The Legislature Fails (Again!) to Draw Maps: Respect and How We Earn It

The Legislature Fails (Again!) to Draw Maps: Respect and How We Earn It

I met with Shannon, a former student of mine, earlier this week. She has done very well, I’ll note with some pride and mostly admiration.

But there was a time when that success was very much in doubt.

Her first semester at the University of Tampa, she was in one of my classes. She found everything about the class challenging. Accustomed to being a solid A student, she earned grades on tests and assignments she’d never seen before. She was upset, and frightened, and confused, and almost (but not quite) ready to give up.

With coaching and encouragement (but no special favors or extra credit not available to every student), she rose to the challenge, met it and achieved academic success . . . and personal success as well.

Because she didn’t believe in quitting. And because I didn’t believe that “difficult” meant “wrong.”

These were my musings as I watched the Florida Legislature give up, again, and punt the task of redistricting to the courts. The members of the Senate threw up their collective hands on Thursday and said “it’s too hard!” In so doing, they failed to fulfill their constitutionally established obligation to assure the citizens of representation.

Let me pause here to say that I sincerely respect the members of our Legislature. I have disagreed (at times strenuously) with the approach they have taken on a number of different policy issues, not least redistricting. The strength of my expressions of objection often comes, in no small part, from my respect for the individuals involved. If I didn’t respect them, I wouldn’t be disappointed when they fail to do what I (humbly . . . or not) think they ought to do. I’d simply shake my head, as I would at a toddler crashing through the house chasing after the dog. I might pick that child up and scold her, but I would do so with the goal of formation, not as an expression of my disappointment.

So when I say today that I am stunned by the failure of our legislators to adopt district maps, I say it because, truthfully, I expected much more from them . . . I think we all did.

But let’s set aside this particular addition to the recent spate of failures by our state’s legislators to do what the state constitution requires and we citizens expect.

Let’s talk about the talk.

A number of legislators, including some legislative leaders, really have complained that it’s “too hard” to abide by the constitutional standards for redistricting to which they now are held. The difficulty of redistricting in keeping with these standards has been pointed to as the reason for the Legislature’s failure.

They sound a lot like my less successful former students.

One could say, with considerable truthfulness, that our state and federal constitutions impose enormous obstacles to the accomplishment of the things our elected leaders would like to do. President Barack Obama, for example, would like to see Medicaid expanded in every state, including Florida. But the U.S. Constitution will not allow him to impose that policy change.

Some presidential candidates, to deter the flow of illegal immigration, would like to deny citizenship to children born on U.S. soil to illegal immigrants. But the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution will not allow them to.

And some members of our state Legislature would like to go back to the old way of drawing district maps, without regard for the cities, counties and geographic features that naturally create communities and that link citizens in some degree of common interest. But the Florida Constitution will not allow them to.

That’s not a call for constitutional reform. That’s a call to step up to the difficult task, study the data and draw the maps accordingly.

Yes, the work is hard. Yes, litigation is likely, perhaps even inevitable (as it has been since Baker v Carr, with or without the Fair Districts amendments).

But the goal is more effective representation of Floridians, in the communities in which they live, by representatives who live among them.

The old way didn’t get us there. The new way already is drawing us closer.

Perhaps our legislators, like my former students, need to hear the message loud and clear.

These are the standards. We, the people, established them. We meant what we said.

Respect them. Learn to meet them. Earn our respect and trust.