Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Democrats Fear GOP Gains as Redistricting Battle Looms First Hearing Draws Criticism

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Democrats Fear GOP Gains as Redistricting Battle Looms First Hearing Draws Criticism

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Saunders, Times-Union staff writer

TALLAHASSEE -- When state lawmakers drew legislative and congressional districts a decade ago, Florida politics were far different than today.

Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor's Office. Daniel Webster, a Republican House member then, said Democratic leaders tried to ignore the GOP in drawing the politically crucial boundaries of districts.

"I think there was a concerted effort to shut people out 10 years ago," said Webster, now a Republican senator from Winter Garden.

But during the past decade, Republicans have taken control of the Capitol. And as lawmakers prepare to redraw the district boundaries next year, they are headed toward another partisan fight -- this time with Democrats fearing they will get rolled over by the GOP majority.

House and Senate redistricting committees met in Tallahassee yesterday for the first of 20 hearings to gather public input about drawing new boundaries.

But the hearing, which included comments from special interest groups, elected officials and residents from various parts of North Florida, also sparked criticism from Democrats. They said Republican leaders provided little information before the hearing, leaving them uncertain about how the redistricting process will work.

"If they [Republicans] continue on this pathway, unfortunately, it is going to be a rocky road," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

Redistricting, which is required every 10 years by the Florida Constitution, is one of the most partisan issues in politics. Lawmakers use the process to try to create districts that will bolster their political careers, while also helping their parties gain seats in the Legislature and Congress.

After holding hearings throughout the state this summer and fall, lawmakers will draw the new districts during next year's legislative session. The districts will take effect during the 2002 elections, when all 160 legislative seats will be open.

Several special-interest groups, including the League of Women Voters and the watchdog group Common Cause, said yesterday they want to pass a constitutional amendment that would change the redistricting process. …

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