Drawing legislative districts is traditionally a political minefield, but the Boston City Council may be setting a new standard for making the job difficult.
For months, the councilors have been trying to draw new City Council districts, as required by law. This should not be all that difficult an exercise, given that the demographics of the city are not radically different from a decade ago, the last time the council took on this task.
But the notion that this might be easy was officially debunked when Mayor Thomas M. Menino vetoed one new map, and then another. A coalition of activist groups watching the process has likewise been dissatisfied with the various attempts to draw new districts, rejecting two proposals last week.
At issue, supposedly, is reflecting the diversity of the city. Of the nine district council seats, only two are held by people of color, a statistic many find disturbing.
The outdated nature of the current map became plain — at least in the eyes of progressives and activists — during the last campaign, when Suzanne Lee, an Asian-American, lost a close race in a South Boston-dominated district that includes Chinatown and part of the South End. Why is Chinatown in a district with South Boston?
But the overriding issue is incumbent protection. The quest to make safe districts even safer for incumbents is thwarting any real effort at reform.
The Communities of Color Coalition for Redistricting, which may end up suing the city, issued a press release that summarized its difference with the various plans in play. The districts included too many minorities packed into one district, too many siphoned from another, and so forth. In District 3, a 1 percent increase in white voters was cited as a “major” setback. (Yes, a 1 percent change apparently qualifies as major.)
The inanity of this exercise was captured most succinctly in the words of one city official: “This has become a complete [mess].”
I won’t attempt to recap all the silliness. But I will summarize the conflicts on the council by saying that Charles Yancey, whose district is more than 90 percent black, wants to make it even less diverse, in the name of unifying Mattapan. At the same time, several other councilors don’t seem to want major changes in their districts.
The other black and Latino councilors oppose Yancey’s plan, but they don’t seem to be unanimous on what they do support. Meanwhile, the coalition is frustrated at the whole lot of them, who are normally their allies.
It’s too bad that the councilors can’t muster the nerve to do the one thing that would really make a difference: eliminate the districts altogether. I don’t care what any coalition says, it hardly matters whether Chinatown is attached to the South End or East Boston. The best way to make the votes of Boston’s people of color resonate would be to do away with districts dominated by South Boston, or West Roxbury, or Dorchester. Given the changes in the electorate, an open system would produce a more diverse council. Instead, we get a debate dominated by minutiae.
Of course, such changes would require courage, and that apparently poses a problem. The last time I floated the idea of a City Council without districts, I got a call from a councilor I won’t embarrass by naming. He said, “Can you imagine if we all had to run against each other every two years? Nothing would ever get done!”
It’s not like anything is getting done now, but I give him points for honesty: What counts here is making sure everyone is comfortable and happy.
But comfortable isn't everything. In a city that has changed dramatically since 1983, the City Council is almost frozen in amber.
Eventually, it won’t be only activists who’ve had enough.