OUR POSITION: Can Sarasota County overcome the appearance of gerrymandering? Will North Port have one of its own on commission?
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for political gerrymandering, redistricting conducted the Sarasota County Commission will face even more scrutiny.
As we’ve said before, it will be difficult for commissioners to avoid the appearance they’re “rigging” the districts, if only subtly, to favor themselves and the interests of their party, the Republicans.
Three of five commission seats are open in 2020. One district will have a new face — Nokomis-Venice Commissioner Charles Hines will leave the board because of term limits. Two others — Venice’s Nancy Detert and Sarasota’s Mike Moran — are serving their first terms and can run again. Their actions, chiefly, will be under the microscope.
Overriding all is the commission’s decision not to wait to redraw district boundaries until after the 2020 census is completed. We opposed the snap redistricting. To remove immediate doubt about political motivation in a critical year, we believe it would be fairer to wait until the census, which is the common practice.
But the process will proceed. Now, it must be as transparent, public and inclusive as possible, if it’s to be considered credible.
What makes this election most significant is the transition to single-member district voting. Up to now, commissioners lived in specific districts but were elected by a countywide vote. Republicans were best served by this structure. Sarasota County is GOP-heavy; the party is strong and well-financed. No Democrats have been elected to the commission in decades.
Last November, voters chose to switch to a single-member district system: Only voters in a particular district would vote for their commissioner. This is expected to disperse power and help candidates local with more limited campaign funds. It may give Democrats a fighting chance in northern Sarasota, which skews more Democratic than the rest of the county. This is especially true in Moran’s district.
(For the record, we also opposed the single-member district referendum.)
The new system could have dramatic implications in South County. Detert would be a prohibitive favorite, if she chose to run for re-election. In a countywide election, she would be a lock. But in a North Port-dominant District 3? Perhaps not.
North Port Mayor Chris Hanks has filed for the District 3 seat. Also in the race is Cory Hutchinson. Hanks showed surprising strength when he first ran for the City Commission. He could be a strong contender in a North Port-heavy district, assuming local popularity and assuming, as we do, that North Porters want one of their own on the County Commission.
North Port has grown considerably in the past decade, from 57,000 in 2010 to an estimated 70,000-plus this year. Any redrawn district may be roughly that size. That means the new District 3 should be, pretty much, a North Port seat.
No doubt, many in North Port would welcome that, considering the long-held local belief — accurate or not — that city residents have been underrepresented and under-served by the county over the years. In the new system, they’d lose political power with four other commissioners, but they could, finally, have one of their own.
They just might like that.