Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition Executive Director Kevin Peterson and spokesman Barry Lawton speak to reporters outside the Statehouse during a press conference calling for electoral districts that do not dilute black voting power. (Yawu Miller photo)
|State Rep. Dan Winslow and attorney Jack Robinson answer questions about congressional district maps proposed by their Fair Districts organization during a press conference last week. (Yawu Miller photo)
Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow and attorney Jack Robinson fired a shot across the bow of Massachusetts Democrats last Thursday with a pair of proposed congressional district maps they say will set a tight legal standard for the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Redistricting.
One of the two maps drawn by their organization, called Fair Districts, created what Winslow and Robinson say would be the first so-called majority-minority congressional district in Massachusetts.
Last Saturday, at a hearing at the Joseph Lee School in Dorchester, black, Latino and Asian activists turned out to testify at a Redistricting Committee hearing, many calling for districts that would maximize chances for non-white candidates to win elections.
While the Legislature won’t likely release maps outlining re-drawn congressional and state House and Senate districts until September at the earliest, blacks, Latinos, Asians and Republicans are weighing in early and forcefully in a process that could expand or limit the political opportunities in their communities for the next 10 years.
Local and state officials are required by law to re-draw districts every 10 years following the release of U.S. Census data. As the state’s population inevitably expands, contracts or shifts from one region or another, the Legislature must draw districts that ensure that every district has an equal number of residents to meet the one-person, one-vote standard in the U.S. Constitution.
Black, Latino and Asian activists have historically resorted to legal action to compel state and local government in Massachusetts to draw district lines that do not weaken the voting power of their communities.
Ten years ago, a coalition of activists filed a lawsuit against the Legislature that successfully blocked then-House Speaker Thomas Finneran from shedding precincts from the predominantly African American neighborhoods in his district while acquiring precincts in the predominantly white town of Milton.
The court ordered the House to re-draw the district keeping the African American population intact. Finneran later left his House seat after he was convicted of lying under oath about the redistricting process.
While the 2001 lawsuit prevented Finneran from making his former district whiter, activists were unable to expand opportunities for blacks, Latinos and Asians in Boston to win House seats. Of the 23 House and Senate districts in Boston, more than two thirds are represented by whites, who make up less than half of the city’s population.
Many believe the state could re-draw Boston’s districts in a way that creates more districts with non-white majorities.
“We’ve determined that we will be a driver in this process and that we will be open to any proposals that produce the maximum number of seats for the black community,” said Kevin Peterson, who heads the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition.
Peterson was present at Winslow and Robinson’s press conference, where the duo showed a map that drew a district which included Boston, minus South Boston and the predominantly white easternmost part of Dorchester and add in Everett, Chelsea, Revere and Lynn.
People of color would make up 56 percent of the district’s voting-age population. It’s not clear what percentage of them would be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.
“You can’t create a black, Latino or Asian district that would guarantee that a person of color could win in Massachusetts,” said political consultant Louis Elisa. “You just couldn’t torture the lines enough.”
While many black and Latino activists are focused on the state legislative districts, the congressional district has drawn the most media attention, with U.S. Sen. Scott Brown voicing support for a so-called majority-minority district and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano asserting that the 8th Congressional District he represents is majority-minority.
Increasing the percentage of racial minorities from the current 50 percent to 56 percent could marginally increase the chances of a black, Latino or Asian candidate could win in the district, but the advantages to Republicans in the Congressional map advanced by Robinson and Winslow would be more definitive, according to Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of the Latino Political organization ¿Oiste?
St. Guillen noted that the congressional district now represented by U.S. Rep. Nikki Tsongas would shed Lawrence and other more liberal towns and include more conservative suburbs that vote Republican.
“You have to wonder what’s the political motivation,” she said.
Additionally, the Fair Districts map would put the home addresses of incumbent congressmen Capuano, Barney Frank and Edward Markey in the same district forcing the incumbents to either move and run in a new district or square off against each other in the next election.
Winslow said he did not weigh political considerations in drawing the new districts.
“Incumbency protection is not a legal standard,” he commented.
Robinson, who has made several unsuccessful runs for state-wide office and whose Duxbury home would place him in a heavily Republican Plymouth County district, said he is not currently considering running for office.
“I grew up in Boston and was educated here,” he said, explaining his interest in re-drawing the state’s political boundaries. “I think it’s a way I can give back to the community.”
Ultimately, Peterson says, black activists may end up supporting a Fair Districts redistricting effort if it expands political opportunities in the black community.
“The Fair Districts map is better than what we have now in that it increases the population of color,” he commented.
In the past, it’s been the initiative of GOP activists that have expanded political opportunities for blacks and Latinos in Massachusetts. It was Winslow who successfully litigated the lawsuit that carved out a new 5th Suffolk District, paving the way for Nelson Merced to become the first Latino elected to the Statehouse in 1988.
Traditionally, blacks have advanced to higher office through appointments by Republican governors, not Democrats. Sheriffs Andrea Cabral and Frank Cousins, former District Attorney Ralph Martin and former U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke all were either elected as Republicans or appointed by GOP governors.
In fact, Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2006 victory marked the first time an African American was elected to an office ranked higher than the state senate on the Democratic ticket.
“There is a serious lack of people of color in office in Massachusetts,” St. Guillen said. “We’re almost natural allies with the Republicans. They say ‘you’re standing up for the [Democratic] party, but does the party stand up for you?’ ”
The outcome of the Legislature’s redistricting process is anything but predictable. And if past is prologue, the process may well include litigation.
But activists say the redistricting process has improved greatly over the closed-door proceedings that cost the House Speaker his job 10 years ago.
“What’s different this time is that the community has been included from the beginning,” said longtime political activist Miniard Culpepper, pastor of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.