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Diamond discusses campaign suspension, redistricting battle

Mark Parker

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Following a redistricting map that drew his home out of the district he serves, Rep. Ben Diamond suspended his congressional campaign. Photos provided.

After spending the last six years representing his hometown, state Rep. Ben Diamond suspended his congressional campaign Thursday, falling victim to a redistricting map that splits St. Petersburg in two.

His announcement came less than a month after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a personally crafted congressional map into law. The map, which DeSantis created during a special session after tossing the legislature’s proposals that aligned with the state’s “Fair Districts” amendment, drew Diamond and his family’s home out of the district he was vying to represent in Washington – Florida’s 13th.

The legislator told the St. Pete Catalyst it was a privilege to serve the residents of his birthplace in Tallahassee over the last six years – and he has no desire to represent any area other than his home. He added that he never considered uprooting his family and moving across town.

“Candidly, we don’t think we should have to,” said Diamond.

“We’re one city. I’m a St. Pete resident on the east side of town just as much as somebody is a St. Pete resident on the west side of town, and the idea that we’re divided now … it’s just not right.”

“It’s just not right” was a common refrain for Diamond when discussing the new congressional map that uses 34th Street as a demarcation to split the city.

Diamond said that with ballot qualifying taking place the second week of June and with a long legal fight ahead, he decided to put his hopes of representing St. Petersburg in Washington on hold – for now.

“As soon as these districts are fair and legal, I fully intend to resume my campaign,” said Diamond. “But I decided it wasn’t right to use the resources we’ve raised in a seat that’s been rigged against us and a seat that I don’t even live in.”

It is not like the St. Petersburg lawmaker was a congressional dark horse. Diamond was quick to note that after announcing his intention to succeed U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist last May, a fellow Democrat now running for governor, his fundraising efforts paced the field.

His Democratic Primary opponents included state Rep. Michele Rayner and Eric Lynn, a former senior presidential advisor to President Barack Obama. Diamond outraised them both.

“We raised 1.2 million dollars (as of March) – and what’s amazing about that – is most of that support is local, and a tremendous amount of it is grassroots supporters that gave $100 or less,” said Diamond. “And we also got a lot of great endorsements from over 30 elected officials here in Pinellas County, and even Congressman Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader.”

“I never even contemplated the thought of running against Castor,” said Diamond. “We are friends, and she is a very good rep.”

The most offensive thing about gerrymandering, said Diamond, is that it allows politicians to choose their constituents rather than letting voters choose their representatives. The governor took the majority of Pinellas Democrats – including Diamond’s entire House seat and his physical house – and lumped them in with U.S. Rep Kathy Castor’s reliably blue 14th Congressional District across the bay.

Diamond considers Castor, whose district was historically confined to Hillsborough County, a dear friend. Diamond said the redistricting map “rigged” a safe Republican seat in Pinellas while expanding a safe Democratic district across open water, “and I just don’t think that is right.”

He is an ardent supporter of Castor and her public service efforts and called her a terrific person. The congresswoman from Tampa now represents him and a large portion of Pinellas County in Washington.

“I never even contemplated the thought of running against Castor,” said Diamond. “We are friends, and she is a very good rep.”

After speaking to lawyers involved in the ensuing litigation over the new map, Diamond, also an attorney, said they felt the best way forward was to suspend his campaign and assist the fight in court. Once he feels his birthplace again resides in a fair and legal district, he plans to resume his journey to the nation’s capital.

“The new map is particularly bad for St. Petersburg because it really diminishes our voice and our influence, in my opinion, in Washington,” said Diamond. “You have these iconic St. Petersburg landmarks – St. Petersburg City Hall, the Pier, the ‘Trop – are all now in a Tampa-based district.

“I don’t even live in the Pinellas district anymore. It’s absurd, and it’s wrong.”

Diamond expects a lengthy battle in court over the new congressional map. As with any lawsuit, he said both parties would look further into what happened and how it happened during a discovery period, and eventually, judges would set the cases for trial. He noted the first judge to assess the lawsuit declared the map unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith – who DeSantis appointed – declared the map unconstitutional under the state’s Fair District amendment. Smith ordered a replacement from Harvard Professor Stephen Ansolabehere and stated that “it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice.”

The state is appealing the decision that marks the first salvo in a legal battle expected to reach the state Supreme Court. State legislators anticipated a fight, setting aside $1 million in taxpayer dollars to defend the new map.

“Like all lawsuits, it’s going to take some time,” said Diamond. “But I’m evaluating any way I can be helpful in that process.

“At the end of the day, I think the courts will do the right thing here and restore a district for the entire city.”

Diamond, also a St. Peterburg-based attorney, told his supporters to “stay tuned.” “I still have a lot of fight in me,” he said.

St. Petersburg residents take pride in their city’s diversity – political and otherwise. Diamond said that similar to his House seat, St. Pete consists of nearly an identical number of Democrats and Republicans “and a whole bunch of independents.”

The city, said Diamond, has a history of electing officials willing to work across the aisle to better the community. He noted that as a kid growing up in St. Pete, that was Congressman Bill Young’s approach, followed by Congressmen David Jolly and now Charlie Crist – who he said “epitomizes” the type of approach that puts people ahead of politics.

“That type of leadership will prevail for our community,” Diamond said confidently. “Once we get rid of these gerrymandered districts.”

 

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