Nothing simple about drawing these lines

Legislative districts may be toughest of all

‘Anybody who thinks it can be a nonpolitical process is ignoring history,’ says Secretary of State William F. Galvin. ‘Anybody who thinks it can be a nonpolitical process is ignoring history,’ says Secretary of State William F. Galvin.
By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / December 23, 2010

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The legislators responsible for drawing the state’s new political districts will have state-of-the-art computers, a snazzy website, experienced consultants, and the input of Massachusetts residents from every walk of life. At its core, however, redistricting is a nakedly political process, with elected officials fighting over turf and communities of interest seeking fair representation.

With the Bay State losing one of its 10 US House seats, following the 2010 Census, the stakes are especially high as lawmakers begin devising new boundaries for congressional districts and for the 160 House and 40 Senate districts in the Legislature. Many constituencies have a keen interest in the outcome, from incumbent members of the congressional delegation fighting to keep their jobs to advocacy groups concerned about minority representation.

State Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, Democrat of Amherst and Senate chairman of the redistricting committee, said the panel will hold public hearings in all 10 existing congressional districts and build a website to give residents access to large amounts of information.

“Basically, our objective is to have as participatory and transparent a process as possible,’’ said Rosenberg, who had a similar role in the last redistricting.

Because of the proliferation and advancement of communication technology, Rosenberg expects much more input, not only from advocacy groups but from ordinary citizens, many of whom will have the tools to draw and recommend their own maps. He is already receiving e-mails and Facebook messages, Rosenberg said.

A coalition of voting rights and minority advocacy groups is forming and will make recommendations to increase transparency in the process, said Alejandra St. Guillen, the new executive director of the Latino political organization ¿Oiste? These groups hope to have their greatest impact in the redrawing of state legislative districts, where racial and linguistic minorities, despite some recent gains in the House, are underrepresented, especially in the state Senate.

They want to avoid a repeat of the last legislative redistricting plan, which surfaced on a Friday and was approved the following Monday, she said. That produced a voting rights suit challenging the districts. Thomas M. Finneran, then speaker of the House, later pleaded guilty to testifying falsely in the case and was fined and disbarred.

Rosenberg’s House counterpart, state Representative Michael J. Moran, Democrat of Brighton, predicted that state legislative redistricting, in which population shifts could spark significant movement of boundaries, will be more challenging than reducing the number of congressional districts.

“Everybody wants to talk about Congress, but the real problem is with the [state] representatives, because there are 160 of them, and we will be dealing with precincts, as opposed to towns,’’ Moran said, pointing out that the committee will have a budget of at least $750,000 for technology, consultants, and staff.

Still, the fight over the nine remaining US House seats could be brutal if all 10 Democratic incumbents seek reelection. That would pit two members of Congress in a political death match not seen since 1982, when Democrat Barney Frank and Republican Margaret Heckler were thrown into the same district and Frank prevailed.

“Anybody who thinks it can be a nonpolitical process is ignoring history, because the members of Congress have sought to influence the process going back probably to the founding of the republic,’’ Secretary of State William F. Galvin said.

Bruce E. Tarr, the new Senate minority leader and a Republican of Gloucester, said that, like Galvin, GOP legislators want an independent commission to assist in the process, which in recent history has created limited opportunities for his party.

“We’ve suffered from a lack of independence in the process,’’ Tarr said. Now, he said, “there’s a very high-stakes situation for embedded political interests.’’

Congressional redistricting will be complicated by where many of the incumbents live.

The four westernmost counties have a combined population of about 825,000, roughly 100,000 more than that of the average new district. Yet there are two seats held by incumbents who live about 25 miles apart in the area, John W. Olver of Amherst and Richard E. Neal of Springfield.

Olver’s Firsts District includes 107 of the state’s 351 communities and reaches from the New York border to Pepperell in Middlesex County. Neal’s Second District extends from the Northampton-Springfield area into the Blackstone Valley and Bellingham in Norfolk County. With one fewer district statewide, both those districts would have to expand eastward.

Rosenberg, who also lives in Amherst, is an advocate for keeping two western districts.

“My responsibility is to conduct an open and honest process that produces a result that is best for the whole Commonwealth, but like every member of the committee, my region will expect me to look out for my region,’’ he said.

There is even more congestion in the eastern part of the state, where five US representatives currently represent half the state but live within a 10-mile radius of Boston, assuming newly elected William R. Keating in the 10th District, continues to reside in Quincy.

The result is a series of oddly shaped congressional gerrymanders, with Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston in the Ninth District, Barney Frank of Newton in the Fourth, Michael E. Capuano of Somerville in the Eighth, and Edward J. Markey of Malden in the Seventh.

Brian Mooney can be reached at