size and shape, Brown’s district has taken center stage in Florida’s intense fight over gerrymandering.
Spanning some 100-plus miles, District 3 stretches from Jacksonville all the way to Orlando, and even includes portions of Gainesville. The district’s skewed lines have been controversial for quite some time, but never more so than during the 2010 election cycle, with the inclusion of Amendments 5 and 6 on the Florida ballot.
The so-called “Fair Districts” amendments were created to stop the practice of gerrymandering, forcing the state Legislature to redraw district lines so they are geographically logical and compact. The amendments passed overwhelmingly.
Brown’s district is an important one in the debate over gerrymandering because it highlights a racial divide in the state. A federal court initially created District 3 to address issues of racial discrimination, and Brown freely admits that her election was aided in large part by the state’s adherence to the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits fracturing communities of minority voters among numerous districts.
Brown and fellow Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, are currently waging a war to fight the implementation of the Fair Districts amendments and have sued to block Amendment 6 from taking effect. Brown and Diaz-Balart say they give a voice to under-represented communities, but critics say the lawmakers are only interested in protecting their incumbency.
“When America has a cold, the African-American community has pneumonia,” said Brown at the Jacksonville redistricting hearing held last month. “We have a high unemployment rate and it’s very important that we remain in the room.”
The NAACP, however, doesn’t agree, and even filed suit over a “poison pill” amendment that would have rendered Fair Districts ineffective. In a statement made last year, NAACP Legislative Chairman Leon Russell touted his group’s support for Fair Districts, arguing that they actually protect the interests of Florida’s minority voters.
“The Florida NAACP favors constitutional amendments proposed by Fair Districts Florida, which set forth redistricting standards that are balanced, nonpartisan and easily interpreted,” Russell said in a statement to The Tampa Tribune. “Also, the Fair Districts Florida proposals do all that is reasonably possible to protect the interests of Florida’s minority voters.”
Brown is one of the few Florida Democrats opposed to Fair Districts. The Republican Party of Florida spent millions last year campaigning against the amendments, and the GOP-led state House is now spending taxpayer dollars helping Brown and Diaz-Balart in the lawsuit to block their implementation.
Those party politics make for an interesting campaign for Brown’s 2012 opponent, Republican Mike Yost. Yost is hoping to unseat Brown after losing by around 28 percent in 2010, even though he isn’t sure what the district will look like or who his constituents might be. (The Florida Legislature will be meeting to finalize its redistricting maps next spring.)
“We’re going to see a dramatic shakeup of the third congressional district,” says Yost. “Does it make it difficult to run, not knowing where the boundaries will be? Absolutely. But from my perspective, the people in this district haven’t been receiving adequate representation.”
Yost says his campaign has only a “general idea” of how the district might be drawn.
“We’ve had to guesstimate, and decide what we think the Legislature is going to do,” he says. “I think there will be a tremendous amount of change in this third congressional district, especially because it’s under-populated. More people will have to be put in to this district. I can’t say one or the other where they will come from, but all the other congressional districts surrounding this one are over-populated.”
Though the Fair Districts amendments passed, the cramped timeline on drawing the district lines will likely only help incumbents like Brown. Public redistricting hearings have sparked calls to “show us the maps,” and some argue that the delays are a GOP tactic.
As an anti-Fair Districts Democrat, Brown has formed a curious alliance with Republicans like Diaz-Balart, while Yost is on the opposite side of most of his fellow Republicans.
“Sixty-three percent of the people that voted overwhelmingly supported the Fair Districts amendments. The reality is, there was a tremendous amount of Republicans who voted for it,” he says. “Despite the fact that I am a Republican, and that some Republicans have voiced their opposition, the Legislature is bound to follow the law. From a pragmatist standpoint — I’m for Fair Districts.”
Ed. note: This piece was published in coordination with WNYC’s It’s a Free Country .