Political opposites Clay and Alachua joined in new Senate district


The newly drawn Florida Senate District 7. (Source: Florida Senate)

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.

At opposite ends of the political spectrum, Alachua and Clay counties are now joined together in the Florida Senate.

The redrawn maps that the Florida Supreme Court validated on Friday place the Republican stronghold of Clay and heavily Democratic Alachua together with Bradford County in the newly drawn District 7.

The pairing comes to the chagrin of Alachua County Democratic leaders, who consider it the political equivalent of mixing oil and water and a threat to a 32-year streak of having a homegrown state senator.

"I think it is not good for Alachua County," said Rod Smith, a former state senator from Alachua County and the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "I think it will dilute Alachua County's vote over the next decade. We have a strong history of having someone from Alachua County in the Senate."

On the other hand, a Clay County Republican leader considers the new districts — in both the Florida Senate and House — a gift to a politically active county that previously had its influence lessened by being carved up among several districts.

"We are very fortunate," Clay County Republican Party Chairman Leslie Dougher said. "We are the recipients of a very wonderful gift right now, because we were split. We were like a cookie cutter."

Although the official candidate qualifying period is June 4-8, right now the Senate 7 race would feature Alachua County Democrat Brian Scarborough, the co-owner of Scarborough Insurance, against Clay County Republican Rob Bradley, a former Clay County commissioner and a managing partner in the Orange Park law firm of Kopelousos & Bradley.

Under the maps in place for the last decade, Clay was divided among two state Senate districts and five House districts. Now, the county is in one Senate district and two House districts.

While Democrats were the majority (57.4 percent) in Alachua County's former Senate District 14 when it was drawn in 2002, registered Republicans will outnumber Democrats in the newly drawn District 7, according to voter registration numbers from the Alachua, Bradford and Clay supervisors of elections.

Approximately 40.7 percent of the new district's registered voters are Republicans, approximately 38.9 percent are Democrats, and 20.7 percent are independents or members of another political party.

"I wouldn't call it a safe Republican seat," said Alachua County-based Republican political consultant Alex Patton. "I would call it a Republican-leaning seat."

As of Tuesday, Alachua County had 76,111 registered Democrats, 43,868 registered Republicans and 32,632 voters who either belonged to another party or had no affiliation. Clay County, on the other hand, has 70,634 registered Republicans, 31,549 Democrats and 25,911 who are independents or members of another party. So it's no surprise that the voting majorities of Alachua and Clay typically head in opposite directions.

In the 2008 presidential election, 59.99 percent of Alachua County voters voted for Democrat Barack Obama. In Clay County, Republican John McCain received 70.9 percent of the vote.

In the 2006 U.S. Senate race, Democrat Bill Nelson received 68.3 percent of the vote in Alachua County, and Republican Katherine Harris received 59.69 percent of the vote in Clay County.

"Clay is an ultra-conservative county and, this being a progressive county, we are concerned about that," said Jon Reiskind, the chairman of the Alachua County Democratic Party. "Clay is probably — if not the most — close to the most Republican-dominated county in the state."

The legal challenge that the Florida Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters of Florida and other plaintiffs launched against the redrawn districts that the Republican-controlled Senate approved in March — after the Supreme Court ruled that several districts approved in the first redistricting vote were unconstitutional — argued that District 7 should be ruled invalid because a neighboring district did not meet constitutional requirements or the criteria of the Fair Districts amendments.

The Florida Democratic Party argued that the adjacent Senate District 8 was unconstitutional because it split Daytona Beach's minority and Democratic voters into separate districts to the benefit of Republican candidates.

Between the Senate's March vote on district maps and the Florida Supreme Court hearings last week, Smith met with state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the chairman of the Senate reapportionment committee, and tried to broker a deal on alternative maps proposed by the Florida Democratic Party.

The Florida Democratic Party also submitted those maps to the Supreme Court as an alternative plan. Under it, Alachua County would have been separated from Clay County and put in a Senate district that included Putnam County and a large piece of Marion County.

"They had a map I didn't agree with," Smith said of Senate Republicans. "We had a map I believe accomplished the objectives of the Fair Districts amendments."

While he has objections to the new district, Reiskind said he feels it meets the requirement to be compact and contiguous by consisting of three counties in their entirety.

By comparison, Senate District 14 was centered around Alachua County and spanned all or part of eight counties in total.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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