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Redrawn Council map raises new issues

Boston district boundaries remain confusing to many

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Redrawn Council map raises new issues
City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune leads the redistricting debate. PHOTO: COURTESY CITY OF BOSTON

In a process its Civil Rights Committee Chairwoman Ruthzee Louijeune called contentious, the Boston City Council has passed a second redistricting map with a 10-2 vote, sending the map to Mayor Michelle Wu’s desk for approval.

The latest map of redrawn council districts follows a May 8 federal ruling that the Council likely violated the Constitution by giving too much consideration to race in drawing district lines in the map the body passed last Oct. 26 by a 9-4 vote. The four white councilors who voted against that map joined a lawsuit filed against the Council and the city.

The redistricting process happens every 10 years, following the release of U.S. Census results. As populations in cities shift, political boundaries are redrawn to ensure each electoral district has roughly the same population. In Boston, increased construction in the South Boston-based District 2, represented by Ed Flynn, resulted in a surplus of more than 13,000 voters, while a relative lack of new construction in Dorchester-based District 3 represented by Frank Baker, led to a deficit of more than 6,500 voters there. To comply with state law, each district would need to average about 75,000 voters.

In drawing the map approved last fall, councilors sought to unpack the high concentration of voters of color in the Dorchester/Matttapan-based District 4 represented by Brian Worrell, increasing the percentage of whites there from just under 8% to 12% by adding three precincts in the predominantly-white Neponset and Lower Mills sections of Dorchester. That move drew criticism from white councilors and contributed to the judge’s injunction against the first map. In the map approved on May 24, District 4 remains 8% white.

Prior to the vote on the second map, Council President Ed Flynn assigned redistricting to Louijeune, who heads the body’s Civil Rights Committee, bypassing District 9 Councilor Liz Breadon, who heads the Redistricting Committee.

Louijeune kicked off hearings May 22 on the new map by working off a map she submitted, but she quickly met with stiff headwinds from other councilors of color, who objected to changes to district lines in Mattapan, West Roxbury and the Back Bay.

District 5 controversy

While Baker and Flynn expressed support for Louijeune’s redrawn lines, which left South Boston intact in District 2, five councilors complained that the map moved boundaries in the Hyde Park/Mattapan-based District 5, represented by Ricardo Arroyo. Under Louijeune’s map, District 5 would shed some majority-Black Mattapan precincts and pick up majority-white precincts in the West Roxbury-Roslindale area.

“Why are we leaning into District 5?” questioned at-large Councilor Julia Mejia. “I’m so confused as to what is at play. If you could just clearly, for the record, help me understand why we are messing with District 5.”

Louijeune told Mejia the lines were redrawn to balance the population in districts.

“There’s a population issue when you address a constitutional violation and so you go back to the historical nature of where District 4 was,” she said. “We all know that District 4 and District 5 is where the conversation is and there’s Mattapan on both sides, so I hope that addresses…”

“No, it doesn’t, I’m sorry,” Mejia said, cutting Louijeune off. “I need you to unpack this a little further. If you want me to make an educated vote and an educated decision, it’s your responsibility as chair to help me understand the process.”

Mejia, along with Councilor Kendra Lara, voted against the map.

“The border of District 4 and District 5 was not identified as an issue area in the ruling from the judge,” Lara said during the Council hearing May 23. “We’ve heard testimony from both sides. So for me, if we’re going to make changes at the border when it’s not necessary, when we’re balanced by population, I want to make sure that the reasoning is being made in alignment with the traditional principles of redistricting.”

Louijeune said District 5 was the “natural choice” to expand District 4, but councilors Arroyo, Mejia, Kendra Lara, Tania Fernandes Anderson and Breadon questioned Louijeune’s motives in making changes to District 5 that they said would dilute voting the power of Black and Latino residents there.

Additionally, community members testified against Louijeune’s changes to District 5.

MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford noted that District 5 was drawn to its current configuration in 2012 to create what’s commonly referred to as an opportunity district.

“The standard definition is a district that gives people of color an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice,” she noted. “And we did that 10 years ago with District 5. In a city that is majority people of color, this should not still be an issue. Instead of destroying what was created 10 years ago, regressing, we should be building upon it. Instead, we find ourselves fighting to keep what we have.”

Contention and compromise

In other changes, Ed Flynn’s South Boston-based District 2 lost three South End precincts to District 3 but retains those in which the Cathedral and Villa Victoria housing developments are located, and the Roxbury-based District 7 picks up a Ward 4 precinct from the Back Bay. Ward 17, Precinct 13 in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester remains in District 3, which also picked up a Roxbury precinct formerly in District 7 and two Dorchester precincts formerly in District 4.

Civil rights advocates were sharply critical of the above changes, as well as changes to District 5, which they said in a statement would dilute voting power of communities of color. While whites constitute 44% of the city’s population, they are the majority in five of the nine City Council districts.

In District 7, the inclusion of the Back Bay precinct means whites now outnumber Latinos there.

“In the view of civil rights and community groups — including the NAACP Boston Branch, MassVOTE, the Massachusetts Voter Table, the Chinese Progressive Association, La Colaborativa, and New England United for Justice (the “Coalition”) — this rushed and flawed process sends an alarming message to civil rights and voting rights communities,” the groups’ statement reads in part.

Lara and Mejia also released a statement May 25.

“During redistricting, we had an opportunity to empower historically marginalized communities, but, instead of bolstering their power, we deprioritized them and maintained the status quo,” the statement reads.

Louijeune said the Council ultimately put voters’ needs first.

“This was, obviously, a very contentious process,” she said. “Whenever legislators are drawing lines there’s a lot at stake for people individually, and we always have to center what’s best for the voters.”

Louijeune suggested the process would work better with an independent commission drawing the district lines.

“This was in the spirit of compromise,” she said. “We have a membership of 12. It is really difficult to get everyone and everything that everyone wants into a map, especially when we have a judge’s order.”