Eight years ago, when U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, a five-term Democrat, decided to retire, she gave her son Kendrick a memento of her time in office — her seat.
The same day that Carrie Meek announced her retirement, Kendrick Meek, then a state senator, announced his bid to represent the district. The announcement’s timing was strategic. It came two weeks prior to the filing date for the Democratic primary, allowing little time for potential challengers to put a campaign together in a heavily Democratic district.
Predictably, Kendrick Meek was unopposed in the primary, and faced no Republican challenger in the general election.
This past February, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican, announced his retirement after 10 years as the congressman for District 21. At the same time, his brother Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents the neighboring 25th district, announced he would run for his brother’s open, and more securely Republican, seat.
Predictably, Mario Diaz-Balart is running unopposed in the general election.
One nuance of gerrymandering, the deliberate drawing of political districts to favor one group, is that the political geography can be carved up to not only favor one party, but to favor one family.
Florida is preparing to reexamine district boundaries following the current census. The question for voters as they ponder two ballot initiatives intended to enact greater controls over the process, is whether the status quo is good for democracy.
“The answer is no,” says Kelly Penton, spokeswoman for Fair Districts Florida, a political action committee supporting Amendments 5 and 6, which would reform the way political districts are drawn. “When politicians are sitting down and handpicking their voters in order to protect their seats, I don’t think that’s what our founding fathers intended. Voters are supposed to pick their representatives, not the other way around.”
In the case of Meek and Diaz-Balart, elected officials are picking their successors.
But Fair Districts opponents, like those at the Protect Your Vote PAC, where Mario Diaz-Balart heads the National Steering committee, insist that minorities would suffer if rules were put in place prohibiting gerrymandering. The current system ensures that minority populations have some representation, and changing that is “totally unworkable,” as Diaz-Balart said at a press conference in September. Protect Your Vote did not return two calls seeking comment.
Protect Your Vote claims opposition to Fair Districts is bipartisan. Standing with Diaz-Balart is Democrat Corrine Brown, who represents one of the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the state. She likes to point out that until her district was drawn to favor minorities and she was elected in 1992, no black candidate from Florida had served in U.S. congress in more than 100 years.
But politics plays a part. Reforming the system would more adversely impact the party currently in power — the Republicans.
Fair Districts Florida plays down partisanship. “It happened in the past when Democrats were in control,” Penton says, “and it’s happening now.”
For its part, Protect Your Vote — which lists many prominent Republicans as supporters, including state Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, state House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon and former Republican Party of Florida chair Al Cardenas — makes its pitch strictly along party lines. “Groups like ACORN, the ACLU, SEIU and trial lawyers have raised more than $4.3 million to help pass Amendments 5 and 6. … Fifty percent of the funding came from trial lawyers and big labor unions,” Protect Your Vote warns. “Supporters of Amendments 5 and 6 are not ‘nonpartisan’ as they claim. They are active supporters of far-left causes working to advance the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.”
Protect Your Vote has not generated the funds its rival has. According to disclosure reports the only contributors so far come from TECO Inc., the natural gas utility, which gave $25,000, and the Florida Association of Realtors, which gave two $125,000 donations. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
The two amendments (5 deals with legislative districts, 6 with congressional ones) require that districts must be contiguous (meaning no breaks in the borders), compact and as equal in size as possible. The Fair Districts group asserts that Florida is the least competitive state in the nation, politically. In the last 10 years, only 10 incumbent legislators, out of 505, have been defeated.
That record is due in part to gerrymandered districts that make little geographic sense.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s District zigs and zags through Miami-Dade County, grabbing clusters of Republican voters as it winds its way up into Broward County. As a result, it counts as one of the most heavily Cuban-centric blocs in the country, a fact that helped the Cuban-American Diaz-Balart stay in power for five terms.
Kendrick Meek’s district is indeed more compact, and may survive potential redistricting. But it was clearly created to keep a Democrat in power. The congressman declined to run for reelection this year, instead making a go for the U.S. Senate.
State Sen. Frederica Wilson fought off eight rivals in the Democratic primary to emerge as her party’s candidate for Meek’s vacant seat. There is no Republican candidate running against her in the general election.