Up until the last minute Thursday, there was jockeying in the hallowed halls of the State House over who would represent New Bedford in the state Legislature over the next decade.
Sure, New Bedford was set to get a minority-majority House district for the first time. But don’t for a minute think it was because most of the incumbents in the Legislature really wanted it that way so much.
The biggest reason behind the minority-majority districts is because in 2004 the Black Political Task Force won a lawsuit against Secretary of State Bill Galvin.
A three-judge district court panel ruled that the state Legislature — spell that mostly Democratic white incumbents — had illegally configured 17 legislative districts in Greater Boston so that majority white areas would get one more white-dominated district than they deserved by population and geographic compactness. The white district was created at the expense of a minority one. Even though the Legislature created one minority-majority district that year, they could have created two.
This all took place during the 2000 redistricting process — you know the one in which House Speaker Tom Finneran eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and lost his leadership post and state pension. The Legislature has been running scared ever since.
After the 2010 Census, the House created 20 minority-majority districts for the first time, and this year the House added 13 more — including one in New Bedford. A SouthCoast progressive group had asked that a minority-majority district be created by removing two of five state reps from the city, Bill Straus of Mattapoisett and Chris Markey of Dartmouth. Straus spoke at the same redistricting public hearing against his removal from New Bedford. In making his argument, he cited the shared interests of New Bedford and its eastern suburbs. And he pointed out that he is a former attorney for the New Bedford NAACP.
The state Senate has not been running quite so scared as the House.
The Senate this year initially proposed two new minority-majority state Senate districts but it did not propose one for Brockton, where a majority of the citizens are people of color. Instead, the Senate leadership came out with a map that attached Brockton to nearly all-white suburbs instead of the nearby suburb of Randolph, which is a community that like Brockton, has a significant minority population.
A little background here. The incumbent white state senator from Brockton, Michael Brady, two years ago was stripped of his Senate chairmanship after they found he tried to improperly influence a police officer during his drunk-driving case. Does that sound familiar?
The district originally devised by the Senate protected Brady — always the first and highest priority of any redistricting process in Massachusetts. Astonishingly, Sen. William Brownsberger, the joint chair of the redistricting committee, said he did not provide Brockton with a minority-based Senate seat because there was no race where they could build a voting-rights argument. Really?
Once again, it took the threat of a lawsuit by Black leaders to make the Senate come to its senses. Minority leaders said that if Brownsberger wanted a lawsuit, they would bring him a lawsuit and sue the state over the proposed Brockton district. The Senate gave in and created a Brockton and Randolph-based district.
There will also not be a minority-majority state Senate seat in New Bedford this year. You have two powerful state senators — Mark Montigny of New Bedford and Ways and Means Chairman Mike Rodrigues of Westport — who come from geographic locations close by each other along the New Bedford to Fall River corridor.
It would have been interesting to see if you could have created a minority-majority Senate seat out of parts of New Bedford and the southern part of Fall River, with Dartmouth and Westport in between. There is no doubt that there will be a good chance you can create one 10 years from now.
The gerrymandering to keep minorities out of power and the protection of white incumbents has gone hand-in-hand in Massachusetts for a long time.
You know, making safe districts for the guys and gals who talk so independently before they get to the Legislature and then when they arrive end up voting for the Tommy Finnerans and Sal DiMasis and Bob DeLeos. Folks who above all else want to stay in office. Some might say there’s more than a few of those types in the Greater New Bedford legislative delegation.
It’s a hard decision for a freshman lawmaker when he goes up to Boston. Do I speak my mind and speak truth to power and maybe hurt my constituents? Or do I call out the dubious dealmakers in the State House corridors and vote for a truly good man or woman to be leader?
So, what exactly is set to happen in New Bedford this year?
Late Thursday the House passed a plan that split the difference — it created a minority-majority district in New Bedford but it also kept three suburban legislators representing small parts of the city in the far North End. (The Senate won’t vote until next week.) The new district, which will be represented by second-term Rep. Chris Hendricks, snakes along the Acushnet River from just north of Brooklawn Park down to the Monte Park area.
Dax Crocker, one of the leaders of the group that advocated for the minority-majority district in New Bedford and placing New Bedford and Fall River into the same congressional district, on Thursday thanked the Joint Redistricting Committee for listening to some of their concerns.
Not only had the Southcoast Drawing Democracy Coalition achieved the minority-majority district in New Bedford, the redistricting committee had also listened to at least some its suggestions to add more Latinos and Cape Verdeans into the proposed district by transferring several more precincts south of the downtown from a district currently represented by Tony Cabral into the new area represented by Chris Hendricks.
The district might have been even more heavily minority, but you would have had to remove Hendricks who lives at the very northern edge of the district. The configuration proposed by the Drawing Democracy Coalition would also have separated Cabral, a Portuguese immigrant, from a heavily Portuguese precincts around Rivet Street.
Remember, incumbent protection is always the highest priority of any redistricting process conducted by the Legislature. That’s why an independent commission would be a better way to go.
In any event, Crocker points out that both Hendricks’ district, the 11th Bristol, and Cabral’s, the 13th Bristol, could very well both be minority-majority districts in 10 years. The new 11th will already be 53% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Hispanic People of Color) and the new 13th will be 40% BIPOC.
It’s not that minorities who live in these districts don’t like Hendricks and Cabral, who are both on the progressive side of the political spectrum. They do. But Crocker’s group is planning for the long term.
“What is most important is that 90% of the people of color in New Bedford live in the two districts,” Crocker said. Minority kids who live in these new districts will soon be voting citizens, he said. “In the near future, both are going to be majority-minority.”
One word about complaints that in this redistricting process, the town of Acushnet, like New Bedford, ended up being split between two representatives — Paul Schmid of Westport and Straus.
The current incumbent in this district is Hendricks and he’s popular there. In order to create the minority-majority district, comparatively small Acushnet had to be divided. There were some complaints that a small town needs one rep. But should a town of about 11,000 people get its own rep in Boston while roughly 24,000 Latino residents of New Bedford do not have one? Answer that one, but while you are answering it, think of the fact that an additional 10,000 or so Black and Cape Verdean residents of the city also do not have their own rep.
One last observation about the redistricting process.
As the sun went down Wednesday, the proposed plan had eliminated one of the five current New Bedford reps, with Schmid having been relegated to Acushnet. When the sun came up Thursday, Schmid was back in New Bedford on the state’s proposed district map, and the city had five reps again.
The feeling among the incumbent SouthCoast House members seems to be that the three suburban legislators having a piece of New Bedford gives the city more voices to speak for it.
Dartmouth Rep. Chris Markey argues that the folks who own the fishing boats, seafood houses and mills tend to live in the suburbs but have a big stake in how New Bedford does.
“New Bedford is the core of everything around here,” he said.
True enough. But it can also be seen from another perspective.
The far North End neighbors that will continue to be represented by legislators from Dartmouth, Westport and Mattapoisett tend to be a somewhat lower demographic than the suburbs. And they live in a community that has much stronger taxation and government service issues than the surrounding suburbs.
Would it not be better for all of the roughly 16,000 or so residents of that part of New Bedford to be attached to just one or two suburban communities where a city resident could more effectively compete for the regional seat? Maybe a suburban legislator would even see the city’s concerns as a priority equal to the sometimes divergent needs of suburban constituents.
Noble thoughts … but don’t hold your breath when the primary goal is protecting incumbents.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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