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Florida legislators give DeSantis their power to draw House map

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on Feb. 1, 2022, in Miami. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

The Republican-held Florida legislature will not redraw its congressional map, yielding its redistricting role to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to draft a version he will sign.

The decision, announced Monday in a joint statement by state Senate President Wilton Simpson and state House Speaker Chris Sprowls, is the latest turn in an unprecedented fissure between the governor and the legislature. The move followed DeSantis’s call for a special session to draw the House map.

“At this time, Legislative reapportionment staff is not drafting or producing a map for introduction during the special session,” Simpson and Sprowls said. “We are awaiting a communication from the Governor’s Office with a map that he will support. Our intention is to provide the Governor’s Office opportunities to present that information before House and Senate redistricting committees. We look forward to working with you next week as we complete our constitutional obligation for the 2022 redistricting process.”

DeSantis shocked even members of his own party in January when his office put out its version of a congressional map that was more favorable to Republicans than a bipartisan one that was advancing through the legislature. The most dramatic change was DeSantis’s erasure of a district that runs along the northern border represented by a Black Democrat, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson. DeSantis has argued that the district is an illegal gerrymander, drawn to consider race and nothing else.

Lawson, in a statement, derided the state legislature for “caving to the intimidation of DeSantis and his desire to create additional Republican seats in Congress by eliminating minority-access districts.”

Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters Florida, expressed the same sentiment.

“It’s very disappointing to see them folding their cards and abdicating their high and honorable responsibility of creating a congressional map,” Scoon said. “They want to stay on the good side of a powerful leader. People are afraid to cross him.”

In early March, Republicans in the legislature passed two possible congressional maps — a bipartisan one that kept Lawson’s seat intact and another they thought would appease DeSantis that reduced the district to a tiny area around Jacksonville. That new district would have been 35 percent Black, displacing all the other Black communities in northern Florida into districts Donald Trump won in 2020.

At the end of the month, DeSantis vetoed the maps and called for the legislature to come back for the special session, beginning next week, to work on the congressional map.

Joseph Geller, the ranking Democrat on the House redistricting committee, said he wasn’t surprised that the GOP-led legislature has agreed to go along with DeSantis, even before the special session begins.

Geller said DeSantis’s ultimate goal may be to overturn a constitutional amendment known as the Florida Fair Districts law, as well as the federal Voting Rights Act. The Fair Districts amendment was approved by voters in 2010 to end partisan gerrymandering, and said new maps can’t “diminish” a minority community’s ability to elect a candidate of its choice. Getting rid of Lawson’s district, many voting right advocates argue, would run afoul of it.

Any calls among Democrats to boycott the special session are in vain, Geller said, because neither the Florida House nor Senate needs Democrats to form a quorum.

“I don’t see why we need to go at all. They don’t need our votes, and they don’t want our opinions,” Geller said. “The only hopeful thing is that it will probably be a short stay in Tallahassee.”

Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican strategist in Florida, said Republicans are “prostrating themselves” for DeSantis.

“The legislature has abdicated its responsibility, the leaders in the Republican Party in the legislature have abandoned all principle. It’s just all about maintaining and acquiring power and holding on to office,” said Stipanovich, who left the party after Trump was elected. “What we’re witnessing is a mile marker on the road to one-man rule in Florida, at least for the time being.”

He said others in the party want to curry favor with DeSantis, who has recently taken the unusual step of endorsing candidates in Republican primaries for state offices and has an eye on a presidential run in 2024.

“This decision is a function of two things by Republicans. Their ambition, and their fear of being primaried,” Stipanovich said. “DeSantis is as powerful in Florida as Trump was and still is among Republicans nationally. When that sort of thing happens, this is what you get. Gutless, spineless, sycophancy.”

Simpson did not respond to a request for comment, and Sprowls’s spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the statement he and Simpson released earlier in the day.

Those affiliated with Trump’s Make America Great Again movement, like radio host Stephen K. Bannon, put pressure on DeSantis to demand a map that gave Republicans additional seats in Congress at a time when the balance of power hinges on outcomes in just a handful of districts.

Most other states have completed the mandatory redrawing of new district lines after the 2020 Census — though several are immersed in litigation — but Florida had a bit more time because its primary is set for the end of August.

Still, some local Florida election officials around the state have said they need final maps by the end of the month to have everything in place for the election.

Mark Earley, the supervisor of elections in Leon County and the president-elect of the Florida Supervisors of Elections — the umbrella group for the 67 county elections offices — said in a declaration filed last week as a part of a federal lawsuit that officials need a congressional map in place soon — by May 27 at the latest — to have ballots ready in time for the Aug. 23 primary.