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Mass. minority hopes pinned to new district map

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / January 14, 2012
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BOSTON—When state lawmakers unveiled a redrawn congressional map for Massachusetts, they boasted of a first for the state -- a district where blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans make up a majority of voting-age residents.

While all agree the new map reflects the state's growing racial and ethnic diversity, deciphering the larger implications of the state's first "minority-majority" district is proving trickier.

For some, the ultimate goal is to pave the way for the election of a minority candidate to Congress. For others, it's enough to create a critical mass of minority voters to guarantee their voice is heard no matter which candidate represents them.

Still others say Massachusetts' recent past -- most notably the election of Deval Patrick, the state's first black governor -- shows the state is moving beyond its long, sometimes troubled, history of politics divided along ethnic and racial lines.

For U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, who represents about 80 percent of what will become the state's new 7th Congressional District, the changes are minimal.

Capuano said his district already has a majority of minority residents, if not voting-age residents. The new district's minority population will be close to 57 percent with a minority voting-age population of 52 percent.

The seven-term congressman said he intends to run for re-election and will continue to fight for the needs of his constituents, regardless of their background.

"Race is a factor, ethnicity is a factor, but it is not a determinative factor," he said. "I do my job. I let people know the job I do. I have a long record now and people will judge me by that. I think my record is pretty strong and pretty clear and pretty deep."

Capuano bristles at any suggestion that he can't do as good a job representing the new district as a minority candidate could. So far no such challenger has emerged.

"I find those kinds of comments offensive to the society," he said. "If that were the case, we should not have Deval Patrick or Barack Obama as governor or president."

Many of those who helped push for the new district agree with Capuano, up to a point.

Malia Lazu was project director for the Drawing Democracy Project, an umbrella organization for groups that pressed state lawmakers to create a minority-majority district.

While she agrees that there's no guarantee that a minority-majority district will elect a minority member of Congress, Lazu said what's more important is giving minority residents the sense of political clout often taken for granted by the majority population.

"There's something about people thinking and understanding that they now have more of a chance to be heard because they share a commonality," she said. "I think it does something for people's excitement and participation in democracy."

Empowerment is a plus, agreed Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat who represents a minority-majority state senate district in Boston. But ultimately, she said, the goal should be to change the face of Congress to more accurately reflect the nation's cultural and ethnic mix.

That means electing minority candidates -- a process that will encourage even more minorities to seek higher office, she said.

"It's critically important that we have people in government who look like and come from the life experiences of the people they represent," she said. "Having people of color in office themselves also makes a big difference when we talk about growing a (political) farm team."

Creating minority-majority districts to help propel minority candidates into office "is important, but it's not on the high end," said state Rep. Donald Wong, one of the first two Asian-Americans elected to the Massachusetts House.

"It's great that the minorities are going to be represented, but everyone already should be represented," said Wong, a Saugus Republican.

Wong points out that even though Asians make up a small percentage of the population of Saugus, his racial background proved to be little of a barrier to his election.

"I'm Asian. What's the percentage of Asians in Saugus?" Wong said. "I'm still representing my district."

The state's sluggish overall population growth during the past decade forced the elimination of one of its 10 U.S. House districts. That required a dramatic redrawing of the map to nine districts.

The new minority-majority district stands out from the others in the state in several ways.

It's geographically the most compact, straddling just seven cities and towns, including all of Somerville, Chelsea, Everett and Randolph with portions of Boston, Cambridge and Milton.

The majority of the 727,514 residents in the district -- 481,846 -- live in Boston. The next highest total is Somerville with 75,754 residents followed by a portion of Cambridge with 52,928.

But it's the racial and ethnic breakdown that stands out even more.

The new district's minority population is 56.6 percent, far higher that the district with the next biggest minority population. That would be the newly drawn 3rd Congressional District with a 28 percent minority population, a district currently represented by U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Lowell.

About a quarter of those in the new 7th Congressional District are black, followed by Hispanics, who make up more nearly 20 percent and Asian-Americans who make up about 10 percent of the population.

The goal of creating a minority-majority district had to be balanced with other goals, including making sure the district makes geographic sense, said State Rep. Michael Moran, the House chairman of the Legislature's redistricting panel.

While the Boston Democrat said he personally supports Capuano, he also agrees that in the long term, a minority-majority district like the one he helped draw could make it easier for a minority candidate to get elected to Congress from Massachusetts.

"If Mike Capuano were ever to leave -- and I hope he doesn't because he's my congressman -- my guess is that you would see a very strong field of minority candidates running for that seat," he said.

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