“Map expected to add to diversity,” read a headline in the Globe.
It was November 2011, and politicians and outside advocates alike were pleased with the state’s new political maps, drawn in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process that follows the US Census. Together, they would create the state’s first majority-minority congressional district, a seat that would one day belong to Boston Democrat Ayanna Pressley. And they doubled the number of majority-minority seats in the state House of Representatives to 20, an effort they hoped would make Beacon Hill look more like, and better serve, the state.
But 10 years later, as state lawmakers again embark upon the redistricting process, just half of the 20 House districts drawn to include mostly people of color are actually represented by lawmakers of color. And the state Legislature remains far whiter than the state population.
New Census data set to be released Thursday is expected to show that Massachusetts has diversified further over the last 10 years, giving lawmakers the opportunity to draw more majority-minority districts. But the last decade shows that the maps alone don’t chart a path to power for people of color in Massachusetts’ insular and calcified politics.
“It’s disappointing,” said Rahsaan Hall, who was involved in the 2011 process and now directs the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts. But it’s not “surprising,” he said, “because I know Massachusetts and I know politics.”
That most of the new majority-minority districts did not elect candidates of color is not necessarily a failure of the redistricting process itself, those involved say.
Instead, it illustrates the complicated, compounding challenges facing candidates of color in a state where political outsiders are viewed with profound skepticism and political insiders are overwhelmingly white. For marginalized communities to flex their voting power and elect lawmakers who look like them, analysts say, everything has to go right — a process that starts, but cannot end, with fair maps.
“There’s no guarantee of an outcome,” said Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ only Black governor, who signed the new maps into law in 2011. “What it’s meant to do is to produce a chance — a viable, realistic chance for a candidate of color who is willing to go out there and do the work.”
In rare cases, those candidates won.
“The altar of incumbency protection”
Massachusetts, proud beacon of democracy, is also the birthplace of the word “gerrymander.” It was coined for Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 approved a legendary salamander-shaped district that carved up the territory of his political opponents and built advantage for his allies, the Democratic-Republicans.
The state has had a mixed history with redistricting since. In 2004, federal judges struck down parts of the state’s 2001 legislative map after finding Massachusetts had discriminated against people of color by packing them into one Boston district, drawing boundaries that “sacrificed racial fairness . . . on the altar of incumbency protection.” The debacle forced Beacon Hill to redraw the maps, cost $2 million in legal fees, and ultimately brought down House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after he lied under oath about his role in redistricting.
In 2011, mapmakers knew they could not repeat the mistakes of the previous decade, and promised an open, thorough process. On notoriously opaque Beacon Hill, the 2011 redistricting law was “probably the most transparent piece of legislation that has ever been done before or since,” said Pam Wilmot, then the executive director of good government group Common Cause Massachusetts.
Redistricting is a tightrope walk. As population swells and shifts, drawing fair districts can mean forcing two colleagues to compete for one seat, or leaving a lawmaker living outside the district she once held. Drawing districts that dilute the voting power of people of color — either by “packing” communities into one district or “cracking” them among several where their numbers are too small to wield influence — violates the Voting Rights Act, as can failing to draw a majority-minority district where one is possible.
Cognizant of the political realities of the process, but knowing the maps needed to reflect the state’s growing diversity, advocates in 2011 proposed a total of 18 majority-minority districts in the state House. They were overjoyed when the lawmakers running the process came back with 20.
The goal of a majority-minority district is not necessarily to elect a person of color, but to empower the district’s communities of color to elect the candidate of their choice. In some cases, that candidate may be white, just as some people of color represent majority-white districts on Beacon Hill now.
But some advocates doubt that that’s what’s happening in so many Massachusetts districts.
“Nine times out of 10, the candidate of choice in Black districts are Black candidates,” said Kevin Peterson, founder and executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, an advocacy group. When candidates of color aren’t winning those seats, he said, mapmakers must take notice.
The people walking the halls of power must serve their constituents well. It helps if they share their lived experiences, too, advocates said.
That’s why they decry a State House where men and white people are overrepresented by dozens of seats compared with population, and a state Senate that has very few people of color and no Black members, in a state where the non-Hispanic white population is about 70 percent.
The lack of diversity on Beacon Hill is “shameful,” said Tony Van Der Meer, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who is involved in redistricting. “We’re still fighting to be treated justly and have the kind of representation that’s necessary to get a sense of equity in this society.”
For many, the biggest success of the 2011 map was the new Seventh Congressional District, where in 2018 Pressley unseated two-decade incumbent representative Michael E. Capuano of Somerville, a half-Irish, half-Italian progressive Democrat who had the support of then-mayor Martin J. Walsh and Patrick, the former governor. Her victory, which made her the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, made history, along with a statement: Incumbents aren’t untouchable.
Pressley’s election is a case study for how candidates of color carve their paths to power. In 2011, lawmakers drew a majority-minority congressional district, anticipating that over time, as the district shifted and teenagers aged into the voting population, it would be poised to elect a person of color.
But the demographics weren’t the whole story, analysts said. It also took Pressley — a dynamic candidate with years of experience on the Boston City Council and the chutzpah to challenge an incumbent who’d held the seat for two decades. And it took a particular moment in US political history — the midterm election rebuke of Donald Trump, when the nation elected more diverse representatives.
Pressley’s win was a political earthquake. But the groundwork had been laid years before during the 2011 redistricting cycle, and she had been beating the path in preparation.
Another victor in the 2011 maps was Democratic state Representative Frank A. Moran, a former Lawrence City Council president who won a newly drawn, majority-Hispanic seat in 2012.
“Redistricting was the only reason why I ran for that seat,” said Moran, who is now one of the only people of color in House leadership. “There was no way I would be able to win that seat the way it was laid out before.”
“A viable, realistic chance”
But Moran and Pressley are the exceptions, not the rule; most of the new majority-minority seats are held by white lawmakers.
In some cases, that’s because no people of color ran, even in districts mostly populated by people of color. But in many cases, a candidate of color ran and lost. Most of the 20 majority-minority House seats had open-seat elections over the last decade, contests that typically give political newcomers a better chance.
Majority-minority districts are defined by their total population, not their population of eligible voters, meaning their largest voting blocs may still be white residents.
In other districts, people of color may make up the majority of eligible voters, but turn out to vote at rates lower than their white neighbors. Or Black residents, Asian residents, and Latino residents — who together make up a majority of people of color in a district — may support different candidates, making a white voting bloc decisive even if white residents aren’t the majority of the district. To advance equity and to diversify the state House, advocates say, mapmakers must pay close attention both to districts’ population of eligible voters and their historical turnout patterns.
And it doesn’t help that Massachusetts elections are some of the least competitive in the country. In 2018, less than half of the legislative seats were contested in either the general or primary election, according to a report from MassINC.
Diverse representation, Patrick said, depends on candidates who are willing to seek office even when a mostly white establishment tells them “it’s not your turn,” as he heard when he ran for governor.
“There are going to be good people who are doing a fine job in office, and Black and brown candidates have to be willing to say, ‘You know what, I think I can do a better job,’ ” Patrick said. In politics, little is harder than beating an incumbent; in Massachusetts, most of those incumbents are white.
In part, advocates and politicians said, it’s a pipeline problem.
“There’s huge barriers,” said Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, executive director of Worcester Interfaith, a multiracial community organization. “You need to raise funds to run for these positions. You need to have campaign managers who know how to run for office.”
And there are other small but profound ways in which power perpetuates itself — like through special elections, low-turnout affairs that experts say benefit those who are already established politically. According to a 2019 MassINC report, almost a quarter of Massachusetts state representatives, and more than a third of state senators, got to Beacon Hill first through a special election, including some white lawmakers who now hold the majority-minority seats. Lawmakers can retire at advantageous moments for the allies who are eyeing their districts.
It’s “an insider’s game,” said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE.
State Representative Daniel J. Ryan worked as an aide to Capuano for years before winning a special election in 2014. His district, one of the 10 new majority-minority districts drawn in 2011, includes much of the low-income, largely immigrant community of Chelsea as well as the more affluent Charlestown.
Chelsea City Councilor Damali Vidot challenged him last year in the Democratic primary, saying she respected him but thought she could better advocate for hard-hit Chelsea during the pandemic.
Vidot, who is Puerto Rican, beat Ryan in Chelsea. But he swept her in Charlestown, where far more votes were cast, and won with 57 percent of the vote. The results, said Beth Huang, who heads the Massachusetts Voter Table, show that “many Latinx voters were not able to elect the candidate of their choice.”
Ryan did not return a request for comment. Vidot blames her loss in part on COVID-19 thwarting traditional campaigning. But she also said the district map played a role; how well-represented are Chelsea’s voters within their majority-minority district if most of the district’s voters are white?
“The system,” she said, “is set up to favor [Ryan] and people who look like him.”
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.