As you drive south on Route 28, the first indication that Lawrence has become Andover is the trees.
Pockmarked roads smooth over, widening onto single-family homes with rich, green yards. Billboards and awnings hawking auto repairs and credit in Spanish and English give way to a car dealership offering Cadillacs. Instead of telephone poles covered in posters, there is a wealth of mature, canopied trees.
In Latino-majority Lawrence, just 14 percent of residents are college graduates. In overwhelmingly white Andover, 75 percent are. The gap between their median household incomes exceeds $100,000. Andover is home to one of the nation’s most prestigious preparatory academies; Lawrence public schools have been under state receivership for a decade.
But the neighboring municipalities are currently housed in the same Massachusetts Senate district, an arrangement that advocates say deprives Lawrence of its political voice.
The lines that bind them show how the state’s political maps can stifle or amplify a community’s power.
A city of immigrants, Lawrence is the district’s biggest population center, with nearly 90,000 people packed into under 7 square miles. But white Andover residents have held the Senate seat for years, buoyed by high voter turnout rates in the surrounding majority-white communities of Andover, Dracut, and Tewksbury.
Now, this Merrimack Valley district is under scrutiny as state lawmakers sketch new political districts in the once-in-a-decade process that follows the US Census. Advocates want a new Latino-majority state Senate seat anchored in Lawrence, and hope that by changing the map, they can empower Lawrence Latinos to elect a senator who represents their interests and their identity.
“It’s time that whoever the next [senator] is for Lawrence reflects not just the community but it’s somebody that actually went through the same issues as my constituents — someone who’s lived here,” said Pavel Payano, a Latino city councilor in Lawrence who has run twice for the Senate seat, in races that were ultimately won by white Andover candidates. “For decades, we’ve had other leaders from outside — well-meaning individuals. . . . But it’s just not the same.”
Civic engagement advocacy groups have pitched a new district that would split Lawrence from Andover, instead pairing the city with neighboring Methuen. The new district would be 52 percent Latino, up from 42 percent. It’s one of four new majority-minority state Senate districts they’d like to see drawn into Massachusetts maps this fall, reflecting the state’s population growth, which was driven by communities of color.
Redistricting is a puzzle, with myriad competing interests — political, legal, geographic — and a tight deadline approaching in early November. There are only so many ways to carve up the state, so that dissimilar but neighboring cities often find themselves grouped.
But the current district links one of the state’s most fortunate municipalities with one of its least, leaving its senator in the difficult position of advocating for communities whose demands are wildly different and sometimes at odds.
“The needs of my constituents in no way, shape, or form reflected the needs of constituents from Andover,” said Juana Matias, a former state representative from Lawrence. It is “much, much harder” to represent a district that straddles such different areas, she said.
That task currently falls to state Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who said he works to represent every neighborhood in his diverse district — and crows about directing more funding to Lawrence than he does the wealthier towns.
Matias praised Finegold’s work for Lawrence, but said, “It’s different when you live and you walk these streets, when you understand the majority of challenges people here face because you yourself and your family members faced them. Those experiences and voices are needed at the State House.”
Mapmakers have yet to unveil their own proposal for the Senate map. But leaders say that drawing majority-minority districts is a priority, and political insiders expect the new map to divide Andover and Lawrence.
“There’s no malintent for these legislators to pay more attention to the wealthier side of their district. It’s just gravity,” said Beth Huang, who heads a coalition of advocacy groups focused on redistricting. But the political structure leaves “wealthier communities front and center” while “marginalized people stay in the margins,” she said.
‘A good first step’
On its northern edge, Lawrence bleeds into Methuen with no observable barrier. On a recent walk along Tenney Street, even Frank Moran, who has lived in Lawrence since he was 8 and represents the city in the Massachusetts House, had to pause to check where the city became the town. The mixed-use buildings and multifamily homes don’t change; political yard signs, which abruptly stop pitching Lawrence candidates at the turn of a certain corner, are the best marker.
Here, in the Arlington district, is where rapidly diversifying Methuen most resembles Lawrence, and it’s communities like this that advocates had in mind when they proposed combining those two cities in a new map: natural overlap between neighborhoods, frequently traveled routes for employment and services.
Rania Henriquez sometimes says that she was born in Methuen but raised in Lawrence. The border between the two cities is fluid, she said, much more so than the boundaries between Lawrence and Andover.
Through her work for a Lawrence nonprofit, Henriquez, 22, convened three community meetings this year to ask Lawrence residents about this year’s redistricting process.
She found they knew little about the mechanics of political representation. Instead they talked about their communities, telling the story of a retired firefighter who saved a neighbor’s cat during the 2018 gas explosions, describing the porous borders between some neighborhoods and other barriers that feel impenetrable. In many cases, Henriquez recalled, attendees were surprised and confused at where the political lines sit — how they group disparate areas and sever communities from one another. Better representation would follow from adhering to the community’s lines, not the city borders, they said.
Drawing fair districts means helping residents see the connection between their daily challenges and the government that should be helping address them, Henriquez said — “having politics feel like something that matters . . . and that can change the outcome of things that you feel are unfair about your life.”
It’s “a good first step,” she said.
Part of the problem in Lawrence, advocates said, is apathy and disengagement from the political process. Celeste Cruz, whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic, said some of her older relatives have felt dismissed by elected officials who seemed less pressed by their concerns once they realized they weren’t eligible to vote.
And for those who are eligible, voters say, there is a malaise that comes from watching your candidates lose time and again.
Consider Payano. In both his runs for state Senate — including in 2018, when he pulled out of the race but still appeared on the ballot — he was the decisive victor in Lawrence. But white communities in the surrounding towns backed white candidates, and he lost.
It’s a similar story in other parts of the state: A city of mostly people of color votes overwhelmingly for a candidate of color to represent them, but a white voting bloc in the rest of the district proves decisive. In rare cases, communities of color rally behind a white candidate over someone who looks like them, but election results show that is not the norm.
In voting rights lawsuits, judges examine whether communities of color have the power to elect their candidates of choice, or whether they are defeated by a cohesive white voting bloc. Advocates fear those communities’ voices are being stifled in Brockton and Chelsea, along with Lawrence, and are pitching new maps to elevate them.
Most of the low-income, immigrant community of Chelsea sits in a state House district with the more affluent Charlestown. In the 2020 Democratic primary, State Representative Dan Ryan, who lives in Charlestown, won the district by securing big margins there, even though he lost every Chelsea precinct to City Councilor Damali Vidot, who is Puerto Rican.
Majority-Black and heavily Democratic Brockton shares a Senate district with towns that backed Donald Trump. In last year’s state Senate Democratic primary race, City Councilor Moises Rodrigues, an immigrant from Cape Verde, narrowly won Brockton. But State Senator Michael Brady, who is white, won the district by taking the other towns.
“People become more apathetic when you lose,” said William Dickerson, executive director of Brockton Interfaith Community. “If you’re always losing, then how am I supposed to believe that my vote really does count? Because I’m voting, I’m showing up, and my candidate still isn’t getting in, and my life is still in shambles.”
Another challenge is the way districts’ varied constituencies tug representatives in opposite directions.
“Our representatives are pulled to cater to the surrounding towns around us, and those surrounding towns vote for things that are opposite of what the average Brocktonian cares about,” Dickerson said. “It makes it extremely difficult for us to get the things that we need.”
Of course, drawing new maps means upending the districts incumbents currently represent.
In the Lawrence Senate seat, that’s Finegold, who has earned praise from his Lawrence colleagues in the state House for fighting hard for the city.
Finegold said he believes that under the current map, “anybody can win from any part of the district,” and that his own family’s immigrant story helps him understand the city’s residents.
But the Andover resident also recognized that “there’s a good chance whoever comes next will probably look different from me, and have a different last name than I do. And I think that’s okay.”
‘Nobody was paying attention to us’
Representative government has already made a difference in Lawrence.
Moran, the state representative, grew up in a 1980s Lawrence known for race riots. After he emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 8, he was called slurs in the hallways of his public high school and pulled off his bike on the streets. Standing on Tenney Street, greeting passersby in Spanish, he recalled a time when he would not have felt safe walking in the area. The city didn’t start to change until Latinos came into political power, he said.
“We were used to going to City Hall and nobody looked like us. We felt like nobody was paying attention to us. And they weren’t,” Moran said. “Until Latinos started getting together. . . . We started running for office.”
Decades later, the city’s political representatives more closely reflect its makeup, and Moran has become one of the Legislature’s redistricting success stories. A former Lawrence City Council president, Moran said he would never have run for the state House until mapmakers in 2011 redrew a Lawrence-based seat so that its population was mostly Latino.
Moran won the newly constituted district. He’s now the only person of color in House leadership.
“People like to see somebody that looks like them represent them,” Moran said. A new Senate map would give his city a new chance.