Dissecting the districts
Byron Rushing is one of the most thoughtful members of the Massachusetts Legislature, and years ago he gave a farsighted view of the legacy of the successful lawsuit that minority voting-rights groups had just won over legislative redistricting.
“The real impact won’t be felt this time,’’ he told me back in 2004. “It will be next time, because after losing this suit, [the Legislature] won’t pull this stunt again.’’
We’ll know before long whether that prediction proves accurate. A legislative committee chaired by Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, is set to unveil new legislative and congressional district lines in the fall. But even before the map arrives, activists are lining up to fight.
The New Democracy Coalition released an “open letter’’ to the governor last week, laying out a series of conditions that should be met before the governor approves the bill. The coalition has drawn a legislative map that its cochairman, activist Kevin Peterson, claims could double minority representation on Beacon Hill.
“We have confidence that Governor Patrick has both the experience and the insight to respond to the racial gerrymandering that has been persistent in the Commonwealth for three decades,’’ Peterson said. “Given the governor’s background as a civil rights lawyer, he is uniquely qualified to address the disenfranchisement black and Latino and Asian voters have suffered.’’
Of course, the governor won’t have anything to sign or veto for months. But it’s never too early to start to position him.
Peterson and other voting-rights advocates maintain that minority districts are needed to counter the reluctance of white voters to vote for minority candidates. Peterson pointed out yesterday that people of color make up roughly 20 percent of the state’s population, but only 5 percent of the Legislature.
On the other hand, the notion that sheer racism is solely to blame has become harder and harder to make. Deval Patrick, Setti Warren, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Ayanna Pressley, Felix Arroyo, and Andrea Cabral have all been elected with major support from white voters. Advocates will say that their campaigns were exceptions to the rule.
I’m not claiming that Massachusetts has reached a state where race doesn’t matter. But it’s not true that white people simply will not vote for people of color.
Even Peterson conceded that voting patterns are not as simple as black and white. “It is becoming less true,’’ Peterson said. “But only slowly.’’
Another voting-rights coalition, Drawing Democracy, is formulating its own vision of how to achieve a more diverse Legislature. If nothing else, there will be no shortage of ideas on how to redraw the legislative and congressional maps.
Of course, the legacy of the redistricting lawsuit hangs over this entire process. After watching three speakers in a row face federal charges, it’s doubtful that any lawmaker wants anything to do with a federal courtroom.
And the stakes are higher. Massachusetts is losing a seat in the US House, meaning that congressional districts are going to have to change considerably. That presents an opportunity that didn’t exist when the map was last redrawn.
Personally, I would like to see Boston united in a single congressional district, one that would be both diverse and representative of common interests. But lawmakers appear poised to go in the opposite direction, pitting Congressmen Stephen Lynch and William Keating against one another in a district even more suburban than the current Ninth.
Certainly, the map that Peterson is pushing is just the start. There will be more maps and open letters to come.
But if there is a lesson from the last attempt to draw boundaries, it may be that the Beacon Hill power structure can indeed be taken on. Armed with that knowledge, the advocates are clearly ready to join the fight.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.