State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg: “I’m not here to protect my seat. It’s not my seat. It’s the people’s seat.” (Pic by Mark Foley)

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge arcs high over the entrance to Tampa Bay, on a clear day offering views of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the skyline of downtown Tampa and the tip of Anna Maria Island. It also offers the only physical connection between the two major chunks of land that make up Florida House District 55 — a populous chunk of southern St. Pete and the slender stretch of territory that snakes from western Hillsborough down through Palmetto and downtown Bradenton into Newtown, the heart of Sarasota’s African-American community.

The common denominator? Race. The population of District 55 is 55 percent African-American (.pdf).

Such districts — drawn without geographic logic, in order to group together the greatest number of minority votes — lie at the very center of the debate over the proposed state constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, which seek to establish basic rules for how the legislature must draw district lines when it enters the next round of reapportionment in 2012.

Florida’s Constitution currently offers only the bare minimum of guidelines for how the state legislature can draw district lines, stating in Article III, Section 16 that legislators must create districts of “either contiguous, overlapping or identical territory.” Those loose rules have left the Florida legislature free to carve up the state into districts that offer incumbent politicians the easiest path to reelection, and that often makes no geographic sense.

The system has worked wonderfully as a tool to protect incumbency. Fair Districts Florida — the organization that initiated and is promoting Amendments 5 and 6 — claims on its website that in 420 state Senate and House elections in the last six years, only three incumbent legislators have lost. PolitiFact Florida judged this claim “true.”

While the process has served politicians well, it has left many minority communities — whose largely Democratic votes have been consolidated into a handful of districts — feeling under-served by the electoral process, and by the politicians claiming to represent them in Tallahassee and Washington.

Exhibit A: District 55.

“The way District 55 is cut up is disheartening for a lot of people who live in the south part of that district because they feel like they’ve never been properly represented,” says Rev. Charles McKenzie, a Democrat who ran against and lost to the district’s current Democratic representative, Darryl Rouson, twice in 2008.

In his 2008 campaigns, McKenzie touted his Sarasota roots, telling the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that he was the only candidate “who has lived and worked and served in every part of this district,” not just north of the Sunshine Skyway, a jab at the St. Pete-based Rouson.

After Rouson’s victory, a Herald-Tribune editorial issued a “plea” for Rouson to pay attention to his south-of-the-Skyway constituents:

Don’t use up all your energy on your St. Petersburg base. Voters there form the majority of District 55, but the boundaries also include disadvantaged neighborhoods in Manatee and Sarasota counties. These south-of-Tampa-Bay communities deserve a strong advocate in Tallahassee.

McKenzie says Rouson “has probably done more than anyone in the past” to engage Sarasota’s District 55 residents, but he calls the district borders a “raw deal” for those citizens. “They don’t feel like resources are being allocated to them to deal with things like youth unemployment,” McKenzie says. “They don’t feel that their representative has dedicated the time that is needed.”

“I’m sure that they get better representation in the St. Petersburg area than we get in Sarasota,” says Jetson Grimes, who has owned and operated a Newtown barbershop for more than three decades. “I haven’t seen a lot of positive things happening in this area from that seat.”

Grimes says Sarasota doesn’t even have regular access to Rouson, whose main district office is 40 minutes and $2 in tolls away from Grimes’ barbershop. Even while Rouson was campaigning for the 2010 Democratic nomination, Grimes says he “wasn’t that visible” in Sarasota.

“We’re lucky if we see him twice a year, if that,” says Sarasota’s April Sheffield, who challenged and lost to Rouson in this year’s Democratic primary.

Rouson acknowledges that covering his entire territory is difficult because of its length, but defends his record of appearing in Sarasota. “I believe that if the record is searched, I have visited the Sarasota area of my district more comprehensively and more consistently than my predecessors,” he says.

The district’s St. Pete-favoring design doesn’t just limit constituents’ access to their legislator; it also makes it exorbitantly difficult for a Sarasota-based candidate to gain any traction in a race to represent the district. Sarasota’s Sheffield garnered just 26 percent of the vote when she challenged Rouson.

“You’ve got to have 31 percent of the voters behind you in St. Petersburg to win,” Sheffield says. “I practically had to live over in St. Petersburg,” Sheffield says generating name recognition so far from one’s home is the toughest challenge for any south-of-the-Skyway candidate.

Sheffield campaign volunteer Kevin Johnson says Sheffield is “a good person, but people in St. Pete didn’t know her.” Johnson says he has “nothing against Rouson,” but supports Amendments 5 and 6 because Manatee and Sarasota citizens need separate representation: “It would be to their advantage to have their own.”

If passed, Amendments 5 and 6 would ban the practice of district lines being “drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.” (Amendment 5 specifically pertains to legislative districts; Amendment 6 deals with congressional districts.)

“Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice,” reads the amendments’ ballot summary language. “Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of the existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”

Rouson says that while he believes he will vote for Amendments 5 and 6, he calls the issue “muddled.” ”I have a feeling that if 5 and 6 passes, seats like mine will be diluted, and may, in the worst-case scenario, go away,” he says.

Grimes, the owner of a Newtown barbershop, says it’s a “concern for the community at large” that Amendments 5 and 6 may make it more difficult for minority candidates to win: “We need some people of color, and that’s important.” But he supports any measure that gives his community a greater voice. “We’ve been under-represented in a lot of cases,” Grimes says. “We need to be represented a little more, and I support any districting that increases our representation.”

Rouson says he understands why Sarasota would prefer more local representation. “If the people of Sarasota would feel better if they had a Sarasota resident,” Rouson says, “I’m not going to fight them and stand in their way.”

But on April 26, Rouson did vote to place Amendment 7 on Florida’s ballots. That amendment dubbed a Fair Districts “poison pill” because it would have undermined 5 and 6, was struck from the ballot by a judge in July.

“I only voted to put 7 on the ballot. That’s it,” Rouson says, comparing his vote to “giving the voter a menu” of options.

Sheffield scoffs at that rhetoric. “We truly do not have an advocate,” she says.

“I am in public service because I strongly desire to serve, to change, to be a part of spreading good in our communities,” says Rouson, when asked to respond to criticism that by voting for Amendment 7 he was only trying to hold onto his seat. “I’m not here to protect my seat. It’s not my seat. It’s the people’s seat.”

Sheffield says that while speaking with Sarasota voters during her campaign, they seemed supportive of Amendments 5 and 6 once they understood what was at stake. “They want it,” she says, “but I had to educate them.”

McKenzie, Rouson’s 2008 opponent, says he hopes “the people of Florida take a very serious look at” Amendments 5 and 6. “There’s something called the arrogance of power,” McKenzie says. “We have a Republican-led legislature that’s just been running amok without much concern for the protestations of Democrats and progressives, and so there needs to be some balance brought.”

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