NEWS BUZZ

WHEN POLITICIANS CHOOSE THEIR VOTERS

In Florida, as in many states, we have representatives who — how to say this? — are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer

Charles Van Zant Sr.
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In Florida, as in many states, we have representatives who — how to say this? — are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. Take state Rep. Charles Van Zant Sr., R-Palatka. Back in March, Van Zant went to a conference in Orlando, got on stage and inveighed against Common Core.

Not because of this state’s addiction to high-stakes testing or any other of a million halfway-intelligent arguments you could make against Common Core. No, Van Zant doesn’t like Common Core because he believes the company the state has contracted to develop the tests will “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.”

Van Zant, despite being ridiculed mercilessly on the Internet, is almost certain to be re-elected this November. He ran unopposed in 2012. No one has filed to run against him this year. And this is not unusual: Of the 120 Florida House districts, nearly half are uncontested, and of the ones that are, only a small handful are actually competitive.

It’s easy to blame the way state lawmakers have carved their own districts, but the research is clear that the decennial redistricting matters less than most people think; more important are the power of incumbency and how different types of people choose to group themselves (liberals, for instance, tend to pack themselves in urban areas, giving conservatives an advantage elsewhere).

But that doesn’t mean redistricting doesn’t matter, or that when, in 2010, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to depoliticize the process, it wasn’t a good thing. And it certainly doesn’t mean the Republicans were right to ignore those voters and draw up boundaries whatever damn way they pleased, which is exactly what the League of Women Voters argues they did.

Last week, during testimony in a lawsuit the League brought over how congressional districts were drawn, a former House aide testified that GOP operatives got advanced copies of the maps (nothing fishy there!). We also learned that House minions deleted an untold number of emails about the process (there either!). And Speaker Will Weatherford testified that he and Senate President Don Gaetz met behind closed doors and decided to drop even more African-Americans in Corrine Brown’s gerrymander of a district — thus making the surrounding districts whiter — but that this was certainly not political. (Per the Associated Press: Weatherford “told the court that Gaetz and the Senate had given the House a ‘compelling reason’ to make the changes … . But he had difficulty recalling what those reasons were … .”)

There’s no perfect way to draw districts — especially when self-interested politicians are doing the drawing — or to rid ourselves of districts that make it easy for Mensa candidates like Van Zant. But to believe, as Weatherford claimed, that “the politics of the map-making was not important to me” requires even more credulity than thinking Common Core will queer your kids.

The Seismic Gateway
Turns out we’re not the only ones worried about whether blasting seismic air-guns into the Atlantic Ocean to find deposits of oil — which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates could jeopardize the livelihoods of 100,000 fishermen and injure 138,000 marine mammals — is such a hot idea [News, “Save the Whales!” Susan Cooper Eastman, March 26].

In Northeast Florida, the St. Johns County Commission, St. Augustine City Commission and the town of St. Augustine Beach were among 14 coastal communities that passed a resolution expressing concerns about the damage air-gun testing might wreak on marine life. Even Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown sent a letter to the BOEM on May 7 asking for caution. This follows another letter of opposition, sent April 17, from members of Florida’s congressional delegation, including Bill Nelson and Corrine Brown.

“I just think people realize there is nothing in it for us, that it’s the seismic gateway to drilling, and most don’t want to see oil and gas [mined] off our coast,” says Matanzas (and former St. Johns) Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon.

The BOEM’s two-month public comment period ended May 7. The agency has not yet announced its final decision.

Fun postscript: On May 16, the Times-Union published an op-ed by Armingeon, which he concluded by encouraging readers to email the BOEM — an admonishment that would have been more useful a few weeks earlier.

“Just to be clear,” Armingeon clarified on his Facebook page, “the comment period has closed. Sadly, the TU sat on this letter for almost 2 months. Do not try and email BOEM.”

Demand Better

By the time you read this, there’s a good chance the Jacksonville City Council will have already approved a 20-year extension of the city’s 6-cent gas tax. (The vote is scheduled for Tuesday night, after we go to press.) And there’s a good chance this happened without the hue and cry you’d expect from a $30-million-a-year tax, especially a $30-million-a-year tax Mayor Brown is on record as opposing (though he hasn’t issued a veto threat either). Brown’s office argues that there’s no rush, since the current gas tax doesn’t expire for two years.

Five of these six cents will fund JTA’s operations; the other penny will be split between roads and bike and pedestrian projects — 80 percent roads, 20 percent other stuff. This is Jacksonville, after all.

We mention this in the context of a new report out last week from Smart Growth America, which found that Jacksonville is the nation’s third most dangerous place to be a pedestrian, and to suggest that maybe we need to adjust our priorities.

That’s not to say the city is doing nothing: Brown appointed the city’s first bike and pedestrian safety coordinator, for which he deserves kudos. And Brown spokesman David DeCamp says the city is also increasingly factoring bike and pedestrian traffic into its transportation plans, and trying to raise awareness among drivers that there are bicyclists out there and they shouldn’t run them over. Also good.

But ultimately, it comes down to money. There are too many roads without sidewalks or bike paths, too many crossings without crosswalks, and, consequently, there were 359 unnecessary deaths between 2003 and 2012. If we really want to be a bike- and pedestrian-friendlier city, we’re going to have to demand it. And be willing to pay for it.

Tags: Rep. Charles Van Zant Sr., Common Core, St. Johns County Commission, St. Augustine City Commission, Mayor Alvin Brown, Jacksonville, Bill Nelson, Corrine Brown
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