The City Council’s first stab at a redistricting map ignited a political firestorm last week with lines that would have cut Chinatown in half.
The map, drawn by Redistricting Committee Chairman Bill Linehan, would have conveniently cut the home of challenger Suzanne Lee from the South Boston District he now represents. Lee lost to Linehan by fewer than 100 votes in the Nov. 8 council election.
In addition to protests from civic groups in Chinatown, Mayor Thomas Menino denounced the map as gerrymandering. Linehan’s map also drew District 9 Councilor Michael Ross’s Mission Hill home into District 6, now represented by Matt O’Malley.
O’Malley and Ross responded with their own maps, each of which kept the homes of the city’s nine incumbent councilors intact in the districts they now represent. While those maps may have produced less controversy than Linehan’s, they come up short on the one thing Chinese Progressive Association Executive Director Lydia Lowe says is most needed: change.
“A number of councilors talked about keeping Chinatown whole, but I didn’t hear anything about doing more to maximize opportunities for people of color,” Lowe said. “If we just adjust the current districts, we’re not going to create those opportunities.”
As it is now, just two of the nine district council seats are represented by people of color — Charles Yancey in District 4, which includes the predominantly black precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan, and Tito Jackson in District 7, which is centered in Roxbury and includes parts of the South End, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain.
Because more than 50 percent of the city’s population is made up of people of color, political activists say it is possible to create as many as five council districts in which candidates of color would have a fair chance of winning. The majority of the city’s black and Latino population is packed into Yancey and Jackson’s districts, which are at the center of the city.
“The opportunity is there to come up with a redistricting plan that creates five districts where people of color are in the majority,” Yancey says. “In order to do that, it would require substantial, significant and profound changes in the drawing of district lines.”
In Monday’s City Council hearing, Linehan said he would draft an alternate map with five majority-minority districts, in addition to a map drawn to avoid splitting neighborhoods between districts.
Yancey says increasing the black, Latino and Asian populations in city council districts is possible. The population of Yancey’s district is 90 percent black and Latino. If his district line moved to the east, to include more of Dorchester, the Hyde Park district now represented by Rob Consalvo would see its population of blacks and Latinos increase.
There are no such proposals on the table.
“There has to be a willingness on the part of my council colleagues to move outside their comfort zone,” Yancey says. “That’s going to be a problem.”
Other than O’Malley and Ross, both of whom had their incumbency threatened by Linehan’s map, no other councilor has released a map.
“It really does have the feel of an incumbency protection process,” comments Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of ¿Oiste? a Latino political organization.
According to the city charter, the council is charged with redrawing district lines every 10 years after the release of the U.S. Census. Because the population of Boston has shifted to the north, with the construction of new housing in downtown and on the waterfront, council districts in the north now have a greater population than those in the south.
While each of the nine districts must have 68,621 people in order to ensure each person’s vote is counted equally, Linehan’s district now has 74,039 people.
In order to lose 5,418 people, Linehan’s district must cut at least two precincts.
While there have been three redistricting processes since the council switched from an entirely at-large system to nine district seats and four at-large in 1982, the district lines have changed little, notes Yancey.
“We’re living in a city that’s much more diverse than it was in 1982,” he says. “It poses both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that the incumbents don’t want change. The opportunity is to come up with a redistricting plan that creates five districts that are majority people of color.”
Lowe, who is working with ¿Oiste?, the Boston Branch of the NAACP and other groups, says her coalition will likely propose its own maps.
The council will likely vote on a new map in the spring.