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