A high-stakes trial that could decide the future of the state’s congressional districts began Monday in Tallahassee, as a Republican political consultant testified that he didn’t influence the drawing of U.S. House lines in 2012.
The testimony of Marc Reichelderfer marked the beginning of the first-ever court battle over the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments. Those constitutional standards, passed by voters in 2010, bar lawmakers from drawing lines intended to harm or favor parties or candidates when overhauling legislative and congressional districts after each U.S. Census.
Over three weeks, members of the Tallahassee establishment ranging from behind-the-scenes aides and consultants like Reichelderfer to high-profile politicians like House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz are expected to answer questions about their role in redistricting as it unfolded two years ago.
Weatherford and Gaetz could testify as soon as this week; former House Speaker Dean Cannon is also expected to be called to the stand during the trial.
On Monday, Reichelderfer underwent hours of grilling by attorneys for a coalition of voting-rights groups trying to persuade Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that Republicans drew maps that ran afoul of the constitutional standards. Democrats have long complained that part of the reason that the government of a swing state like Florida is dominated by Republicans is because of gerrymandering.
Reichelderfer repeatedly denied that he provided specific feedback to Cannon and Kirk Pepper, one of the speaker’s top aides, on how to craft new districts that would help the GOP.
“I didn’t give them maps that I drew,” Reichelderfer said. “I didn’t tell them where to draw lines on the map. I didn’t tell them which maps they should pick.”
Any conversations Reichelderfer had with the two, he said, concerned “global” issues in redistricting, like how to avoid drawing lines that would dilute minority voters’ ability to elect candidates of their own choice, potentially leading to a challenge to the maps under the federal Voting Rights Act.
David King, a lawyer for the groups currently fighting the maps, repeatedly pressed Reichelderfer on email conversations with Pepper, in particular. And he highlighted the fact that the political consultant often got a peek at proposed districts weeks before they were released by the House.
“But if you got the maps well before they were made public, it gave you the opportunity to give Speaker Cannon advice about the maps. Is that correct?” King asked.
“But I didn’t do that sir,” Reichelderfer responded.
King also highlighted a Nov. 27, 2011, email conversation between Reichelderfer and Pepper about a congressional map that Pepper provided to Reichelderfer through an online program known as Dropbox.
“Actually, the Webster seat is a bit messed up,” Reichelderfer wrote, referring to the Central Florida district of Republican Congressman Dan Webster.
“Performance or geography,” Pepper responded.
Reichelderfer said he didn’t specifically recall responding to Pepper. And he said he didn’t know for a fact that Pepper was trying to find out whether the map was “messed up” because of geography or how it would perform politically.
“Well, how else could you interpret that three-word sentence?” King asked.
“I don’t know why he asked that question,” Reichelderfer answered.
During cross-examination, George Meros, an attorney for the Legislature, pointed to election results that went against the GOP or Republican incumbents, including the drawing of lines in South Florida that contributed to the defeat of firebrand Republican Congressman Allen West.
Meros also got Reichelderfer to say that, by the time the state’s online redistricting software and Census results were both available, political consultants like Reichelderfer were told that they would not “have a seat at the table” when lawmakers began drawing districts.
“And you didn’t have a seat at the table at any time from then until the map was enacted with regard to any line on that map, correct?” Meros asked.
“Yes, sir,” Reichelderfer said, “that’s correct.”