Metro

yvonne abraham

Mapping out true character

If you want to see what politicians are really made of, there’s no better place than the unsavory sausage-making process known as redistricting.

Redrawing the electoral map every 10 years can be an opportunity for our representatives to put the people first. Or it can be a festival of naked self-interest. We’ve seen both around here lately.

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Everyone loves a happy ending, so let’s start with the naked guy. Say hello to Boston city councilor Bill Linehan, who represents parts of Chinatown and South Boston.

Linehan had a close call in the city election a few weeks ago, edging out longtime activist Suzanne Lee by fewer than 100 votes. Most of Lee’s strength came from Chinatown, where she was principal of the Quincy Elementary School.

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Now, it just so happens that Linehan is chairman of the council’s Redistricting Committee, charged with drawing a new electoral map for the city. And it turns out his own District 2 has seen big electoral growth and that he has to move some voters out.

So which three precincts does the councilor propose to jettison? Why, one in Dorchester, and two in which Lee thrashed him, including one in the heart of Chinatown.

Apparently impervious to appalling appearances, Linehan has sketched a map that would make it a pretty safe bet he won’t face a challenge like Lee’s again.

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His proposal divides Chinatown, a largely Asian community with common interests, diluting it and making it politically irrelevant.

Has the guy ever heard of the Voting Rights Act?

But it’s not what it looks like, Linehan says. Honest!

“It appears that could be, you know, gerrymandering or whatever, and that’s a legitimate response,’’ he told the Globe this week. “But . . . I didn’t do it for those reasons.’’

Now, there’s a convincing denial.

Outrage has ensued. Linehan, who did not return a call, says the map will change.

Maybe, but politicians have long gotten away with this kind of thing in Massachusetts, where the term gerrymandering was coined.

Which is why the new map drawn by state legislators in October was such a breath of fresh air. Given our history, a lot of people expected the map, which redrew the state legislative and congressional districts, to be yet another incumbent-protection scheme.

Well, as Barney Frank can tell you, that’s not quite how it worked out. The committee led by Representative Michael Moran, of Brookline, and Senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, put forth a gutsy plan. It reunited some towns that had been divided, upped the number of majority-minority legislative districts, and gave more clout to the southeastern part of the state.

It’s a map even a Republican could love. It certainly made life difficult for several members of the congressional delegation, most notably Frank, who has decided to retire rather than run for reelection in a district where so many voters don’t know him.

Of course, state lawmakers had good reasons to be extra careful. Previous redistricting plans were challenged under the Voting Rights Act. And in 2007, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran pleaded guilty to obstructing justice for lying about his role in redistricting.

That’s not to say influence went unpeddled this time. These are still human beings. US Representative Ed Markey admitted to the Globe yesterday that he had used his political heft to ask that all nine congressional districts remain safely Democratic.

Still, I’ll take that over Linehan’s bald power-grab any day.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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