Gerrymandering tales center stage

Mostly because of luck and geography, South Floridians should be spectators as the Florida Legislature today begins an emergency special session to draw new congressional districts. But South Floridians should be very interested spectators.

Early voting for the Aug. 26 primary begins Monday in Palm Beach County. There are primaries in all four seats that include Palm Beach County. There are primaries in other congressional districts across Florida. Technically, all those primaries are at risk of being invalid.

That is because last week Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ordered the Legislature by Aug. 15—unless the Legislature appeals—to redraw two districts that he said violated the 2010 constitutional amendments—one for congressional districts and another for legislative districts—that voters approved by wide margins with the intent of limiting the ability of politicians to gerrymander – to draw districts that favor one party over another. In essence, politicians pick their voters, rather than let voters pick their politicians.

Lewis ruled that in 2012 the Republican-led Legislature drew District 5 (above) in Northeast Florida, which Democrat Corinne Brown represents, and Orlando-area District 10, which Republican Dan Webster represents, to favor the GOP. How could a district where a Democrat won help Republicans? Because, lawyers for the Florida League of Women Voters argued successfully, the Legislature packed District 5 with minority voters—who tend to vote Democratic—at the expense of minority voters in District 10.

Brown, who is African-American, thus was assured of her seat, while Webster, who is white, got a break. What could have been two seats for the Democrats became one seat for each party, amounting to a Republican win.

Indeed, Brown’s district wriggles from Jacksonville—Brown’s home—about 175 miles south, drawn that way to sweep up as many African-Americans along the way as possible. The district has looked much that way since 1992, the first year Republicans in the Legislature cut deals with minority Democrats to increase minority-access seats at the expense of the Democratic Party overall.

The GOP seized on the opportunity provided by changes to the Voting Rights Act designed to help minorities obtain elected office. Alcee Hastings, an African-American who represents portions of Palm Beach and Broward counties, also was first elected in 1992. In 1990, Democrats held eight seats in the state congressional delegation to nine for Republicans. By 2010, after two reapportionments in which Florida gained seats, Democrats still had eight seats, while Republicans had 17.

That shift in the largest presidential swing state led to the campaign for the amendments. Republicans tried to head off the amendments with their own versions, but the courts blocked them. Not coincidentally, one of the most vocal opponents of the amendments was Corrine Brown.

But voters disagreed, which was a good thing for all Floridians. Gerrymandering—which both parties do in states where they control the process—creates too many safe districts, from which lawmakers can pander to narrow views. Examples: Republicans refuse to raise taxes while Democrats refuse to budge on entitlement reform, though both are necessary to resolve the country’s budget issues and to address financial inequality.

It is likely that any changes to Brown’s and Webster’s districts won’t affect South Florida because of distance. Still, though it might seem easy to imagine redrawing just two of Florida’s 27 congressional districts, consider that Brown’s district touches seven others. One of those is Webster’s, and his district touches five others.

This area’s districts survived the court challenge less because Republicans weren’t tempted and more because South Florida is so urban. There isn’t much room for politically-minded operatives to work with, even using computer programs so sophisticated that Republicans were able to put the House Democratic leader out of his district by drawing the line behind his house, not in front. In addition, the amendment gave legislators almost no room for political improvisation.

Ideally, Florida would assign redistricting to an independent commission, as some states do. That would be one way to start removing the artificial boundaries that divide Americans.

More on Kelly and FAU                            

My interview last month with new Florida Atlantic University President John Kelly generated a lot of interest, so here is added information about the school Kelly leads.

Although FAU wants to offer more of a traditional student experience, nearly 40 percent of the faculty—499 of 1,313 —are part-timers, also known as adjuncts. Given that many students are adults seeking specialized training or retraining, some instructors inevitably will be part-timers— professionals offering their expertise.

But with states cutting back on money for public education, the use of adjuncts is growing even at traditional universities. The University of Florida cut full-time teaching positions by nearly 10 percent and raised part-time slots by about the same amount from 2008 to 2013, as the Legislature shrank universities’ budgets. Part-timers are on campus less often, and thus are less accessible to students. Even in this digital age, face-to-face help often is most effective. And eventually, parents may wonder about the quality of education for which they are paying.

Regarding FAU’s freshman class, the acceptance rate was 47 percent. That’s a long way from the roughly 6 percent at Harvard, but you can’t compare the nation’s most selective private colleges to any public university. The acceptance rate is almost 54 percent at Florida State, 44 percent at UF and 40.5 percent at Florida International, the other public university in South Florida.

Also, the mid-range SAT score for FAU’s new class is 1520 to 1730. That is out of a possible score of 2400, and applies to those in college for the first time, not older college grads going back to school.

Happy Trails? Not so fast                                 

The Mizner Trail story is not over.

In June, the Palm Beach County Commission allowed developers to build 252 homes on the former Mizner Trail Golf Course in Boca Del Mar. Most residents who live along what once were fairways and greens opposed the project, even if that meant continuing to look out on overgrown land. To them, no development beat some development. In making their case, the residents cited a 2008 court ruling that the land contained no inherent development rights, since it was designated open space as part of the Boca Del Mar master plan.

By a vote of 5-2, though, the commission rejected that argument. Steven Abrams, the former Boca Raton mayor who represents the area, was one of the two dissenting votes. Now the residents have filed a legal challenge to the commission’s decision, seeking a hearing in circuit court and asking for a halt in construction of the homes until the case is resolved.

“Only behind-the-scenes politics,” the residents claim, “could explain why (the commission) granted approval of the project against overwhelming opposition from the adjacent homeowners and residents of communities through Boca Del Mar.” In a county with lots of golf courses and fewer golfers, the case deserves a hearing.

Immigration reform and Florida                                 

A very short time ago, the crush of undocumented children entering the United States from Central America was a crisis that demanded immediate attention. Congress, though, left for vacation without passing a plan to deal with this supposed crisis. That was bad enough. Worse, for Florida, inaction may mean waiting even longer for immigration reform.

President Obama made the first offer, a $3.7 billion plan that included nearly $2 billion to feed and shelter the children, most of whom have come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Obama also wanted nearly $1 billion to more quickly process and deport the undocumented. The Senate came back with a $2.7 billion emergency spending plan and waited for the House. Uh-oh.

Because of tea party opposition, House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t get his caucus even to support a $659 million plan. The House then left town after a symbolic vote to repeal Obama’s action in 2012 to delay deportation of young Americans who have made lives here after their parents brought them illegally.

Obama gets some blame for first supporting, then backing away, from changes to the 2008 law that set a different standard for children arriving from Central American counties other than Mexico. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi gets some blame for making Obama back away on that point. Most blame, though, goes to House Republicans.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA— business groups that favor reform—worries that the GOP will do nothing between now and the presidential election in 2016 but talk about enforcement and do nothing to fix the system, such as reducing the immigration court backlogs that, among other things, have held up the processing of those children. Unless the GOP bends, Jacoby said, “Immigration reform could be dead for another five or 10 years.”

Former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Miami, have been urging their party to look more sensible on immigration. The prevailing sentiment in the House, though, is that ducking the issue won’t hurt in 2014, since immigrants are clustered throughout the country, not spread out. Perhaps, but immigration remains a losing issue for the GOP nationally, and delaying reform especially hurts a diverse state like Florida. For Republicans, bad politics is also bad policy.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.