News Column

New Fla. Districts Look Ripe for Democrats, Hispanic Candidates

May 29, 2012

Aaron Deslatte

Florida flag

Call it the curse of political gerrymandering: While Central Florida's urban core has shifted Democratic and Hispanic in the last decade, the region's representation in Tallahassee remained overwhelming Republican and white.

But that is due to change this year, thanks to major demographic changes and the 2010 Fair Districts changes that created a playing field that appears ripe for Democrats and Hispanic candidates to pick up seats in the Legislature.

Instead of one Hispanic- and one black-leaning House seat in Orange County, the redistricting maps approved this spring have two of each. A new Hispanic-majority Senate seat in Orange, Osceola and Polk counties was created.

And to comply with the new requirement that districts be drawn more compactly within existing political and geographic lines, fewer Orange County districts extend out into the more-conservative suburbs and exurbs that surround Central Florida's urban core.

The net effect: The Metro Orlando region should witness an explosion of competitive races.

"The Democrats will pick up seats in Orlando if all they succeed in doing is fielding candidates this year," said Steve Schale, political director for the Florida trial-bar lobby and a past Democratic House campaign manager and Barack Obama's Florida director in 2008.

"It's the sheer motion driven by demographics."

In prior years, "it's been hard to get Democrats to run" in Central Florida, said incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who heads Senate campaigns for the party. But that's not true this year.

"I think there's a confidence factor now," Smith added. "A Democrat is at the top of the ticket in President Obama. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson is running. ... With redistricting and excellent candidates, you have excellent opportunities."

Though candidate qualifying isn't until June 4-8, the races are largely shaking out now.

The new Hispanic-majority Senate District 14 is likely to pair current state Rep. Darren Soto, R-Orlando, against GOP personal-injury lawyer William McBride, a son-in-law of wealthy Christian-radio-station owner Stu Epperson and a U.S. Senate candidate in 2006 who could self-fund his campaign.

While the east Orange/Osceola district has a 23-percentage-point Democratic-registration advantage, the mostly Puerto Rican Hispanics of Central Florida have proven less partisan in past elections, and McBride's Latino ancestry from Mexican and Dominican immigrants could help, strategists say.

"We've got a great registration advantage, but he's got a lot of personal wealth, so we're taking the race seriously," said Soto, a Hispanic who expects Gov. Rick Scott's push to screen the state's voter database for noncitizens will be a major point of concern in the race.

"Overall, I'll be bringing up the point that we need someone who will stand up to the governor in our district, and he doesn't," Soto said.

McBride said he wasn't focused yet on the issue, but he wasn't a "rubber stamp for anyone" and was committed to "making sure voting is accessible to everyone and free of fraud."

"I'm a fighter," he said. "I didn't decide to jump into this race to make friends."

A second closely watched Senate race will be in new Senate District 8, which stretches from south Daytona Beach to Marion County and is expected to pit Volusia Commission Chairman Frank Bruno against current state Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.

Bruno has been labeled one of the Democrats' best recruits in years, and the state party has called the race its top opportunity to pick up a seat. The district has a slight, 3.5-percentage-point Democratic-registration edge but has flipped between Obama in 2008 and Republican Scott in 2010.

A slew of high-profile House primaries and general-election matchups also are starting to erupt.

Under the old map, 12 state House districts werewholly or partially within Orange County -- all but three held by Republicans.

Under the new map, Orange would have nine House seats, including two that lean Hispanic and two black-leaning seats where Democratic candidates should be favored. Only three extend outside the county into surrounding Lake, Seminole, Brevard or Osceola counties.

On paper, those nine seats would split pretty evenly between parties. Four lean Democratic, two could swing to a candidate from either party, and the three multicounty districts lean Republican.

Those trends have been building for years as the population became more diverse, But Democrats have historically had problems recruiting credible candidates.

"It is a cop-out for Democrats to claim this is all because of redistricting," said John Dowless, a longtime Orlando political consultant working for four Central Florida Republican legislative campaigns this year.

"They had a registration advantage in multiple seats, but they didn't recruit and field good candidates."

One candidate who had refused past overtures to run is Karen Castor Dentel, a schoolteacher in Seminole County who is the daughter of former stateEducation Commissioner Betty Castor and sister of Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. She said the GOP-controlled Legislature's "parent-trigger" legislation -- which would have made it easier for parents to convert a "failing" public school to a charter school -- prodded her to run this year.

"I hope to be a voice of reason in those debates," Castor Dentel said in a statement.

She's likely to square off with Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, in a Democratic-leaning House District 30, which runs from Maitland to Oviedo.

"I'll be running against not just my opponent but my opponent's family, which has a long history in state politics," said Plakon, who is trying to appeal to voters as someone who reached across the aisle and worked with Democrats on energy policy and helping the homeless.

But operatives expect the business lobby to help Plakon keep pace.

"They're both going to raise a lot of money," Dowless said.

In the new District 49 in eastern Orange, two Hispanic Republicans -- Marco Pena and Rene Plasencia -- are vying to take on either Shayan Elahi or Joe Saunders, a Democratic activist who would be the Legislature's first openly gay House member. The seat is heavily Democratic but also 30 percent Hispanic -- dynamics that could present an opening for the right GOP candidate, strategists said.

The new seats have also encouraged a wave of political aspirants to take on incumbents who may need to introduce themselves to new voters, thanks to redisstricting.

Republican Reps. Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary, Jason Brodeur of Sanford and Steve Precourt of Orlando are all running in GOP-leaning districts but have drawn serious primary challengers.

Meanwhile, Rep. Scott Randolph -- Orlando's senior Democrat -- appears likely to square off with Republican former Rep. Bob Brooks of Winter Park, who served in the Legislature in the 1990s. Randolph's new District 47 is evenly divided at 39-38 percent GOP-Democrat and narrowly went for Democrats Alex Sink and Obama.

Source: (c) 2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters