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Scot Lehigh

Drawing lines in the districts

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / April 27, 2011

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IT’S A Democratic donnybrook waiting to happen.

Absent a timely departure, that is.

I’m talking about congressional redistricting. Massachusetts is losing a House seat, which means that unless someone in the 10-member delegation calls it quits, two incumbents will be forced to square off in a primary.

There’s one obvious solution here, and that’s for John Olver, the First District congressman, to call it a career. At 74, Olver is the oldest member of the delegation. Despite a prominent perch on the House Appropriations Committee, the professorial congressman has never been considered a political power hitter.

Let’s be clear: Consolidating the two western districts makes sense regardless of Olver’s plans. The First, after all, now sprawls all the way from Mount Washington, out where Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut meet, to Pepperell, just a couple towns west of Lowell. If there were only one western Massachusetts district, the Third District, whose core is Worcester, and the Fifth, whose center of gravity is greater Lowell, could expand westward; the others could then be adjusted accordingly. If Olver retired, it could all be done without an intra-party clash.

Several problems loom, however. First, Olver has said he intends to seek another term. Second, even if he did retire, state Senate joint redistricting committee chairman Senator Stanley Rosenberg, who like Olver dwells in Amherst, is inclined toward keeping two western Massachusetts districts. Or as he puts it: “I don’t view combining the First and Second as the most logical’’ choice.

Rosenberg acknowledges that a future congressional run is “on his radar screen;’’ that’s led to suspicions that his personal aspirations factor into his redistricting outlook. After all, Second District Representative Richard Neal, only 62 and well-positioned to become chairman of Ways and Means should Democrats retake the House, isn’t going anywhere. So retaining the First District more or less intact would greatly enhance the state senator’s prospects of an open-seat congressional opportunity in the next few years. Rosenberg, however, insists he will “play it by the book,’’ saying, “My interests and ambitions have nothing to do with the final decisions that are going to be made.’’

Hmmm. The Amherst lawmaker is generally a pretty straight shooter. Still, it’s difficult to believe his own political hopes won’t color his judgment, at least to some degree. That said, the ultimate decision will likely be made above his pay grade.

For his part, Rosenberg maintains it’s more logical to consolidate districts in eastern Massachusetts. Certainly there are ample possibilities there as well. If politics weren’t trump, one intriguing solution would be to fuse the lower tier of the Sixth District, including incumbent John Tierney’s hometown of Salem, with the bulk of the Seventh District, where Ed Markey holds sway. That reconfiguration would also allow the borders of the Fifth, the Merrimack Valley district, to migrate east to the Atlantic, adding a swath of the North Shore.

But Markey is the delegation’s able dean, which makes it highly unlikely that redistricters would force him into such a fight. That said, the prospect of facing Markey might well persuade Tierney to call it quits. An aloof loner, he’s been weakened by his wife’s recent imprisonment on federal tax charges, and is considered vulnerable if a strong challenger emerged.

Whatever plan the Legislature’s redistricting committee comes up with will almost certainly face a court challenge. For that reason, a proposal the Legislature has shrugged off still makes sense. That’s Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s call for a high-profile advisory committee to develop three or four redistricting proposals.

After a public debate about the pros and cons of the different ideas, the legislative committee could then pick among, or draw upon, those proposals. Having that kind of disinterested, apolitical advisory board to set the redistricting parameters could help protect the final plan against a potentially election-disrupting legal challenge.

Rosenberg, however, opposes that idea, maintaining that there is “no such thing’’ as an independent panel because “they are all appointed by elected people.’’

Actually, independent commissions play a regular, productive role in government. If Rosenberg is approaching this task as objectively as he claims, he shouldn’t object to a disinterested board whose ideas could inform — and ultimately backstop — the Legislature’s own redistricting plan.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.