Unlucky 13: One of the state’s last Congressional swing districts is yet again in flux

click to enlarge Unlucky 13: One of the state’s last Congressional swing districts is yet again in flux - heidi kurpiela
heidi kurpiela
Unlucky 13: One of the state’s last Congressional swing districts is yet again in flux

It was an unseasonably cool late October day in 2013 when C.W. Bill Young was laid to rest.

Dignitaries, among them U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, gathered earlier in the day for his funeral at a large Baptist church near Indian Shores, where the 21-term Congressman lived before dying in office.

Even as loved ones mourned and colleagues eulogized him as an elder statesman willing to reach across the aisle to negotiate meaningful policies — rare these days, of course — area politicos quietly, and probably with a tinge of guilt, speculated on who would fill the Pinellas County swing seat Young had occupied since the early 1970s.

Barely two years later, a confluence of events has once again thrown that once-secure seat into flux.

When U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio announced he was running for president, he left a rare, wide-open Senate seat in his wake. Among interested Republicans is U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who has held Young’s former seat since narrowly winning a closely watched special election in March of 2014.

Enhancing the appeal of a Senate run to Jolly is the state Supreme Court redistricting order that could shift CD-13 from Republican-leaning to solidly Democratic, making it tougher for him to keep his seat.

The boundaries of Florida’s 13th, after all, were clearly manipulated for political gain.

If you take a look at a map of the district, you’ll notice it encompasses most of the Pinellas peninsula except for the very
southern tip, which was lopped off and added to Democratic Congresswoman’s Kathy Castor’s 14th District.
Anyone who’s lived in Pinellas long enough can tell you why.

“We were cut out of that district for a reason, and that was to keep that seat in Republican hands,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

Manipulating district boundaries for political gain — gerrymandering — is all too common and, in many places, legal. But voters in Florida opted to jettison the practice in 2010 via a constitutional amendment mandating that districts be drawn sensibly.

“They wanted districts that make sense, and it certainly makes sense for south and central St. Pete to be part of [District 13],” Welch said.

The court has directed Florida lawmakers, who control the redistricting process, to redraw the 13th so it doesn’t cross the Sunshine Skyway or the Howard Frankland Bridge. They have 100 days to do so.

“Finally,” said Alex Sink, a Democrat and former state CFO who was Jolly’s Democratic opponent in the 2014 special election. “Somebody’s doing the right thing. I felt all along that district was not drawn correctly. It was heavily gerrymandered, and the idea that Kathy Castor has to drive all the way across the Howard Frankland Bridge, through CD-13, just to get to the rest of her district, I thought was a little absurd and ridiculous and was done for obvious partisan reasons.”

Sink lost to Republican David Jolly by just under two points. If that district had comprised a logical shape — the lower three-quarters of the peninsula, perhaps — Sink might very well be a sitting congresswoman.

If the district is redrawn the way Democrats hope — starting at the Skyway and heading north until it encompasses 700,000 residents (up to Clearwater or so) — thousands of new constituents, an estimated 65 percent of them Democratic, would be added to the district. About 55 percent of the newly drawn district will have voted for President Obama in 2012, said Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst and managing editor at political handicapping site Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“That doesn’t make the district unwinnable for Republicans, but it certainly would make the district generically one that Democrats should hold,” he said.

While there’s no guarantee, Democrats like those odds. A list of contenders for Jolly’s seat, announced or otherwise, is waiting to jump in.

Although Sink recognizes she could have won in March of 2014 if the district hadn’t been gerrymandered, she says not to count her among them.

“No,” she said. “I would never totally rule out becoming a candidate again, but it’s not in my plans right now.”
Democratic County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who challenged Young in 2010, said he has considered getting into the race, but has ultimately opted to stay put.

“I concluded that I have one of the best jobs around and I’m not giving it up,” he said, adding that he’d rather spend time with his wife and young children than campaign around the clock only to have to commute to Washington, DC.

Democrats who have expressed interest in getting into the race include former Governor Charlie Crist, former Pentagon official Eric Lynn, former Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, St. Pete City Councilwoman Darden Rice and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

(Popular former St. Pete mayor Rick Baker, a Republican, is also reportedly considering a run for CD-13.)

If Crist steps in, it’s likely that national Democrats would try to clear the field as they did when Sink ran, to avoid a costly and potentially divisive primary.

So far, Lynn is the only one who has formally announced, and he’s been campaigning and fundraising for months. The rest are stuck in a holding pattern, and most say they don’t want to make a move until the new maps come out.

“It’s like un-gelled Jell-O at the moment,” said USF political analyst Susan MacManus. “It’s really fluid.”

Jolly may have already decided not to take his chances in Florida’s new 13th, and may even have announced his Senate candidacy by the time you read this, but it’s unclear how long the Democrats’ potential congressional candidates can wait.

“It’s really late already,” Welch said. “If you’re running, folks should already be out there fundraising… It would be much more fair to the citizens and to anyone who is considering running if the legislature would just do it the right way — I think most folks have an idea of what a fair district would look like for Pinellas County — and just get it done in a special session,” Welch said.

Lawmakers could still come back from their special redistricting session with maps that either still favor Republicans or maintain the 13th as a swing district that leans toward the GOP.

“Redistricting is unpredictable,” Kondik said. “Republicans still control the process. Even though the constitution says not to be political, we know they are going to be political.”

The legislature could, for example, try to split the Pinellas peninsula into two districts, sending their boundaries northward into heavily Republican territory like north Pinellas as well as Pasco County, where any Democrat would have a hard time campaigning.

But there’s also a chance Republicans could sacrifice Florida’s 13th and redraw the districts of north Florida Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown and Gwen Graham to favor the GOP.

“It makes sense to me that if they are going to dismantle Jolly’s district, then maybe they dismantle Gwen Graham’s district in response, and try to minimize their losses across the state,” Kondik said.

But even if Florida’s 13th becomes more hospitable to Democratic candidates, no one can predict the behavior of the voters.

“The map is only one piece of the electoral puzzle,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report, a DC outfit that closely monitors Congressional races. “The map can tell you a lot about which party will have the advantage, but I still believe you have to have a good candidate running a good campaign.”

What happened in 2014, in both the special and general elections, are cases in point. Sink was known statewide, popular in Pinellas and believed to be a shoo-in against Jolly. Crist, a former Republican-turned-moderate Democrat, faced unpopular incumbent Governor Rick Scott in a governor’s race that looked winnable for Crist, and lost due to
turnout and a last-minute influx of Scott’s own money.

The 2016 presidential election year may help Democratic turnout, but, as we saw in the 2014 midterms, Republicans’ residual animosity toward Obama could lead them to vote the party line straight down the ballot, even with a name like Crist present.

“The national environment is going to matter,” Gonzales said. “So it looks like we’re going to get a handful or more of newly drawn districts, but we should take a deep breath before declaring victory.”

WE LOVE OUR READERS!

Since 1988, CL Tampa Bay has served as the free, independent voice of Tampa Bay, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming a CL Tampa Bay Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today because you love us, too.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.