First, a little rumor-busting: Flagler County County Commissioner Milissa Holland is not running for Congress, whether John Mica is going to try to run again or not. Commissioner Barbara Revels, who came closest as a Flagler County representative to winning a seat in the Legislature in many years, isn’t running for a Florida House or Senate seat, either, even though Bill proctor (who defeated Revels six years ago for a House seat) is term-limited. And Colleen Conklin isn’t about to run for the county commission, as that would pit her against Revels in a Democratic primary.
Between the decennial redistricting of legislative and congressional boundaries and term limits, Flagler County has big opportunities and potentially big losses ahead—depending on how you see things, and which way those boundaries go.
The opportunities: If the Florida House redistricting plan is approved, both for Congress and the Legislature, Flagler would end up being at the heart of the new districts. Its voice would be especially amplified in a new House District 24, with Flagler kept whole, with a portion of Volusia County and a portion of St. Johns. But the dominant voting bloc would be Flagler’s. That, plus Proctor no longer being a factor, opens a big opportunity for a Flagler County politician to essentially take back the seat for Flagler, something the county hasn’t had in two generations. The State Senate boundaries are less attractive: they’d split Flagler down the middle, with both new State Senate seats shared with constituents lurching into St. Johns and Duval counties.
There may be opportunities for Flagler in congressional redistricting, too, but less so, as Flagler remains a bit part in whatever district encompasses it. Still, the House plan keeps Flagler whole as well, making it the geographic center of a new congressional seat, with Volusia, Putnam and St. Johns on the periphery. Proposed Congressional District 6 would essentially follow the same boundaries as the 7th Judicial district (an appetizing prospect for, say, a state attorney who tires of imprisoning criminals and decides to join the miscreants in Washington instead).
Here are the drawbacks: Flagler County could lose two very powerful voices. For the past several years, Flagler hasn’t had direct representation either in Tallahassee or in Washington, but what representation it has had has risen to seniority posts with considerable political power.
John Mica, a Republican, is chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee. His rhetoric about small government aside, Mica has used the position to shovel dollars to the district, in highway and some rail projects, and most notably, recently, in the form of a new control tower at the Flagler County Airport, which will allow an additional class of planes to land here.
John Thrasher, also a Republican, chairs the rules committee and is vice-chairman of the budget subcommittee on higher education appropriations. His voice has helped Flagler County’s issues carry weight, especially in the county’s recent battle over the Hammock Dunes development—which Flagler won, in a case that went all the way to the Florida Cabinet, with Thrasher’s help.
Bill Proctor in the House—also a Republican—has been less of a factor. His interest in Flagler County has seemed as peripheral as its geography. But he had seniority. That will end, too.
But Revels, now chairing the county commission and the county’s newly created jobs council, isn’t looking to run again for that seat. She refers to a climate of arrogance at the Legislature that isn’t responsive to constituents’ realities. “The way the current legislature is, the Rs and the Ds and the way they operate, the things they’ve done to Florida,” Revels said, “you’d just be a fish running against the stream and I just don’t have a desire to go up there and beat my head against the wall. But Flagler County needs somebody, soon. Because if the House of Representatives map is adopted as we currently see it, Flagler County being the bulk of a house seat, and it’s our first ever option in 50-some years to actually have true representation in Tallahassee, we need to have a very strong voice up there, which we just haven’t had.”
Meanwhile, there are vast uncertainties. First, the redistricting lines are likely to be fought over in court before they’re finally approved. Second, Mica is shopping for a new home. His home, Winter Park, has been carved out of his old district. It’s not clear whether he’ll choose to run in that same district, pitting him in a primary against Sandy Adams, or whether he’ll hop over to the 6th Congressional District—Flagler’s—and hope to seduce his old constituents, with quite a few new ones.
His last Democratic challenger, Heather Beavens, who is from Flagler County, could not be reached Tuesday, but Dan Parham, who chairs the local Democratic Party, says it’s very likely she’ll jump in. “Heather I think is playing her cards close to the vest, waiting and seeing,” Parham said, “but let me just put it this way: if the redistricting basically gives Flagler County someone who’s covering the whole district, I’m sure she’ll jump in.”
One Democrat has already announced: Vipin Verma, a Daytona Beach attorney. And Fred Costello, the Republican member of the Florida House, has shown interest in running for the congressional seat as well. There’s also, from Flagler, David Hochman, a writer and a local activist and leader of the Occupy movement.
Whoever runs, Parham has no illusions should Mica decide to shift this way. “I would prefer that he would go with whichever district covers the least amount of Flagler County,” Parham said of Mica, “and I would want my Democrat to run in the district that has the majority of Flagler. To be honest, Mica is a formidable opponent. He’s got the money, he has support among certain groups. So it’s not an easy task for whatever Democrat goes up against Mike. The past couple of elections he’s been challenged a little bit more. I think his problem, which is why he’s hunting, is he’s afraid of the primary. He was shook up in the primary in 2010, so I think he’s looking around in trying to determine if he has a tea party or some other candidate run up against him.”
But count Milissa Holland out. “I’ve heard those rumors for a few weeks now, and I have no interest to run for Congress,” Holland said Tuesday. “I love what I do here in Flagler County. It’s been my home for 24 years and I think I’ve had positive impact and I want to continue doing that.”
Holland credits Mica for doing good things for the county, but she doesn’t put as much stock in seniority for the sake of seniority. “On a larger scale when you’re talking about legi8slation that continues to funnel down to our communities, it’s not one size fits all,” Holland said. “I think there’s been too much division and partisan politics at play and ultimately it’s been the people that lose out time and again.” She sees a greater chance for Flagler’s own voice to be represented than has been the case in many years.
Craig Coffey, the county manager, has been keeping only a distant eye on the redistricting process because it’s still so unsettled. “Obviously any time you have a change, it has an impact in our community because we take our time, we get to know these folks, we develop a working relationship with them,” Coffey said. “You get a comfort with the person you’re dealing with and develop that relationship. Well, any time you change, whether it’s a commissioner, a manager, a legislator, you’ve got to rebuild those relationships. Right now, for us, on the federal level, Mica, I don’t think we’ve had a more powerful guy on the federal level, I don’t know what the history is, but probably in several decades. He’s one of the power brokers in the House now. He’s on major committees.”
Doug Baxter, president of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce and Affiliates, sees a Flagler delegation without Mica as “a great loss.” But he, too, is hopeful that Flagler’s own voice will have a chance to be heard in a realigned delegation. “It’s important that we have a whole lot less ambiguity within the district lines,” Baxter said. “We haven’t had a representative in Tallahassee in over 40 years. Over time we will again, with our population growing. If the lines are drawn where most of the voting bloc for that seat is in Flagler County instead of Volusia County or in St. Augustine, we have a chance.”
Baxter added: “We’re doing good. We are doing good within our own boundaries. We need to continue to do that. But we’re going to need some help from Tallahassee, we’re going to need some help from the federal government, at the end of the day. Our local politicians are helping us. They see what we need to do because they’re here every day. But they can only do so much. That’s the problem.”