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Seeking a better way to draw US House lines

Redistricting chair vows to save minority voice

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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The chairman of the House redistricting committee, hoping to avoid the kind of racially charged lawsuit that upended the redistricting process a decade ago, has promised to preserve the influence of minority voters in the Eighth Congressional District, which includes Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and Somerville.

The chairman, state Representative Michael J. Moran, told political activists during a meeting at the Grove Hall Library in Roxbury Saturday that he is committed to making sure the district, currently represented by Michael E. Capuano, continues to be “minority influenced.’’

The legal term refers to a district that is less than 50 percent minority but has enough minority voters to influence, if not determine, the outcome of an election, if they vote as a bloc. The determination is not based on a precise percentage of minority voters, but on a mix of demographic data and past election results.

Maintaining the voice of minority voters in the district is one of several highly charged challenges facing state lawmakers as they redraw the state’s congressional districts. Lawmakers will have to wrestle with that issue while cutting the total number of districts from 10 to 9, which could force two of the state’s current US representatives to run against each other.

In promising to preserve minority clout in the Eighth District, nearly a year before the Legislature expects to finalize new congressional district boundaries for the 2012 election, Moran is trying to allay fears that he will repeat the costly mistakes of his predecessors when they redrew state legislative districts in 2001.

In 2004, a panel of three federal judges found that the House redistricting committee had discriminated against minority voters by drawing districts that “sacrificed racial fairness . . . on the altar of incumbency protection.’’ House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran’s district, for example, shed three overwhelmingly minority neighborhoods in Boston and added three that were at least 95 percent white, including areas of Milton. Overall, Finneran’s district went from 74 percent minority to 61 percent minority.

The case forced the Legislature to draw districts again, cost the state more than $2 million in legal fees, and led to Finneran’s conviction on a federal obstruction of justice charge. Finneran pleaded guilty to that charge after acknowledging that while on the witness stand in the redistricting case, he had minimized his role in the process, making it harder for the court to determine whether the voting rights of minorities had been violated.

“What I’m committed to is making sure minority voters do not get disenfranchised,’’ Moran, a Brighton Democrat, said yesterday. “I’m committed to that because there’s a sufficient amount of legal evidence that suggests we have to do that. But me, personally, I’m also committed.’’

Moran pledged to protect minority representation after he was questioned about it at a meeting of about 40 activists hosted by the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston nonprofit that seeks to increase minority participation in politics.

“We were extremely surprised he committed to this so early in the game,’’ before final census figures have even been released, said Kevin C. Peterson, the coalition’s executive director. “At the same time, we’re extremely pleased.’’

Moran said that, in the case of the Eighth District, it is too soon to say how the boundaries might need to change to preserve the voice of minority voters. Currently, the district is 49.5 percent minority, he said.

But preliminary figures from the census indicate that the black population in Suffolk County, most of which lies within the district, dropped by 1 percent over the last decade, while the white population grew by more than 12 percent, to about 500,000 people. The nonwhite Hispanic population also grew, by nearly 29 percent, but is comparatively small, with about 34,000 people.

“The initial projections are telling us it is going to be challenging to preserve the minority-influenced district,’’ Moran said.

Moran’s state Senate counterpart, Stanley C. Rosenberg, said he agrees that preserving minority representation should be a major consideration in redrawing the Eighth District. But he said it is too soon to discuss the issue in detail because census figures have not been released.

Moran is pledging to hold a dozen public hearings on redistricting this year, but said he is not willing to relinquish substantial control of the process. Tomorrow, he is expected to help lead the House in voting down a proposal backed by Republicans that would empower an independent commission, rather than state lawmakers, to draw congressional districts.

Supporters of that proposal say a panel of Democrats and Republicans, residents from across the state, and specialists in demographics would invite more public input to what has been a highly secretive process. Moran argued that state lawmakers are more accountable than nameless and faceless people on an independent commission.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.