Ex-rep. guilty in JP redistricting case

January 19, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

Jamaica Plain was a key battleground in the redistricting controversy that led to a Jan. 5 guilty plea by Thomas Finneran, the disgraced former Speaker of the State House of Representatives, to a federal obstruction of justice charge.

It’s just one example of JP’s ongoing role as a victim of voting rights complaints stretching back at least a half-decade.

A federal court in 2004 ruled that the 2001 redrawing of Boston’s House districts robbed minority citizens—especially African-Americans—of voting power in a scheme to protect white incumbents, including Finneran himself. JP’s 11th and 15th Suffolk districts were among the top targets and were redrawn as majority-minority by the judges.

The controversy essentially ended Finneran’s powerful reign in shocking fashion. He didn’t run for re-election and became a highly paid lobbyist.

Finneran faced perjury charges in 2005 for testifying that he had no foreknowledge of the redistricting plan and wasn’t even sure of the name of his own 12th Suffolk District. Now he has pleaded guilty to the felony obstruction charge in exchange for prosecutors dropping the perjury charges.

Finneran was punished with a $25,000 fine, 18 months of probation and an agreement he won’t run for elected office again for at least five years. He may also lose his state pension and his law license. He resigned his lobbying job under pressure last week and became a radio talk show host.

In a statement to the press, Finneran apologized, but then defended himself, saying that prosecutors had goaded him into losing his temper and unintentionally misspeaking.

Before the 2001 redistricting, the 11th Suffolk (roughly the eastern half of JP, plus pieces of Roxbury and Dorchester) was 62.3 percent minority voters. After the unconstitutional redistricting, it was 49.3 percent minority. Its representative at the time was the current incumbent, Liz Malia, who is white.

The 15th Suffolk (roughly the western half of JP, plus pieces of Mission Hill and Brookline) was similarly diluted from 54.3 percent minority to 49.3 percent. At the time, it was represented by Kevin Fitzgerald, who is white.

In the middle of the court case, Jeffrey Sánchez, who is Latino, was elected to the seat. That led Sánchez and other critics of the court decision to say it was itself stereotyping the practices of all voters.

But the court redrew all of the districts. The 11th Suffolk was especially affected, shifting 17 precincts. Malia and Sánchez—who have since been re-elected without opposition—both expressed happiness with the final results.

The background to the controversy was that for the first time, non-Hispanic whites became a minority in Boston (though still the largest single ethnic group), according to 2000 US Census results.

That finding led to similar controversy over the 2002 redrawing of Boston City Council districts. JP was a main target of various efforts to create majority-minority districts. The main plan was for JP’s District 6 to be separated from West Roxbury and instead joined with Roxbury and/or Roslindale.

A high point of the controversy was when District 6 City Councilor John Tobin held his only redistricting hearing at the West Roxbury police station. Tobin, who opposed the splitting of his district, said he thought it was individual precincts that needed redrawing to protect minority votes.

In the end, JP and West Roxbury stayed together, and the Mattapan-area District 5 was redrawn to be majority-minority. (JP is also covered by parts of Districts 7 and 9.)

The recent string of voting rights violations and complaints in JP has also especially impacted precincts with high minority populations. There have been significant voting rights complaints from JP four out of the past five years. Complaints have included running out of ballots, lack of translators and voter intimidation.

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