AS JACKSONVILLE CITY COUNCIL REDISTRICTING PLAN NEARS ITS DEADLINE, RULES CHAIR CRITICIZES GERRYMANDERING CLAIMS


By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary


Despite hundreds of residents protesting redistricting plans at the city’s four public hearings, Jacksonville City Council members have yet to propose any substantial amendments to its maps.

At those hearings, not one person spoke in support of the plan. Instead, residents criticized the plan’s racial gerrymandering, its splitting of neighborhoods, its inaccurate use of census data, its lack of transparency and its lack of public input.

Rules Committee Chair Brenda Priestly Jackson called those arguments “fraught at best” and said she takes “great offense” to any argument that the plan disenfranchises Black voters.

The City Council plan packs a majority of Black residents into just four of the city’s 14 districts. Those districts’ voting-age populations range from 57% to 68% Black.

Time is running out for the city to change its plans. The City Council must approve new plans by April 12. The Rules Committee is scheduled to debate and vote on the plans Tuesday when council members can still propose amendments.

Then the City Council will meet a week later. While council members could propose further changes at that meeting, it will effectively be too late. If changes are approved, the city charter would require the plan to go back to the Rules Committee for an extra public hearing by March 27, according to a city attorney’s memo.

Isaiah Rumlin, president of the local NAACP branch, said he still intends to sue the city if it doesn't change its redistricting plans. He said he didn't expect the plans to change between now and Tuesday.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," he said. "Normally, elected officials try and attempt to do everything they can to stay in office as it relates to redrawing of the districts."

Packing in Black voters into a handful of districts reduces Black residents' political power so that most City Council seats have negligible Black populations.

Three of the city's five Black Democrats — City Council members Brenda Priestly Jackson, Ju'Coby Pitman and Reggie Gaffney — have defended the plan.

Pitman and Gaffney objected to white Republican voters being added to their districts. They said they needed to know the demographics of anyone added to their districts. Priestly Jackson said she didn't want any changes made in her Black-majority district.

So far only two council members have criticized the redistricting plan: Democrat Garrett Dennis, who said the plan constitutes gerrymandering, and Republican Rory Diamond, who said he doesn’t support protecting incumbents, which was one of the redistricting committee’s top priorities.

The Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the American Civil Liberties Union Northeast Florida Chapter, Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters and the Jacksonville NAACP commissioned an academic study and threatened to sue the city if it didn't change the redistricting plans.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville talks at the redistricting public hearing at William M. Raines High School. [Amanda Rosenblatt / The Tributary]

The study, performed by the University of Texas' Hannah Walker, confirmed past Tributary reporting that found the council didn’t need to pack districts as high as they are to ensure Black voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates.

But the study didn’t persuade Priestly Jackson. She said those speaking out were concerned about "ideology and policy," not protecting Black voters.

"The notion that the black electorate is somehow suppressed, or any electorate is somehow suppressed, I take great offense to any arguments to that effect," she told the Tributary last week. "That is not my experience, nor is that what I have seen in my time of service, and I don't know how you can say that when you have more African Americans elected than at any other time."

People spoke out against the maps more than 50 times at the four hearings. Most were Jacksonville residents, but some spoke for local or national organizations.

"The current proposed map also fails to address Jacksonville's pervasive and ongoing record of inequality of opportunity in various aspects of life," said Alejandra Granado of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "You have heard and will continue to hear that this is the paramount concern for your constituents. Communities of color in Jacksonville are already underrepresented in the political life of the state and have been left behind from many of the economic opportunities of the past decade."

Alejandra Granado of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund talks at the redistricting public hearing at William M. Raines High School. [Amanda Rosenblatt / The Tributary]

Alexander Watkins of Black Voters Matter said the council members' intent wasn't what mattered. "We understand that it was not the intent of the [redistricting] committee to pack these districts," he said. "However, nonetheless, that is the result of what occurred. And as such, it should be addressed."

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition called for an independent consultant to take over the process, "We demand that this gerrymandered redistricting plan for City Council districts be scrapped, banned, abolished. Why? Because it's simply unfair to Black residents, intentionally packing in Black people into a few districts beyond what is necessary hurts our ability to impact city politics countywide because it dilutes our power, our strength."

A recent University of North Florida poll found that 89% of Jacksonville residents don’t trust City Council to handle redistricting fairly.

The City Council's decision to pack Jacksonville's districts to such high percentages came despite clear precedent last decade when courts redrew one of the city's congressional districts. The Florida Supreme Court found the Legislature arbitrarily made the 5th District majority-Black when a lower percentage would still protect Black voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates.

The city's lawyers, however, have misstated the law. In its memo outlining redistricting case law, city attorneys even rewrote the language used in opinions to change the opinions' meaning. The city's Office of General Counsel has ignored The Tributary's repeated requests for comment over the past year.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville talks at the redistricting public hearing at William M. Raines High School. [Amanda Rosenblatt / The Tributary]

"Under certain circumstances, [districting entities] must draw [minority/majority] districts in which minority groups form effective majorit[ies]," the memo quoted one opinion, adding in a footnote that "opportunity districts" was synonymous with "minority/majority."

The opinion actually said, "under certain circumstance [sic], States must draw 'opportunity' districts in which minority groups form 'effective majorit[ies].'"

In a footnote, the city's lawyers misinterpreted court opinions further, saying that a U.S. Supreme Court opinion mandates minority-majority districts. But that's not what the opinion said, and in a later opinion, the Supreme Court said the case said the opposite. "This is a far cry from saying that states must create majority-[Black voting-age population] districts wherever possible — in fact, the case stands for the opposite proposition."

Effectively, the city's lawyers told City Council members they must draw districts that were at least 50% Black, even though courts have repeatedly said that setting a 50% quota is illegal unless the city believes that is what's necessary to preserve Black voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates.

That wasn't the only area where misinformation seemingly influenced the City Council's decision-making.

At one of the public hearings last month, Priestly Jackson criticized what she said were residents' "significant gap in knowledge" about the districts' history. She said she'd give a historical presentation at the next hearing to correct the record, but she never followed through.

Earlier in the redistricting process, Priestly Jackson referred at a few points to a consent decree where a federal judge had supposedly mandated the city's four Black-majority districts. But it doesn't appear such an order ever actually existed.

City Council staff told the Tributary that they couldn't find any evidence of a consent decree in all their research of redistricting history. City lawyers couldn't find one either.

Alexander Watkins of Black Voters Matter talks to other attendees at a Jacksonville City Council redistricting hearing. [Amanda Rosenblatt / The Tributary]

Priestly Jackson told The Tributary she would send a copy of the decree. But she stopped answering questions about it and never forwarded a copy of the supposed court order.

Warren Jones, who served nearly 30 years on City Council, including during the 1981, 1991 and 2011 redistricting cycles, said he wasn’t aware of any consent decree.

City law requires all districts be drawn in “as logical and compact a geographical pattern as it is possible to achieve”, and the “districts must take into consideration other factors, particularly compactness and contiguity, so that the people of the City, and their varied economic, social and ethnic interests and objectives, are adequately represented in the Council.”

Yet some of the districts, including Priestly Jackson’s, reflect tortured shapes that snake across the Northside and Westside.

Priestly Jackson defended the redistricting plan by pointing to the fact that there are currently seven Black council members, including five Democrats elected to neighborhood seats and two Republicans elected countywide.

"An argument made that the actions of this council have thereby diluted the voice and vote of any group based solely on their ethnoracial identity is fraught at best," she said.

But federal voting laws protect voters, not candidates or elected officials. Redistricting, in certain cases, is supposed to protect Black voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates. It doesn’t matter if those candidates are Black or not.

For example, Walker's report found that Council President Sam Newby and Council Vice President Terrance Freeman, both of whom are Black Republicans, were not the preferred candidates of Black voters. Freeman received 13% of the Black vote when first elected in 2019, Walker found. Newby received 1% of the Black vote when first elected in 2015.

This is Changing Florida, a Tributary newsletter keeping you up to date on redistricting, demographics and the fight for political power in the Sunshine State.

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On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee will debate and vote on the redistricting plan on Tuesday at 2 p.m. at City Hall.


What You Need To Know

The Tributary has put together a primer on redistricting ahead of Thursday's final public hearing to help residents better understand the issues.

The ACLU of Florida also put together a public comment toolkit for Jacksonville redistricting.

Some local Democratic-leaning organizations also put together an extensive guide explaining the background of Jacksonville redistricting and suggested recommendations.


Submit your maps

We want to see what you think Jacksonville’s 14 City Council districts should look like.

Here’s how you can get started drawing your own maps.

  • Go to DavesRedistricting.org.
  • Create an account.
  • Go to DavesRedistricting.org/maps.
  • Select New Map.
  • Choose Florida as your state.
  • Select “Other” as your plan type.
  • Restrict to Duval.
  • Select 14 districts.
  • Click apply and it will take you to a new screen where you can begin drawing districts.

When you're done, send a link to your map to info@jaxtrib.org, so we can feature your map in a future newsletter.

Andrew Pantazi is the founding editor of The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He and his wife,...