It was spring in 2002, I was trying (and mostly failing) to manage Jan Schneider's congressional campaign in the 13th Congressional District. At one point, I got in a large, well-air-conditioned car driven by a wonderful man named Lowell Jones, who served as a volunteer and adviser to me and to Jan. His goal that day was to give me a full understanding of the district.
I wasn't prepared for that car ride. We started in the middle of the City of Sarasota, which boasts a Whole Foods, great restaurants, and a thriving arts scene, and headed west through Sarasota County, the southern dip of Manatee County, and on into Hardee County. By the time we got to DeSoto County I was depressed, not because those aren't great places in Florida -- they are, and they are beautiful. If you are looking for wide-open spaces representative of Florida's great, vast interior, those places are as good as any you will find.
If you're looking to tie together a common geography and demography in a Congressional District, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a more disparate one than the 13th.
How in the hell could you develop a campaign around a wealthy city with a progressive culture, incorporate a slightly smaller town which is also less progressive (Bradenton), and also be inclusive of the few folks who live in cattle country (not to mention the little bit of, inexplicably, Charlotte County)?
From just one car ride, I came to realize just how terrible Florida's 13th Congressional District really was for a Democrat (and why Katherine Harris, she of the Ben Hill Griffin ancestry in interior Highlands County, did so well there).
Here we are nearly ten years later, and the new map proposed under redistricting makes it a whole lot more favorable to Democrat Keith Fitzgerald and a whole lot less favorable to incumbent Republican crook Congressman Vern Buchanan. Jeremy Wallace at the Sarasota-Herald Tribune:
The new compromise map outlining Florida’s congressional district boundaries could complicate U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan’s re-election, with thousands of voters from Republican strongholds removed from his district and replaced by those in more Democratic areas.
In three campaigns, Buchanan has never lost Hardee, DeSoto or Charlotte. But during the same time, the sections of Manatee County he will gain have voted overwhelming for Castor, a Democrat.
In other words, the conservative "cowboy country" that Lowell drove me through all those years ago is now part of someone else's district (or will be if the maps weather legal challenges). It's true, those counties are much more lightly populated than Sarasota and Manatee, but it's what is being included in the district as much as what's being carved out.
Democrats say a better example of potential problems for Buchanan is the 2006 election, when Buchanan defeated Sarasota Democrat Christine Jennings by just 369 votes.
If the proposed lines had been in effect then, with all of Bradenton and Palmetto included, Jennings would have won the district by more than 3,000 votes.
Buchanan’s likely 2012 Democratic opponent, Keith Fitzgerald, downplayed the impact of the new lines, saying he only wants the Legislature to comply with the new constitutional amendment requiring more compact districts.
“We are very happy for the region that Sarasota and Manatee are contained within the same congressional district,” Fitzgerald said.
So does this new district -- which would be District 16 -- mean Keith is going to win the race in November? Not even close.
But this -- along with Keith's remarkable fundraising prowess, as well as his being picked by the DCCC to receive support, not to mention the ongoing ethical scandals plaguing Vern Buchanan -- is one component of what will make this one of the top races to watch in the nation.