January 15, 2011 | Orlando Sentinel | Original Article

Latino leaders: Hispanic growth deserves new congressional districts

Florida's population growth has earned it two more seats in Congress. Because Hispanics in Central Florida have been key to that growth, Latino leaders are gearing up to try to claim one of those seats.

They also want the Florida Legislature to ensure that the 900,000 Hispanics living in the Interstate 4 corridor are better represented in Tallahassee.

Members of the Democratic National Committee, the Latino Justice Program and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials are among those already working to make that happen.

"There's no question the state gained congressional seats because of the growth of Latinos," said John García, redistricting manager for the Latino Justice Program, headquartered in New York. "The I-4 corridor represents the largest growth of Latinos in the entire state. We want to see a much more equitable representation of their voice in the Florida Legislature and look at the data to see if there could be a congressional district as well."

Earlier this month, census officials released raw data from the 2010 count showing that Florida's population grew by 17.6 percent since 2000 and now tops 18.8 million. That will result in two new congressional districts for the 2012 elections, bringing Florida's total to 27 members in the U.S. House.

Because the data aren't broken down by demographics yet — that report comes out in April — it is premature to start drawing district lines. But the 2009 estimates already show an exponential growth of Latinos in Central Florida. Jackie Colón, the Florida director of the Latino elected-officials association, said they should be prepared to make their case.

"We want our leaders to be able to hit the ground running when the numbers are released," said Colón, a former Brevard County commissioner. Her organization is hosting a redistricting seminar in Washington early next month to train Latino elected officials how to advocate for redistricting. Kissimmee City Commissioner Wanda Rentas, Osceola County School Board Vice Chairman Julius Melendez and Longwood Deputy Mayor Bob Cortés are among the local elected officials who have confirmed their attendance.

"To do what they have to do locally and in Tallahassee, our leaders have to be well-versed," Colón said. "We want to make sure that's the case."

Region a 'political battleground'

Florida and eight other states gained congressional seats, thanks to an increase in Hispanic population, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center. In these states, Hispanics also make up, on average, 15.2 percent of the eligible-voter population, compared with 5.4 percent of eligible voters in the 10 states that lost seats, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.

In Florida, Hispanics may account for more than half of the state's population growth through this decade — at least 51 percent. In the Central Florida counties of Orange, Osceola, Lake, Polk, Seminole and Volusia, the Hispanic population grew by 70 percent, from 347,000 in the 2000 census to almost 590,000 in 2009.

That growth, and the fact that Central Florida Hispanics are the state's largest swing-vote bloc, make the region a political battleground for any election, said attorney Andrés López, a White House appointee to the Democratic National Committee.

"There is power in those numbers," López said. "The region, unquestionably, should be considered for one of the two seats."

Other groups will vie for seat

Latinos won't be the only group going after a seat. During redistricting, other minority, political and interest groups are all likely to propose hundreds of district maps to the Legislature for consideration.

The lengthy and complex process involves multiple committees, hearings and town-hall meetings before the Legislature agrees on the plans to submit to the state Supreme Court by June 2012.

Legislators have to follow the rules approved by voters last year in the "Fair Districts" amendments, which require congressional and legislative boundaries that are geographically compact and contiguous, follow city or county lines when possible and are not manipulated to favor any political party. Until now, legislators were required only to draw districts that were contiguous.

The amendments, however, were immediately challenged in a lawsuit filed by African-American U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. They claim the new standards are unworkable and would jeopardize black and Hispanic representation.

State Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, the only Hispanic legislator from the I-4 corridor, called those lawsuits "ill-founded and self-serving" and dismissed the notion that the new rules hurt minority districts. Soto has been recommended to serve on the state Senate's redistricting committee.

"I think the amendments will actually give us better districts," Soto said. "They favor compact districts that respect county boundaries."

The state also has to abide by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, among other things, says that minority votes should not be diluted through redistricting.

"The way district lines are drawn determines whether Latinos can have an effective voice in electing their representatives," said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy and research for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

The more Latinos in a district, Gold said, the higher the likelihood that they will be represented by someone with the same economic, civic and social interests. That doesn't mean the candidate elected is always Hispanic.

"But it does mean that the candidate is more likely to be responsive to the needs of the community," she said.