Yvonne Abraham

Rethinking party lines

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / February 6, 2011

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Barney Frank is in. Let the games begin.

The news that the congressman from Newton has decided to run again in 2012 has left many people nursing crushing disappointment this weekend.

I’m not talking about the folks who believe Frank is Beelzebub with a bleeding heart. The pain Thursday’s announcement inflicted on conservatives positively pales beside the abject misery it has wrought upon certain members of the Democrat’s own party.

Because now he’s made their lives difficult.

Population results from the 2010 US Census mean that Massachusetts’ electoral map must be redrawn — with only nine congressional districts instead of the current 10.

If Frank had decided to say goodbye, that would have left nine sitting members of the US House, for nine districts. Hold some public hearings, redraw the lines, and hello new political map.

Instead, the people on Beacon Hill, where the new lines will be drawn, are in a pickle. Ten into nine won’t go. Somebody’s toast.

Working out who that somebody is has become the political game of the post-Pats, pre-Sox season — musical chairs in a minefield.

In search of a solution, some speculators look to the west: That’s a part of the state that lost population since 2000. There’s talk of combining the districts of John Olver, from Amherst, and Richard Neal, from Springfield, and forcing a primary between them. But is Stan Rosenberg, state Senate chairman of the redistricting committee and a resident of Amherst, really going to preside over a plan that sacrifices his own congressman?

And Neal has been in Washington a long time, and has clout. If Democrats retake the majority, he is poised to lead the most powerful committee of all — Ways and Means. Do we want to lose him and other members of the delegation who have risen high enough to bring home major bacon?

What about a last-in, first-out approach? That would mean newly elected Bill Keating, of Quincy, would be on the block. But his part of the state is the fastest-growing. Does it make sense to break his district apart? How about Niki Tsongas, of Lowell, elected in 2007? She’s the first woman the state has elected to Congress in a generation. It’s hard to imagine Senate President Therese Murray putting up with that. And on it goes.

Only ambition can break this jam-up. If any of the Reps eyeing the US Senate seat held by Scott Brown — Mike Capuano, or Stephen Lynch, or Ed Markey — were to announce a run in 2012, some of the pressure would be off. But Brown’s $7 million-plus campaign account makes such a challenge less likely.

Of course, none of this should matter.

There is something terribly amiss with Massachusetts’ electoral map, with its bizarrely contorted districts formed by decades of cynical political engineering.

“Gerrymandering is democracy on its head,’’ says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a watchdog group. “This is politicians selecting their voters instead of the other way around.’’

Ideally, every seat would be up for discussion this year. The whole map would be redrawn to reflect population shifts, and to group neighboring communities and interests closely together — let the fortunes of all incumbents fall where they may.

“We can’t nibble around the edges,’’ says Dan Winslow, a state representative who led Republican court challenges to previous redistricting plans. “This process is the only opportunity to pry incumbents’ fingers from the levers of power. If we have fair and competitive districts, then and only then can people win.’’

Sadly, that’s not how things work around here.

Legislators aim to have a plan set by Thanksgiving. Court challenges will ensue.

It’s not going to be pretty.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at