Friday, June 19, 2009

Redistricting brings out the politician in politicians

Few things bring out a politician's political instincts more than the once-in-a-decade chance to redraw the boundaries of political districts, whether it be for the city council, state legislature or U.S. House of Representatives. Lawmakers in charge of redistricting have a lot of interests to balance, among them, those of their hometowns seeking to hold onto or increase their influence, and those of their party.

But at end of the day, redistricting is about job security and their political futures, so it would be smart to keep that in mind when considering how the lines might be re-drawn after the 2010 census.

For instance, don't separate state Sen. Mike Bennett's informed speculation that Florida might get two new U.S. House seats - and that he might help draw the new lines - from the possibility that one of the new districts could be tailor-made for an out-of-office politician already familiar to the voters of Manatee and Sarasota counties.

How an additional congressional district might reshape the local political landscape - and how it might affect Manatee's political fortunes - is unclear. It's not enough to take the state's population and divide it among 25, 26 or 27 districts. Mapmakers will have to consider many factors, like preserving communities of common interests and ensuring that minority representation, a particular interest of federal courts, is not diluted.

Throw in the political interests of the mapmakers and their parties - whichever party is in the majority in Tallahassee will do its best to stick it to the other guys when redrawing the map - and it's much more than a mathematical affair.

Currently, Manatee County is divided, albeit not equally, into two congressional districts. At first blush, that might seem to be a good thing, but the real effect is to dilute Manatee's potential influence in Congress - note that neither of Manatee's two representatives, Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, resides in the county.

How might a new district for the region change that?

I'm no expert - nor a politician - so I don't have a vision of what a new district might look like. But if you accept Bennett's notion that population growth in the eastern portions of Manatee and Sarasota counties merits a new, additional district for the area, it is difficult to see how Manatee would stay intact in one district.

And if it somehow remained intact, what would be its real influence? New congressional districts drawn after the 2010 census will have an average population of about 700,000 residents. As of 2008, Manatee's population was an estimated 316,000, meaning additional population would have to be drawn from the south in Sarasota - where politicians will be working to protect its particular interests - or from the north, in Tampa-St. Petersburg, in order to create a viable district. A third option might be extend to east various tentacles in order to get the needed numbers - and to create a new example of gerrymandering gone haywire.

- Marc R. Masferrer

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