The last time advocates in Hillsborough County pushed to create a voting district with a heavy concentration of Latino voters, the results weren’t pretty.
During the final public hearing on the issue in June of 2011, Commissioner Kevin Beckner released what he dubbed “The People’s Map,” which would have increased the Hispanic population in District One (a seat currently held by Sandy Murman) by nearly 10 percent. The map prompted derisive catcalls from some members of the public, who criticized it as having been drawn up to benefit only certain types of people.
“If you’re too lazy to come down [to Commission meetings], you got a lot of chutzpah coming here now,” barked Marilyn Smith to the members of the Hispanic community who crowded the County Center that night. “If you want to run, move to the area you want to live in and run to represent those people.”
The board ultimately rejected Beckner’s “People’s Map,” instead going with a different plan that was controversial in its own right but managed to pass muster with the board.
Five months later, an advocacy group filed a protest with the U.S. Department of Justice challenging those redrawn districts, but the DOJ rebuffed that protest.
Now members of that same coalition are pinning their hopes on a plan that Commissioner Les Miller will introduce to his board colleagues on April 17. The proposal will call for substituting one at-large commission seat, which is voted on by everyone in the county, with a new single-member district, which would be chosen only by residents of a specific area. That new district would be designed so that a Hispanic could run in it and win.
But Miller says that’s not the overriding objective of his plan. He points out that there are currently four single-member districts and three at-large seats that represent the 1.2 million people who reside in Hillsborough County. Miller says that means he individually represents over 300,000 residents, almost as many as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. He calls that unwieldy, and Miller wants to convert one of those at-large seats into a fifth single-member district.
His idea isn’t unconventional when compared to Florida’s largest counties. Miami-Dade has 13 board members, all representing single-member districts. Broward has nine single-member districts; Palm Beach has seven.
“I think that anybody who has looked at this understands that expansion is truly the way to go,” says Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta and a longtime proponent of changing the structure of the county commission. “The major metropolitan counties all seem to have done it, except for Pinellas and Hillsborough County.”
Hillsborough County last changed its general structure 30 years ago, expanding the total number of elected officials from five to seven, with four of those members representing specific districts in the county.
Resistance to changing that structure has been based on what is known as the Jan Platt Defense. The former county commissioner was instrumental in the 1983 move from five to seven commissioners, which allows every single voter in the county to theoretically vote for a majority on the board — their individual district commissioner as well as the three at-large seats.
Miller’s plan would be for the District Six at-large seat currently held by Democrat Kevin Beckner to become the fifth single-member district. His idea would need to go before county voters in a referendum in 2014. If successful, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) would create the new district in 2015, with every commissioner then running for re-election in 2016.
Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio served on the BOCC back in the 1980s and ’90s. She says there’s no “magic formula” for dictating when or how the commission should change the structure of government. “I think it likely reflects changing demographics, growing populations, or different community expectations,” she says.
When it comes to the changing demographics of Hillsborough County, no single group has shot up in population as much over the past decade as Latinos, who now constitute more than a quarter of the county’s estimated 1.2 million citizens. Miller says the ideal situation would be to use the drawing of the new fifth single-member district to make it more likely that a Latino be elected, and there are many who agree with him.
“Right now there’s nobody who speaks a word of Spanish on the County Commission,” complains Victor DiMaio with the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, a group that formed in 2011 to argue for Latino representation on the BOCC.
DiMaio is a well-known Tampa political consultant — a Democratic consultant, which seemed to be a problem when he was one of the faces arguing for a Hispanic seat back in 2011. But DiMaio maintains that this isn’t a partisan issue, and claims there are many Republicans with his group, such as Norma Reno, who sits on the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council.
Reno says that Hispanics have been far too quiet in the county for too long. “If the commissioners were smart, they would get with us,” she says. “Because we’re probably going to be the ones electing them very soon. We’re going to be the vote they need.”
That brings up the bigger issue of the GOP’s efforts at Hispanic outreach. After Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in part because of his devastating majority with Latino voters (Obama crushed Romney 71-29 percent among Latinos), the word from the top of the RNC on down has been that it’s serious time for a rapprochement with the Latino community. Hence the intense drive to get behind a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year.
DiMaio, Reno and others have met with several commissioners as well as administrator Mike Merrill in recent weeks to make their case.
“I don’t know what happened with the Republicans. It’s like they’re fighting so hard to make their party fail,” Reno says.
Then again, some of the supporters of the new district think the plan should go much further.
“The key to provide for equitable representation is to move away from county-wide districts and have seven single-member districts, where each neighborhood is represented by a commissioner, rather than these million-dollar races that put in so much special interest money that it really becomes prohibitive for someone from a socio-economic area to be able to win countywide,” says Chris Cano, vice chair for the Hillsborough County Democratic Hispanic Caucus and treasurer for the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition.
Regarding Latino representation, Jolie Gonzalez with the Greater Tampa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce says the idea is long overdue. “There’s a strong feeling among our community leaders and members that, for some reason, we are not being given the fair opportunity at equal representation,” he says.
But would creating a district that would still be less than 40 percent Latino guarantee anything? Kevin Beckner, the last commissioner to carry the ball on this issue, states the obvious: a new district “does not guarantee you elect a Hispanic to the county ommission.”
What do people think about the idea of drawing up a district designed for a Latino? Last week CL did a quick survey of paying customers at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop, the quintessential Tampa haunt that is frequented by local Democrats (and sometimes national ones, like President Obama last September).
A group of 40-something men sitting across two small tables reacted with disdain to the concept. One man snarled that it sounded like affirmative action; another sneered at the idea, saying, “They need special consideration? Ridiculous. Stand on your own two feet.”
When asked his name, he simply replied, “Concerned taxpayer.”
Another man, one who said he was of Hispanic origin, said he was “sick and tired of people asking for consideration because of their race.”
But others warmed to the idea. West Tampa native Joyce Hammer said she would “love to see more Spanish people involved in the political process,” and said having a representative would encourage more Hispanics to vote.
Rex Rodriguez agreed with the concept of representatives being closer to their constituents. “I just think one person can take care of his area better, no matter what the mix is,” he said, adding, “I think more people get represented that way.”
“Baloney,” counters former County Commissioner Jan Platt when reached by phone last week. Though she retired from elected office in 2004, Platt still remains active, including stints on the Charter Review Board in 2005 and 2010 when she entertained similar proposals to refigure the board.
When told of Commissioner Miller’s complaint that his district is too big, Platt says that was never a problem when she served. She also says she gets out to listen to voters at various citizen groups, “and I don’t see the commissioners. I don’t know what they’re doing, other than hanging out at their offices.”
Some question what Miller stands to gain. His proposal appears to be a very nice gesture to the growing Latino vote, but he says it’s not about him or his political future at all, “because if this happens after 2016, I’m done.” Miller maintains that this is about what the future holds for the county.
In the past, the former state legislator said he was involved in the fight to get African-Americans elected on the county commission, city council, school board and the Legislature.
“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” Miller says.
But will three other commissioners agree?