Politics

Unpacking Boston’s turbulent redistricting process (and new political map)

The once-in-a-decade re-examination of the city's political boundaries was anything but smooth.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Boston City Hall. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council voted Wednesday to approve a new political map, whose districts and boundaries will inherently shape the next decade of politics in the Hub.

The vote capped a tumultuous process that surfaced ever-present and ever-burdened racial strains in a changing city, and even prompted one councilor to stir up sectarian strife in the waning hours before the vote.

Still, the council’s progressive flank prevailed in approving their proposal, dubbed the “unity map,” over several last-minute proposed amendments with a veto-proof 9-4 vote that fell largely along racial lines among the council’s historically diverse membership.

Those who opposed the map were Council President Ed Flynn, Councilor Frank Baker, Councilor Michael Flaherty, and Councilor Erin Murphy.

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The map now heads to Mayor Michelle Wu’s desk.

Proponents say the map aims to give more political agency to communities of color — thereby meeting the city’s legal charge under the federal Voting Rights Act to ensure voters of color can freely elect candidates without being routinely and systemically outnumbered by white voters at the ballot boxes in their districts.

Guiding the review of current districts was Boston’s population growth as evidenced by the 2020 U.S. Census, especially the significant population boom in the Seaport in the past decade.

The entire redistricting process happens once every 10 years, by law, to ensure Boston’s nine council districts have approximately equal populations.

“We have to try and create situations where minority communities are able to elect a candidate of their choice,” Councilor Liz Breadon, the chair of the council’s redistricting committee, said. “And this has been a really difficult process, with people throwing blockages and obstructions the whole way down the line.”

Factors in play

Councilors have frequently pointed to the need to meet a self-imposed deadline to have a new map settled by Nov. 7. Although the deadline is not legally required, councilors have said approving a map after that date could present timing challenges around residency requirements for any candidates looking to run in the next election cycle.

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Breadon cautioned Wednesday doing that “risks being characterized as incumbent protection.”

But the deadline was only one of several factors councilors in favor of the new map have been up against.

In the past week, councilors have faced complaints from neighborhood groups in South Boston and Dorchester alleging they violated the state’s Open Meeting Law at public meetings on redistricting (which officials have denied they did).

On Wednesday, the organizations from South Boston filed a lawsuit seeking for a Suffolk Superior Court judge to block the council from holding a vote. The judge declined to do so, but a Nov. 9 hearing is now on the calendar.

Controversy had also ensnarled the process since at least August, with Flynn’s decision to strip Councilor Ricardo Arroyo’s chairmanship of the council’s redistricting committee.

The decision came in light of news Arroyo, a candidate for district attorney in the September primary when the story surfaced, had twice been investigated for sexual assault as a teenager but was never charged. Arroyo denied any wrongdoing.

Flynn’s decision laid bare deep divisions on the council, as councilors of color described, at one August meeting, racism and repeated disrespect they have faced while in office.

And then came the squabbles over the “unity map.”

The new map — and its opposition

The new Boston district map
The “unity map” gained City Council approval on Wednesday. – City of Boston via screenshot

Major changes in the new map largely center on moving a section of Dorchester — near Cedar Grove, Neponset, and Adams Village — from District 3 into District 4, and shifting areas of South Boston home to a public housing complex from District 2 into District 3.

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Supporters, including a vocal Arroyo, unveiled the initial map in mid-October as the product of a collaboration between councilors and several civic organizations, such as the Boston Branch of the NAACP.

They say District 2, under the law, has too many residents as it currently stands, while the Dorchester section eyed in District 3 would provide District 4 more racial diversity to help the city avoid possible allegations of “packing” Black voting blocs.

But the map received unflinching opposition from several councilors, who say the map splits their neighborhoods up and divides their communities.

Flynn, earlier this week, went as far as calling the process “reckless,” according to the Boston Herald.

“Dividing public housing residents in South Boston and dividing communities of color is immoral and unconscionable,” he said.

Councilor Baker, who represents Dorchester-heavy District 3, was particularly outspoken about his opposition, with his passions leading to a crescendo in tensions at Wednesday’s meeting.

Baker, bringing Dorchester’s deep Irish-American ties and Catholic beliefs into the fold, told councilors about a Catholic priest who said to him the city’s clergy view the map as “an all-out assault on Catholic life in Boston.”

He added, “It’s not lost on them that the person leading that charge is a Protestant” from Northern Ireland, a reference to Breadon, Baker’s immigrant colleague.

Baker’s comments evoked the violent and complex period in Northern Ireland’s history collectively known as The Troubles.

The unrest involved Catholic discrimination under a Protestant-controlled government, and tensions boiled between the groups over divisions between the state’s ties to the United Kingdom and the idea of a united Ireland, independent of the British crown. From the late 1960s through the late 1990s, approximately 3,600 people died in the decades of conflicts.

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Baker’s words brought audible shock in the council chamber and prompted Flynn to declare a brief recess.

Baker, who wore a cross on his lapel, then apologized, saying “a good Catholic boy like myself shouldn’t do that.”

“I shouldn’t use language like that,” he said. “I’m heated because I think that neighborhoods that are in District 3 that happen to be Catholic are under attack.”

Breadon offered an emotional rebuttal, calling Baker’s outburst a “personal attack.”

She drew parallels between the disenfranchisement of Catholic people in Northern Ireland and of Black Americans during the civil rights movement.

Breadon, who is a lesbian married to “a nice Irish Catholic girl” from Boston, also highlighted how she was unable to live without prejudice in her own, religious-conscious homeland, too.

“It is an insult to me to have a colleague in this City Council insinuate that I am discriminating against Catholics. That is not what’s happening here,” Breadon said. “I’m standing up for the rights of our minority communities — Hispanic, Asian, and Black — to have equal access to voting and to have an equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.

“And if that means annoying and upsetting Catholics, I’m very, very sorry,” she added. “And I don’t think that is reflective of Catholic values. … This is an insult. It is an absolute disgrace.”

Breadon went on to call her committee’s proposal a “defendable map” and urged her colleagues to support it.

“It’s addressing some long-term, longstanding disparities in our city, and I really feel the moment is now,” she said.

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Councilors opposed to the map have argued lately the process has lacked transparency.

Earlier this week Flynn, the council’s president, tried to hit pause on the work through calling for an independent panel to do it instead. He called the process “tainted and flawed.”

On Wednesday, Murphy filed a proposal to define “protocols” of the redistricting committee, arguing not enough public meetings were translated into multiple languages. Proponents of the map disagreed and panned the measure as a stall tactic to the scheduled vote.

Murphy said she feels the process was rushed.

“We should take this process slowly,” she said. “There is no need to pass this map quickly. We need to do it right.”

Flaherty also put forth what he called a “neighborhood unity map,” adding to a number of other proposed map drafts that were ultimately unsuccessful in gaining traction among councilors.

“The ‘neighborhood unity map’ seeks to do something that no other map has done so far and that we’re legally required to do … which is to respect our historic neighborhood boundaries,” Flaherty said. “We need to unite communities through this process, not divide them.”

Flynn attempted to pass amendments to keep voting precincts within his District 2, but he lacked the needed support from other councilors to see them through.

“It’s easy for my colleagues to dismantle a community that you don’t know,” Flynn said. “I’m disappointed.”

As part of her committee report, Breadon, notably, outlined several recommendations for future processes.

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Among the process’ flaws is that the city engages with redistricting experts too late, Breadon said. The city should also tap on city demographers and cartographers earlier, too.

Plus, Breadon said she supports the longstanding calls for creating an independent advisory commission to support, inform, and monitor the council when councilors must do it all again.

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