The Florida Supreme Court last week handed down a daft ruling, made necessary and predictable by two even more daft amendments added to the Florida state constitution by voters in 2010. The animating principle of both the amendments and the ruling is that politics can and should be taken out of politics. It’s a fool’s errand. But it’s where we are now.
By 5-2, the Court ordered the Florida State Legislature to redraw the lines of eight U.S. House districts because these districts have been drawn, the court concludes, with “unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.” Since the borders of these eight districts will change, far more than eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts will be affected. The court gave the legislature 100 days to come up with new, fairer, “non-political” districts.
And why, you might ask, should the Florida GOP not draw these lines to their advantage, as they’ve held large majorities in both Florida houses since the nineties. Before the nineties, stretching back to when dinosaurs roamed the peninsula, Democrats held large majorities in the Florida Legislature and, you guessed it, drew congressional districts to their advantage. The Democratic advantage in the Florida congressional delegation has given way to a Republican majority (17-10), just as Florida voters have been tending to GOP candidates at all levels of late (save for a couple of very close wingers for the community organizer from Chicago in the last two presidential years). U.S. Senator Bill Nelson is Florida’s political Maytag repairman, the only Democrat to hold statewide office.
The cause of this silly and impractical ruling is something called the Fair Districts Amendments (if Florida had a truth-in-advertising requirement, they should have been called the Endless Lawsuits Amendments), which 63 percent of Floridians voted to add to the state’s constitution in 2010. These amendments prohibit drawing congressional districts that favor a political party or incumbents. They also require, as does the federal Voting Rights Act, that lines must be drawn so that minorities can have a shot at winning.
This is all very earnest, vague, sentimental, and dreamy. The kind of thing that can and was made to sound good, unless you gave the matter just a couple of minute’s thought, which very few of Florida’s voters or editorial writers bothered to do before the vote. The amendments drew the support of earnest and dreamy groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, which alone should have been alerted voters that something was not quite right. The League and several other voter groups brought the suit that resulted in the current order.
What those paying the slightest attention in 2010 noticed was there are enough different interest groups in Florida, and enough ambitious politicians with a keen self-interest in where district lines are drawn, that no congressional map will ever satisfy everyone, or even most everyone. The amendments, sold on the promise of delivering better government, will in fact only deliver endless law suits, and endless court rulings. (There’s another suit having to do with state legislative district lines that the court is expected to rule on in September. Who wants to bet they won’t throw out these lines as well?)
The assumption that non-partisan government is better government is just that, an assumption. And not a particularly compelling one. Further, the concept of what amounts to a “fair” district is sufficiently vague that lawyers, at hefty hourly fees, can worry it until the Sun burns out. (Fans of Dickens who see a parallel between this one and Jarndyce v. Jarndyce are not being fanciful.)
Some of the districts in the map that the court overturned are indeed funny looking. For example the Tampa district, the seat held by Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor since 2007, nips over to south St. Petersburg to pick up some heavily Democratic neighborhoods. This urban district, represented by a Democrat since its creation, has been used as a sump into which Democrats have been poured, in order to make the world safe for Republicans representing surrounding suburban districts. If the legislature redraws lines along what the League considers more seemly geography, Castor’s district would become slightly more Republican, but probably not enough to put her very safe seat in play. But very much line jiggling and neighboring Florida 13, represented since March of 2014 by Republican Congressman David Jolly of St. Petersburg, will become majority Democrat.
Speculation is that Jolly — a moderate Republican as befits the representative of what before the court-ordered massage is about a 50-50 district — is an astute enough counter of voters to decide to run for the U.S. Senate seat made available by Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations than to go for re-election in what will be a Democrat-friendly district. This leads us to the most melancholy, and I hope unintended, consequence of this silly amendment. That is the almost certain return to public life of Charlie Crist.
That’s right. Charlie Crist. The political undead. Possibly the emptiest suit in the political history of the republic, certainly of Florida’s. Over the past two decades and change, Crist has parlayed a sunny disposition and absolutely nothing else into a political career. He has held countless offices in his successful lifelong attempt to avoid legitimate work — state senator, Florida Education Commissioner, Florida Attorney General, and Governor of Florida — without achieving a single thing in any of these brief stops, largely because he was always seeking the next office rather than attending to the duties of the one he held.
While there have been Crist victories, he has suffered his share of defeats as well. Crist has never sought re-election to an office he held. He hasn’t even remained loyal to a political party. He’s the only politician in Florida history to have lost statewide elections as a Republican (U.S. Senate to Bob Graham in 1998), an independent (U.S. Senate to Marco Rubio in 2010), and as a Democrat (Florida Governor to Rick Scott in 2014). Now there’s a reverse hat-trick for you.
It has been a long time since Charlie chalked up a W. That would have been his 2006 win in the Florida governor’s race. But in spite of his recent un-successes, and his frequent party shuffles, he’s now telling folks that he’s interested in the new St. Petersburg congressional seat. St. Petersburg is Crist’s hometown, and for reasons that aren’t clear to me, he maintains some popularity there. There are other ambitious Democrat politicians lacking an office in Florida 13, so Crist won’t have the race to himself should he chose to run again. But it would be a dreary business indeed having him under foot again.
What we won’t put ourselves through in the name of fairness.