Activists prepare for battle over districts

Demand voting maps increase minority clout

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 10, 2011

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Voting rights activists, 10 years after the Massachusetts House enacted a redistricting plan that illegally diluted minority voting power, are dramatically revamping their strategy, pressuring the Legislature sooner and more aggressively than they have in past decades.

Emboldened by census data showing an increasingly diverse Massachusetts and by the successful lawsuit against the House’s 2001 redistricting plan, the activists are planning to preempt the Legislature by producing their own maps of legislative and congressional districts, months before lawmakers unveil their plans in the fall.

They are already sifting through 2010 Census data, hiring cartographers and lawyers, and cajoling lawmakers to enact plans that increase the odds of minorities winning seats in the state Legislature and Congress. Subtly and sometimes explicitly, they are threatening to sue the state again, if the Legislature does not adopt their plans or ones like them.

“The black community has been too passive in the past, and such passivity has led to injury to the black political establishment,’’ said Kevin C. Peterson, cochairman of a new activist group, the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition for Redistricting. “Our goal is to get aggressively out in front of this process and drive it toward specific outcomes and new political arrangements.’’

Stanley C. Rosenberg, who is reprising the role he held a decade ago as Senate chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said the activists who are lobbying him this time around have “significantly higher levels of resources and capacity than they had 10 years ago.’’

“Some of them are coming in with attorneys, they’re coming in telling us they have access to resources, and are going to do more sophisticated analysis than was done 10 years ago,’’ he said. “So what I say to people is, ‘Please give us as much information and lay it out as clearly as you can for us.’ But I also say, ‘There are many right maps, and please don’t draw a line in the sand, and say if you don’t do our map, we’re taking you to court.’ ’’

But the activists’ efforts have made it likely that redistricting, a notoriously litigious process that resulted in lawsuits in 42 states a decade ago, will trigger a legal battle in Massachusetts this year.

At stake is the future of political power in the state, as incumbents fight to protect their turf and advocacy groups jostle for their own interests. The process this year will be all the more charged because Massachusetts is being forced to reduce the number of congressional districts from 10 to nine.

The activists acknowledge that, in the past, lawmakers have ignored their pleas. But memories of the debacle from the last redistricting process are giving the activists added leverage.

State lawmakers are painfully aware that, in 2004, voting rights activists persuaded a panel of three federal judges to strike down redistricting plans the House had approved in 2001. The judges found that the House Redistricting Committee had discriminated against minority voters by packing them into one Boston district and stripping them out of two others, drawing boundaries that “sacrificed racial fairness . . . on the altar of incumbency protection.’’

The case forced the Legislature to draw districts again, cost the state more than $2 million in legal fees, and led to former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran’s conviction on a federal obstruction of justice charge after he gave sworn testimony minimizing his role in the redistricting process.

“It was a total embarrassment,’’ said Richard Belin, who was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the 2004 redistricting case. “I can’t believe the Legislature is going to let themselves get sued again. It was such a disaster, there is a lot of leverage for the community groups.’’

The groups mobilizing this year share many of the same goals — to increase minority representation in Washington and on Beacon Hill — but differ in their tactics and tone. While their maps could eventually put them at odds, they say they do not see each other as adversaries, for now.

All of them are seizing on new census data that shows the state’s Asian and Hispanic populations both climbed 46 percent from a decade ago, while the number of blacks rose 26 percent and the number of whites fell nearly 2 percent.

The Empowerment Coalition, which includes some black ministers and former lawmakers, is planning to be the first to propose legislative and congressional maps next month. One of the group’s primary goals is to create a Boston-based congressional district that stretches to Brockton and includes a majority of residents who are minorities.

The coalition has been getting strategic advice from Joyce London Alexander Ford, a retired US magistrate judge who presided when Finneran was arraigned on the obstruction of justice charge. Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, has offered to help the group with legal strategy.

In June, MassVOTE, a voting rights organization, and Oíste?, a Latino advocacy organization, plan to propose their own legislative and congressional maps. Unlike the Empowerment Coalition, they have not stated specific goals for districts, saying it is too early to make such declarations.

They are working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped win the 2004 case against the House redistricting plan. For now, the committee is hoping to work cooperatively with state lawmakers.

“We certainly haven’t threatened them or given them an ultimatum, saying ‘If you don’t do this, we’ll see you in court,’ ’’ said Rahsaan D. Hall, a staff attorney at the committee. “But we’ve made it clear what we’re interested in, and what we’d like to see is a fair and equitable process, looking at opportunities to maximize majority-minority districts.’’

Another group, however, is threatening to sue the state. The group,, was founded by Jack E. Robinson, a wealthy lawyer who ran a disastrous campaign against Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2000.

A longtime Republican, he recently became an independent, and obtained a ruling from state campaign finance officials that allows his group to collect unlimited corporate donations without publicly reporting them. He says he has donated $100,000 of his own money to the effort and plans to raise $500,000 more, with the primary goal of building a Suffolk County congressional district favorable to a minority candidate.

“We are already planning to go to court to litigate unless the Legislature adopts our plan or one similar to ours,’’ Robinson said.

He argued that other groups lack the financial muscle to battle the Legislature.

“That’s what it comes down to — pure power,’’ he said.

He has enlisted as his trial attorney Representative Daniel B. Winslow, a Norfolk Republican, former chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney, lawyer to Senator Scott Brown’s campaign committee, and veteran of past redistricting fights.

Winslow said he is representing Robinson’s group free of charge. To avoid conflicts of interest from his dual roles as a legislator and lawyer, he plans to recuse himself from the Legislature’s redistricting deliberations, although he may vote on the final plan.

Michael J. Moran, House chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said he was all but resigned to a legal challenge from one of the groups. “I’m not judging this process based upon whether we get or don’t get a lawsuit,’’ he said. “I welcome their voices.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at