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South Boston, Dorchester politicians seek to overturn redistricting

U.S. Rep. Lynch, state Sen. Collins to testify in lawsuit against new map

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News

A handful of incumbent politicians are seeking to testify in the federal court case challenging the legality of Boston’s voter district maps, including U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, who has served in Congress since 2001.

Lynch represents Massachusetts’ 8th District, which includes South Boston and parts of Dorchester. Court documents filed last week show Lynch as scheduled to offer in-person testimony when arguments to bar the City of Boston from enacting its redistricting maps are heard March 28.

Others intending to testify this month include Boston City Council President Ed Flynn, at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty, State Senator Nick Collins and former City Councilor and recently retired City Clerk Maureen Feeney.

The lawsuit lays bare a rift among Boston Democrats who have drifted into two camps in recent years — in one lies an increasingly progressive crop of new politicians, in the other, the centrists of the old guard.

The rift, which plays out frequently among the historically diverse Boston City Council, has tended to fall along racial lines, with councilors of color typically aligning in the progressive bloc, and white councilors, particularly those with ties to the neighborhoods that represent traditional centers of white power and influence, filing into the centrist bloc.

Race and power emerged as a flashpoint during the redistricting process as the council attempted to address an explosion of growth in the South Boston Seaport neighborhood and a simultaneous loss of Black residents across the city over the last decade.

Between September 2021 and November 2022, councilors involved in the map-making process attempted to remedy the issues by shaving off a portion of the overgrown South Boston district and adding it to a neighboring Dorchester district, triggering a shift in the bottom portion of the latter’s boundary lines.

Many white politicians from those two districts resisted the shift.

In one community meeting, former Clerk Feeney, who represented the Dorchester district on the Council, implored council members not to shift the area’s boundaries.

“Don’t take power from one neighborhood to give it to another neighborhood,” she said.

In an affidavit, at-large Councilor Erin Murphy claimed that the approved map “is based on race in violation of the Voting Rights Act” and was designed “to diminish the voting power of white voters in City Council District 3 whose rights are sacred under the VRA and the 14th Amendment.”

Council President Flynn, who currently represents the South Boston district, also called for a halt to the map’s approval a day before it was scheduled to go to the floor for a vote in November.

The council map-making process ended on a sour note the following day when Dorchester Councilor Frank Baker accused his Irish-born Protestant colleague, Liz Breadon of Allston-Brighton, of deliberately attempting to disempower Irish Catholics in the city with the map.

The current redistricting legal case was initially brought by a coalition of predominantly white, South Boston-based political power players, including former state Rep. and former Hingham Selectman Paul Gannon, an attorney in the now-federal legal challenge.

Gannon and Robert O’Shea of South Boston’s Democratic Ward Committee unsuccessfully attempted to block the council from approving the map with a request for a temporary restraining order in state court. In it, they alleged council members violated open meeting law on three separate occasions by meeting with a quorum, or simple majority, of redistricting committee members without giving advance notice. According to state law, if a quorum of a public body wants to discuss public business within that body’s jurisdiction, they must do so during a properly posted meeting.

Superior Court Judge Anthony M. Campo denied the immediate bid to block the vote.

Later, the focus of the case shifted when the South Boston coalition amended their court complaint by adding several constituents of color to their cadre and alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th Amendment.

Lawyers for the City of Boston eventually moved the case to federal court.

Lynch was not immediately available for comment regarding his role in the lawsuit, but the congressman has previously written in opposition to the redistricting map. In a November letter to the state court judge, he claimed the new map “arbitrarily and recklessly” divided the communities in a pair of South Boston housing projects that fall within his Congressional district.

“These public housing communities are classic communities of interest in the legal sense as they predominately consist of non-English speaking, low-income families of color who are kindred in socioeconomic status, education, employment and their common identity as recently arrived immigrants,” Lynch wrote.

Furthermore, he argued that the new map could “weaken the voting strength” of these like-minded voters in Boston’s future elections.

Judge Patti B. Saris, a Clinton-era nominee, is now presiding over the case.

A coalition of advocacy groups devoted to serving marginalized populations, including the Boston Branch of the NAACP, Massachusetts Voter Table and the Chinese Progressive Association, are planning to show up to Tuesday’s hearing as a show of support for Boston’s latest redrawn map. The groups filed a shared legal brief in support of the city’s map.

The federal case adds another layer of tension to Boston’s struggle with race and voting power within the storied and changing city.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.