CVD homepage
What's new?
Online library
Order materials
Get involved!
About CVD

Boston Globe

Redistricting aids incumbents, but hurts minorities
By Cindy Rodriguez
October 13, 2002

In late summer 2001, Larry DiCara - the politically connected lawyer and high school friend of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran - spent days that stretched into nights in a sub-basement office at the State House, eyeing huge maps.

He faced an unwieldy task: using data from the 2000 Census to reconfigure political boundaries that would affect elections for the next decade. Watchdog groups clamored for access to the closed-door process. Then came Sept. 11, and the redistricting fight fell from public attention.

Yet DiCara pressed on, with heavy input from Finneran.

By the time advocates realized it, the final House redistricting plan was a done deal: Legislators approved the changes in about three days with no public hearings.

The new maps reveal curious changes. Finneran's 12th Suffolk District, composed of mostly black Mattapan, now consumed more of Milton and became 15 percentage points whiter. The voting-age population of Finneran loyalist Kevin Fitzgerald's Mission Hill district became 13 percentage points whiter. And the city lost a ''majority-minority'' district.

These seemed like unnatural changes for House districts in Boston, where between 1990 and 2000 the city itself became mostly minority, with the number of whites falling by 47,000 and minorities growing by 53,000.

But a Globe analysis of Massachusetts politics has found that protection of incumbents in the redistricting process is one of several obstacles minorities face in gaining access to power. Together, the barriers to the political growth of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians create a system that can be daunting if not impenetrable.

Though the 2000 Census shows that minorities make up 18 percent of the state population, the state's political leadership is all white. It's been three decades since a non-white candidate won a major statewide office, when Edward W. Brooke was reelected to the Senate.

No man or woman of color has ever occupied the governor's office, and the 160-seat House of Representatives has just eight minority members: five African-Americans and three Latinos. Of the 40 state senators, only one is not white: Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat elected in 1993.

There are a wide range of obstacles: lack of organization at the grass-roots level, historically low voter turnout, persistent ethnic bloc-voting patterns, and few qualified minority candidates willing to run for office.

But political specialists say Latino, African-American, and Asian constituencies and candidates have been most consistently stymied by redistricting, the continuous reconfiguration of political boundaries.

Incumbents use their influence to create ''safe seats'' - districts tailored to fit their constituency, a powerful advantage that helps them defeat or discourage challengers year after year. Analysts say it's a key reason why nearly two-thirds of all state races have gone uncontested in recent years.

''Massachusetts is a classic example of this,'' said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization near Washington, D.C. ''It's a state that has an inordinate number of safe seats where voters have little chance of getting new representation.''

So much is at stake in the redistricting process that voting-rights lawsuits have ricocheted from one court to the next, one appeal after another, taking years to resolve. But those who have studied redistricting say it always boils down to this: When legislators are in charge, they often change district boundaries to protect themselves, their friends, and their party.

And that can leave minorities on the outside looking in.

Those familiar with last summer's redistricting process watched it unfold in two ways: an open, inclusive style in the Senate, and a closed one in the House, conducted by Finneran - perhaps the most powerful politician in the state.

The Senate Redistricting Committee invited public participation. Groups met with the committee chairman, Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, sharing maps and exchanging opinions. When the Senate maps were finished, no one complained.

The House Redistricting Committee leadership, on the other hand, was accused of shutting out advocates: ignoring phone calls, e-mails, and letters demanding a say in the process.

When the new maps were finally revealed, voter advocates say, it was too late. Though they seethed over the changes, the process had gone so far that formal approval was inevitable.

The Boston-based districts of Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Malia, both Democrats, had shifted from a majority of minority voters to a mostly white electorate. Insiders say the change was to protect Fitzgerald, who later chose not to run for reelection. And Finneran's district gained more than enough white precincts in Milton to offset minority immigration in Mattapan.

So where did all the black voters in the Mattapan portion of Finneran's district wind up? In the district of Democrat Shirley Owens-Hicks, an African-American, who saw her minority constituency rise from 83 percent to 98 percent. '

'It's appalling. What they did is called `packing,''' said Giovanna Negretti, executive director of the political action group? Oiste?. ''In order to whiten [Finneran's] district, they had to put the communities of color somewhere, so they packed them'' into Owens-Hicks's district.

Neither Finneran nor the House Redistricting chairman, Thomas M. Petrolati, returned phone calls from the Globe seeking comment. But DiCara said he had no choice but to make the changes because related parts of the city, including Jamaica Plain and Mattapan, lost population according to the census.

''It's tricky work,'' said DiCara, 53, a former Boston city councilor and authority on redistricting, whose firm won the state contract. ''Changing one ward could affect 15 precincts. It's like a tube of toothpaste. If you squeeze in one spot, it's going to come out some place else.''

Besides, DiCara said, race is not that important to most voters. That thinking, he added, underestimates the complexity of politics in a city where neighborhoods are integrated and diversity is considered a virtue.

But to those who say race still matters in politics, the change in boundaries had a staggering effect: There is now one less majority-minority House district in Boston.

On the new maps, the total drops from six to five. In a city with a population that is now more than half minority, watchdog groups say eight mostly-minority Boston districts - a little less than half of the 17-district total - would have been fairer.

''The process was unfair. The incumbents redrew lines so they can choose who will vote for them,'' said George Pillsbury, policy director of BostonVote, a grassroots voter registration organization. ''The process was about protecting incumbents, but when the incumbents are overwhelmingly white, then it winds up keeping Latinos, blacks, and other minorities from breaking through in Massachusetts politics.''

In particular, they say the fact that Chelsea - on the cusp of becoming majority Latino - is still lumped with mostly -white Charlestown in the 2nd Suffolk District dilutes Latino political power. Instead, they say, Chelsea should be joined with East Boston, which is demographically similar.

Advocates also say that the changes in Malia's and Fitzgerald's districts drained strength from Latino and black voters in Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill. Before redistricting, most of the voting-age residents in both Malia's 11th Suffolk District and Fitzgerald's 15th Suffolk District were minorities.

When the new boundaries were drawn, Malia's district lost chunks of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury and gained a swath of Roslindale, transforming it from 62 percent minority to 49 percent minority in the process. Fitzgerald's district traded parts of J.P. and Roxbury for a slice of Brookline, and suddenly his district went from 54 percent minority to 41 percent.

On a map, Fitzgerald's district is one of the oddest-shaped in the state, resembling a torso with an arm stretching out into neighboring Brookline. Many residents in Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill say that configuration waters down their vote.

In June, a dozen residents and three political advocacy organizations filed two lawsuits, alleging the House districts in Chelsea and in the Jamaica Plain-Mission Hill sections of Boston violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They say that the way those districts are now configured, a person of color has little chance of winning election there.

But they were proved wrong when political newcomer Jeffrey Sanchez won a six-way race for Fitzgerald's old seat in the Sept. 17 Democratic primary. Sanchez, who learned the ropes as a liaison for Mayor Thomas Menino, won 32 percent of the vote, propelling him to virtual victory in November. (No Republican is running, and Sanchez's lone challenger, an independent, is seen as a long shot.)

Sanchez's win is proof that candidates don't need a majority-minority electorate to win, said Abigail Thernstrom of Lexington, a commissioner on the US Commission on Civil Rights and author of the award-winning 1987 book ''Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights.''

She said minority candidates don't win in white districts because ''so few black and Latino candidates will run in districts that are not safe.''

''All politicians like safe districts, and potential Latino and black candidates have equated safety with a population that is majority minority,'' Thernstrom said. But political ideology, she added, is more important.

''We've been pasting racial and ethnic labels on voters as if all black voters think alike and all white voters think alike, and as if blacks can't represent white interests and as if whites can't represent black interests,'' she said. ''And that's a very unfortunate way of thinking.''

top of page

Copyright 2002     The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912
(301) 270-4616        [email protected]