Officials: Redistricting will be clean this time

April 15, 2011
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State redistricting began last month with local officials promising that a transparent process will avoid what happened last time: A redrawing of the legislative map by the courts after they ruled the process had been illegal and discriminatory.

Federal courts ruled in 2004 that state House districts, including Jamaica Plain’s 11th Suffolk—held by state Rep. Liz Malia—was among those redrawn illegally by the legislature following the 2000 census. Another state House seat that covers JP, the 15th Suffolk—held by state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez since 2002—was not part of the suit, but it was redrawn by the courts to accommodate changes surrounding districts.

“I think the process is an improvement over last time,” Malia, who has held the 11th Suffolk seat since before the last round of redistricting, told the Gazette. State Rep. Mike Moran, the House chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Redistricting, “is really seriously attempting to do this out in public,” she said.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, Senate vice-chair of the state legislature’s 2010 Joint Committee on Redistricting, told the Gazette she is “excited about having a platform to be a voice for communities of color, as well as for a productive, participatory process that is transparent and has lots of integrity.”

So far, voting rights groups are giving the state legislature high marks for the openness of the process, but say they are wiling to go back to court again if things go sour.

Following the release of US Census data every 10 years, as in other states, the Massachusetts legislature is responsible for redrawing the state’s senate and house districts as well as its federal congressional districts in response to population changes.

The joint committee Chang-Díaz—who represents Jamaica Plain—is on is redrawing Massachusetts’ 40 state Senate and 160 state House districts this year. And it is responsible for eliminating one of the state’s 10 federal congressional districts.

Advocates have reason to trust Chang-Díaz’s commitment to transparency, because she is on the board of MassVote, one of the key organizations involved with the Drawing Democracy Project—a coalition effort to raise awareness and solicit community input for the redistricting process.

MassVote Policy Director Cheryl Crawford told the Gazette, “We are really excited that the legislature is taking the same point of view” as the advocacy organizations regarding transparency this time. But, she said, MassVote, which was a party to the lawsuit last time around, “wouldn’t be opposed to doing what we need to do,” including bringing suit, if things go badly.

Federal congressional seats are awarded to states based on their proportion of the overall population in the country. Because Massachusetts grew more slowly than the country as a whole in the past 10 years, the state is losing one of its 10 congressional districts this year. It appears unlikely that the local Eighth Congressional District seat—held by Congressman Michael Capuano—will be eliminated, because it is the only district in the state where the majority is people of color, Crawford said.

At the state level the last round of redistricting following the 2000 census was held up for years after Boston-area advocates filed suit claiming that some state House districts—including the 11th Suffolk—had been “gerrymandered”—or deliberately drawn to protect entrenched interests. In 2004, the courts found that was the case, and redrew the state House map. Then state House Speaker Thomas Finneran was later convicted for perjury for lying about the original process.

The court redrew Malia’s 11th Suffolk to include more Roxbury precincts, making her the state rep. for the Academy Homes housing development on Washington Street, among other things. In exchange, the 11th Suffolk lost Roslindale precincts. Sánchez’s 15th Suffolk district lost Roxbury precincts and gained precincts in Roslindale and Brookline.

JP’s two main state reps also traded some local precincts.

Chang-Díaz, Malia and Sánchez all told the Gazette they are optimistic that nothing like that will happen this time.

“Decisions are going to be affected by politics,” Chang-Díaz said. But the overall process is planned to be “driven by data, by legal guidelines and by a desire to really take seriously the opinions we get from citizens as well as advocates.”

Sánchez said he will “seek the opportunity to make sure there are minority districts…Hopefully we will only have to do it once.”

Malia said it is “important that all the viewpoints are considered,” in the complicated process. She said her preliminary understanding is that, because the population in her district has gone up, and the populations in some neighboring districts have gone down, the 11th Suffolk may lose some of its border precincts.

Some other states set up independent redistricting commissions to take responsibility for redistricting out of the hands of people whose jobs could be directly affected by it. In the wake of the scandal last time around, there was some talk this year of setting up an independent commission in Massachusetts. Chang-Díaz said she opposed that plan.

“I thought I was going to end up preferring an independent commission,” she said. But, she said, “Elected officials are, by definition, more responsive to the public” and a process led by them “lends itself to more honesty about it being an inherently political process.”

It will have to be fairly quick process, too. The legal deadline for having the new districts in place is next fall, a year prior to the 2012 state House race.

The joint redistricting committee appears to be focused on transparency and community involvement. One of the committee’s first actions was to set up a redistricting web site—www.malegislature.gov/District—intended to give a comprehensive overview of the process. The web site includes census data, legislative district maps, descriptions of the state and federal laws governing redistricting and links to the 2004 court decisions, among other things.

It also includes a schedule of 13 hearings the committee is holding across the state to gather public input about the process between now and early June. The locations for those hearings were chosen so that no one in the state would have to drive more than an hour to get to one, Chang-Díaz said. The one hearing scheduled in Boston will be at 10 a.m., May 14 at the Joseph Lee Elementary School in Dorchester.

And the committee is inviting state citizens and organizations to submit their own redistricting proposals as part of their testimony.

The Drawing Democracy Project is working to make sure those maps get drawn. Funded by $195,000 in grant money from the Access Strategies Fund—a Massachusetts-based philanthropic foundation—Drawing Democracy member-organizations plan to host workshops and trainings across the state to educate citizens about redistricting and gather their input to generate maps for the legislature’s committee.

Organizations involve with the Drawing Democracy Project include MassVote, the Boston-based Latino advocacy organization Oiste?, the Boston Workers Alliance, the Boston-Based Union of Minority Neighborhoods and the Massachusetts Immigrants Rights Association (MIRA).

Crawford said the plan is to host workshops in communities just prior to the Redistricting Committee’s public hearings. The workshop for the Boston-area’s mid-May hearing has not yet been scheduled, she said.

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said one of the major challenges to having a truly inclusive redistricting process would be getting people interested.

“If you just lost your job at Raytheon, you’re trying to put your kid through school and the bank is foreclosing on your house, the last thing you care about is Jeff Sánchez’s district,” he said. “What I am concerned about is people actually caring about this stuff…The community has lost so much hope,” he said.