After months of public input and research, the Florida House’s redistricting committee today unveiled its first proposals for how to redraw the state’s congressional and state House district lines. At first glance, one detail stands out: The committee has chosen to maintain the controversial Tampa Bay district that spans the Sunshine Skyway bridge in order to group together the area’s minority voters.

The district in question (No. 70 on the new maps) bears a close resemblance to the current District 55, represented in Tallahassee by Democrat Darryl Rouson. As I wrote last year, Rouson’s district was at the very heart of the debate over gerrymandering in Florida:

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.

Amendments 5 and 6, of course, passed last November, creating new restrictions on how the Legislature can redraw district lines. But if the new maps issued today are any indication, Tampa Bay’s Sunshine Skyway-connected district will largely stay the same, which is unlikely to make many in Sarasota’s African-American community happy:

“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.”

During an August public hearing about the redistricting process, many called for the Newtown community to be separated from Rouson’s district, but four residents did ask the Florida lawmakers in attendance to keep their neighborhood connected to the St. Pete-based district.

According to statistics released with the new maps, the black population in the proposed District 70 stands at 48 percent.

Update:

The Buzz is reporting that Rouson cautioned Floridians from reading too much into the maps released today. The proposals are just that: proposals, which are sure to be tweaked as the process moves along.

“Put away the Maalox and the Pepto Bismol,” Rouson reportedly said. “These are not the maps. These maps are just fodder for discussion and for creating angst.”

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