Adrian Walker

Boston City Council districts should be scrapped

None of your neighbors will think less of you for being unaware of this, but Boston is now many months into one of the dreariest exercises in all of politics: redistricting.

Yes, this is that time when advocacy groups engage in the very important work of squabbling endlessly over how it might be possible to elect one more person of color to our 13-member City Council, which has been dominated for all of its modern history by white men.

The jockeying has already begun, the pleas not to “pack” this district, or to “unpack” that district.


There is a better way, and it requires just one simple step. Embracing reality.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It is time to go back to the future, and get rid of the districts. Yep, all of them. Want a really representative Boston City Council? The best way to get there, to empower voters of color, to form a body that really looks like Boston, is to elect the entire council citywide.

It really doesn't matter whether it has nine members, as it used to, or 13 members, as the council does now. But district representation does not work anymore, and tinkering with the district map will not fix what’s wrong with it.

I’ll keep the history lesson brief. For decades, Boston voters elected nine city councilors, who were all elected citywide. Partly in response to absolutely valid charges that running at large was too difficult for people of color in a mostly white city, and partly because district races were (wrongly) expected to be more competitive, Boston went to the current hybrid of four at-large councilors and nine district councilors in 1983. Roxbury got a district, and Mattapan and what was then the black part of Dorchester got a district. Thus began the era of the virtually all-white — as opposed to literally all-white — City Council.

The hybrid paradigm simply no longer works. Packing so many of the city’s voters of color into a couple of districts has deprived them of any influence in the other districts. To this day, only two districts have ever elected a black, Latino, or Asian councilor.


Meanwhile, the makeup of the city has changed substantially. Councilors like Ayanna Pressley, who is black, and Felix Arroyo, a Latino, placed first and second in the last citywide election, but at the district level, stagnation has ruled for almost 30 years.

Not surprisingly, some incumbents like it that way. Charles Yancey — the only person who has ever represented District 4 (Mattapan/Dorchester) — has called for a district that would be 96 percent people of color.

The current map also works for people like Bill Linehan, the redistricting chairman, who eked out a victory in his last race thanks to the heavy volume of votes in his district from South Boston. He beat Suzanne Lee, an Asian-American, but barely.

“The system we have now is clearly broken and disproportionately disfavors people of color,” said Kevin C. Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition, a voting rights group. “I think people of color would fare better in an at-large system.”

The truth is, Pressley and Arroyo have already proven that running citywide is not the impediment it may have been a generation ago.


Tito Jackson — whose popularity extends far beyond his Roxbury district — wouldn’t have any trouble winning citywide, and Lee could probably win, too, if she didn’t have to run in a district dominated by South Boston.

I think an all-citywide council would likely be be more diverse than the current one — and more of a counterweight to the virtually unchecked power of the mayor.

The bottom line is we don’t have to be locked into a council that doesn’t look like, or represent, Boston. Incremental change won’t work. It’s time for the entire city to speak with one voice. Districts must go.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at Adrian_Walker.