TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As critics decried a congressional redistricting map submitted by Republican Ron DeSantis as racially motivated and drawn to benefit the GOP, the staff member who crafted the maps told lawmakers Tuesday he didn’t take race or party politics into consideration in preparing it.
Lawmakers were called back to the Capitol for a special session to approve new congressional districts after DeSantis vetoed the maps they approved last month. The Republican House and Senate leadership opted not to try drawing maps again, but rather take up one submitted by DeSantis.
The DeSantis map would likely add more Republican seats than the maps the Legislature approved, and could mean the four districts where Black voters have the best chance of selecting a candidate would be reduced to two. Currently, there are five Black Florida House members out of the current 27, including one who is Republican from a district that is overwhelmingly white and firmly Republican.
“Race and political partisan data in no way related at all to my drawing of ... any of the districts on the map,” said J. Alex Kelly, DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff. He said the map is “race-neutral.”
Democrats reject that argument.
DeSantis, who is a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has argued the previous map included racial "gerrymandering” because it drew a long, slim district across northern Florida to pull together Black residents on the basis of race, largely keeping intact the district of Democratic Rep. Al Lawson. The districts in the governor's map are more compact.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls said he's examined DeSantis map and found that it should meet constitutional standards.
““I’ve looked at, are there articulable legal reasons why we can say yes to this map, and this meets the standard,” he told reporters.
But he realizes it will face legal challenges.
“They say … that the certainties in life are death, taxes – and I’ll add one – redistricting litigation. Right? It’s gonna happen," Sprowls said.
Democrats don’t buy the argument that race and party didn’t factor into the governor’s map. Several Black lawmakers have called DeSantis racist for submitting the map. Rep. Angie Nixon said other lawmakers chastised her for previously using the term to describe the governor, but at a rally before session began, she repeated her opinion and said she won’t be silenced.
“That's what he is," Nixon said in an interview afterward. “It's all racially and politically driven. And this is the type of systemic racism that they don't want us to talk about. It's because it makes them uncomfortable because it shows people who they truly are.”
Florida is adding a 28th congressional district because of population growth over the decade. The vote this week on the DeSantis map won’t be the end of the process since it will be the focus of legal challenges.
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Right now, there are 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats representing Florida in the U.S. House. Rep. Kelly Skidmore, the ranking Democrat on the House congressional redistricting committee, scoffed at the idea that politics wasn’t a factor in the DeSantis map and instead was just a coincidence.
“It’s an Easter miracle,” she said before the committee approved the map. “Remarkably this map has 20 Republican performing seats and eight Democratic seats. There are so many things wrong with this map. There are so many things that are wrong with this process and wrong with the governor’s insertion of himself in this map to benefit his presidential election."
The Senate is expected to approve the map Wednesday and send it to the House.
Qualifying for federal office will run from June 13-17.