Latino voters look to Department of Justice for fair representation in Hillsborough

12/21/11 Janelle Irwin
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The Hillsborough County Commission doesn’t have a Latino board member and some people want that to change. Minority leaders are now asking the Department of Justice to intervene.

Hillsborough County is required to redraw its voting districts every ten years. Some leaders of the Latino community submitted a map they thought fairly represented their group. But in June commissioners voted to adopt a different one. Co-chair of the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, Victor DiMaio said the county’s map favors a different minority.

“For example, in the map that we presented, we used the Hillsborough River as a boundary to take in West Tampa. Right now the map strikes a dagger right through the middle of West Tampa because they’re using Howard and Armenia as the north/south, east/west dividing line. That cuts out – I’m now in the African American district. All of our Hispanic leaders all live in Wellswood which is near Tampa Catholic. That’s now part of the black district.”

The group’s plea to the Department of Justice is based on a law that requires Hillsborough, along with four other counties, to get pre-clearance from the agency for changes that impact voters. DiMaio said this process should be subject to that same review.

“So, we’re going to say ‘hey, wait a minute; Hillsborough County is one of five counties in the state of Florida that because of past racial and minority discrimination, has to be pre-cleared by the justice department’. That’s why we’re writing this letter to the justice department. Anything that goes on here – any precinct or any map, anything going on with redistricting with Hillsborough County – has to get special treatment because of the Voting Rights Act.”

Two Florida constitutional amendments that affect Congressional and Legislative voting districts set guidelines that are intended to keep them fair. Vice-chair of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus in Hillsborough County, Christopher Cano, said even though Hillsborough County Commission redistricting wasn’t subject to those rules, the proposed map Latino groups created was made with those guidelines in mind.

“I’ve shown them how the map that was drawn is drawn according to the way the new fair districts constitutional amendment asked to be drawn according to geographic boundaries, how it asked to be drawn not according to any political party and that was what we took into account.”

Hillsborough County Commission has seven elected board members. Only four of them represent single districts while the other three are at-large, meaning they represent the entire county. Cano supports a commission that is all single-member districts. He said that would better represent all groups.

“At-large seats are the big money seats. They are the seats that every special interest in this county is going to throw money at. So, to get a Hispanic candidate that comes from a community that tends to not be more affluent than some of the other demographic groups in this county is going to be difficult.”

The letter to the Department of Justice specifically asks that the Attorney General reject the county’s new map. Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition’s Victor DiMaio said based on laws against discrimination, their requests should be taken seriously.

“Once we do our letter today to Justice, we’re hoping that they tell the county commission that, ‘hey, you made a mistake you need to do it over’ and that’s what we’re hoping for. If that doesn’t work, we’re prepared to go to federal district court.”

The letter being sent to the Department of Justice said the county failed to provide clarifying information that would justify its motive for adopting their version of the map. The letter was signed and prepared for delivery during a press conference this afternoon at The Columbia restaurant in Ybor City.

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