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Activists eye redistricting map that preserves black voting blocs

Posted by Cara Bayles  March 2, 2011 02:04 PM

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With the state poised to lose a US congressional seat, a group of Boston activists is drawing up redistricting proposals that would bolster the voting power of black communities in Boston, Worcester, and Brockton. They plan to submit the maps to the state legislature's redistricting committee.

The official redistricting process on Beacon Hill, which will begin when the state receives more complete Census data in the coming weeks, has a complicated history in Massachusetts.

The last redistricting cycle a decade ago resulted in a lawsuit alleging that lawmakers had carved up the state at the expense of minority voting blocs (districts where communities of color could decide an election). In 2004, after a long and costly lawsuit, the map was found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and the state was forced to redraw district lines.

"There is consensus that if the districts are going to be drawn fairly, a great deal of energy and oversight will need to come from the black community," said Kevin Peterson, who founded the election rights nonprofit the New Democracy Coalition in the wake of the scandal, and started the empowerment coalition late last year. He added that existing districts could be better drawn to stabilize a voting bloc for communities of color.

"A large part of Mattapan was connected to the Second Suffolk senatorial district, which is now held by Sonia Chang-Diaz," Peterson said. "Activists across the city are looking for ways to reunite the Second Suffolk, or create an additional senatorial district, where the residents and voters in Mattapan, who were cut off from their district ten years ago, will have a prominent voice in the state senate. Currently, they do not."

State Senator Jack Hart represents a large chunk of Mattapan in the First Suffolk district, which also includes Dorchester and South Boston.

On a city level, the coalition plans a proposal to redraw City Council districts so that Mission Hill and the South End are represented by one councilor. Currently, the South End is divided between Councilor Bill Linehan in the second district, and whoever wins the District Seven election to replace Chuck Turner.

The group also hopes the shuffle that will ensue because of the state's loss of a congressional district will give them the opportunity to draw up a new district with a significant minority voting bloc.

The coalition is rapidly growing. Peterson says it started last year, when four Boston activists—Peterson, UMass Professor Tony Van Der Mer, Klare Allen of Boston Safety Net (the community group opposing the BU Biolab), and Horace Small, director of the Union of Minority Communities—discussed black political empowerment over lunch.

Now, Peterson says, the coalition boasts 40 organizations from around the state. During a meeting last week where the group elected members to 23 leadership positions, Representative Michael Moran, chair of the legislature's Redistricting Committee dropped by and promised that he would protect the voting bloc in the Eighth Congressional District (currently represented by Congressman Michael Capuano) which includes Boston, Chelsea, Somerville and Cambridge.

"This will be historic. Communities of color have not participated in the redistricting process at this level in the past," Peterson said. "We're looking to do something new and profound."

E-mail Cara Bayles at carabayles@gmail.com.

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