State Representative Thomas M. Petrolati had a big job. Redrawing the state’s political map after the 2000 Census required weighing the traditional imperative to protect incumbents’ seats against civil rights laws demanding that legislative districts give growing minority communities their own voice.
Yet Petrolati professed to have a very limited grasp of the process he led as chairman of redistricting for the House of Representatives.
He said he didn't notice that his plan reduced the minority population of certain districts, including then-Speaker Thomas M. Finneran's. Asked if there was a Latino community within his own district, which included part of Springfield, he requested a definition for the term "Latino community," before answering, "I would believe so." He didn't "necessarily" know where Charlestown or Chelsea were located.
Latino and black voter groups sued over the plan Petrolati produced in 2001, and it was thrown out two years later by a panel of judges who wrote that it weakened minority voting strength, sacrificing “racial fairness to the voters on the altar of incumbency protection.”
At the civil trial, Petrolati testified that he tried to do the right thing by all citizens, no matter their race -- and that he worked very hard.
But the hands-on work re-drawing the district maps was led by attorney Lawrence S. DiCara, a redistricting specialist and boyhood friend of Finneran’s. Petrolati did not know how to use mapping software, and didn’t even know the difference between hardware and software. He said he took no notes at the five public hearings his committee held, and he couldn’t remember during a sworn deposition whether he had reviewed notes taken by his staff member.
When questioned about various terms and phrases in his committee's report, including the word "minority," Petrolati repeatedly said he didn’t know what they meant, although he later added, "I do understand the context of what was put before me."
He testified that he made it a policy not to return any calls or letters on the redistricting effort, or meet with any advocates, saying five public hearings was ample opportunity for public feedback.
Petrolati focused on his colleagues, meeting with each of his 159 fellow members about how redistricting might affect their districts.
"He's loyal to the body, to the Legislature," DiCara said in a recent interview. "He believes being in leadership, he owes loyalty to the speaker. Maybe he's old-fashioned, but that's who he is. He was very responsive to members on redistricting."
Carol C. Cleven, a liberal Republican representative from Chelmsford who bucked her party leaders -- Finneran's allies -- recalled that Petrolati would not agree to meet with her about redistricting. When she ran into him around the Statehouse several times, “he kept telling me I had no problem... my district would stay together.”
In fact, her district was dismantled and she retired.
"I was very shocked," said Cleven recently. "I felt he was very dishonest with me."
Petrolati did not respond to recent questions about his redistricting work.
Another telling change: in his entire State House career, Petrolati has been opposed in a general election just once, in 2000 by Republican William Johnson, a Granby selectman. In that race Johnson took 37 percent of the vote. When it came time to redraw his own Ludlow-based legislative district, Granby's address was parceled off into somebody else's district.