Over the past two decades, the once mostly white city of Brockton has transformed into New England’s only majority-Black city and the home of some of the country’s largest Haitian and Cape Verdean populations.
But not a single one of its lawmakers on Beacon Hill is a person of color.
The disconnect made it a prime candidate in advocates’ minds for a significant redraw of its political boundaries in the once-a-decade redistricting process. Yet while the House is looking to add a new majority-minority district in the city, Senate leaders this week proposed keeping the 105,000-person city’s lone state Senate district virtually untouched, stunning those hoping to further empower Brockton’s growing minority communities.
Under maps unveiled Tuesday, Brockton would remain clustered with mostly white suburbs south of Boston, all of which its current senator — a white Democrat from Brockton who had previously been rapped by the Senate’s ethics committee — handily won last year to fend off a Cape Verdean challenger in their Democratic primary.
The decision stoked an already heated debate about the best way to draw political lines to both account for Massachusetts’ growing populations of color and open opportunities for them to select their preferred candidates within a Legislature that is far whiter than the state as a whole.
“This is just another moment that shows there is a disconnect for people being able to really see and hear Brockton,” said William Dickerson, executive director of Brockton Interfaith Community. “We have to do better if we’re going to say we continue to care about all people. The needle isn’t moving fast enough for the people who are suffering.”
Creating a majority-minority district is no guarantee a person of color will be elected in it. But expanding these districts weighed heavily in mapmakers’ decisions, including in the Senate, where officials proposed creating two new districts: one anchored by the Latino-majority city of Lawrence and another that includes Chelsea, Everett, Charlestown, and Cambridge.
But it offered only modest changes to the district that includes Brockton. The district would lose parts of mostly white Easton and gain a greater share of East Bridgewater, encompassing a suburb that is 88 percent white and voted for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election.
The rest of the proposed district — featuring the towns of Halifax, Hanson, Hanover, Plympton, and Whitman — would remain the same. Roughly 53 percent of the district’s total population would be white, according to Senate data.
A coalition including the ACLU of Massachusetts, MassVOTE, and other groups had pushed lawmakers to instead create a Brockton-centered district that included Randolph, Avon, and Stoughton. Under that map, advocates said, 34 percent of the population would be white and 45 percent of the population would be Black. It would more closely reflect Brockton’s own makeup — even as white voters would have still made up the largest voting bloc.
The 40-member Senate currently has no Black members.
“It still would have been a chance to create a strong Black district, especially in an area that has long seen white individuals represent Black individuals,” said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE.
But Senator William N. Brownsberger, who led the chamber’s redistricting process, said the Brockton district was “not there quantitatively.”
“It is diverse, but there was not one particular race that we could build a voting rights argument around,” the Belmont Democrat said. “The law requires us to draw districts without regard to race. You cannot discriminate based on race unless there’s a Voting Rights Act violation to be remedied.”
Such violations could occur when the structure of a district prevents a minority from electing candidates of their choice. “And in Brockton,” Brownsberger said, “we did not identify the violation.”
He also said protecting an incumbent — in Brockton’s case, Democratic Senator Michael D. Brady — was not the reason he opted not to draw the majority-minority district. Without a mandate to address a voting rights violation, “you are down to the larger decision . . . of how to draw all the South Shore seats. And in that fabric, continuity is one thread.”
Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, called Brownsberger’s approach “overly cautious.”
Even where lawmakers may not be forced to draw a majority-minority district, they are often permitted to do so under the law, Sellstrom said. One legal justification for doing so would be to keep together “communities of interest” — defined by shared language, cultural traditions, or other factors — as advocates argued was necessary in Brockton and Randolph, a 35,000-person community, where like Brockton, roughly 70 percent of the residents are people of color.
“It certainly is something that’s permitted under the law and should be done for policy reasons,” Sellstrom said of drawing the Brockton district.
The state House took a different approach. Michael J. Moran, who led that chamber’s process, said Tuesday, “There is not a single place on the House map where you can draw a majority-minority opportunity district where we haven’t.” The 160-member House ultimately proposed creating 13 new such districts to make 33 in total, including two in Brockton.
Brockton’s own representation hasn’t reflected its changing demographics. Beyond the State House, the city has never popularly elected a mayor of color, and its only minority chief executive — Moises Rodrigues, a city councilor and immigrant from Cape Verde — served less than six months after the council appointed him to fill an expiring term in 2019.
Last year, Rodrigues sought to unseat Brady, a longtime fixture in Brockton elected politics who a year earlier had his chairmanship stripped following a drunken driving arrest. Rodrigues, now an at-large city councilor, narrowly won Brockton, but Brady won the primary after taking each of the district’s other towns. He eventually won reelection to a seat he’s held since 2015.
Brady, a former city councilor and state representative, said that he has deep roots in the city and relationships that span its various communities.
“I’ve known the community all my life because I’ve never moved out of the city,” Brady said Wednesday. “There are some people who didn’t want my district to change at all — a lot of people, for that matter. We’ve always been a very diverse community, and I’ve felt I’ve done a good job representing all of the people.”
The city’s other representatives also have drawn from deep wells of support in the city. Representatives Gerard J. Cassidy and Michelle M. DuBois are both Brockton residents and former city councilors. House majority leader Claire D. Cronin, who President Biden nominated to be the ambassador to Ireland, lives in Easton but was born in Brockton.
In reshuffling their own lines, House leaders proposed having two districts drawn entirely within the city, including a new 11th Plymouth District that would be incumbent-free and where 82 percent of the population would be people of color.
The 10th Plymouth, which currently includes West Bridgewater and parts of East Bridgewater, would also be redrawn entirely within Brockton and become a majority-minority district. DuBois, its current representative, said she advocated to shape the district that way.
“What these districts are really about is empowering low-income and communities of color to be able elect someone who isn’t wealthy, who isn’t a child of a previous state representative, who isn’t politically connected but is of the community,” said DuBois, who’s held the seat since 2015.
“I grew up in Brockton my whole life, in a very poor and a very working-class family,” she said. “So when you say things like, ‘Oh you won’t really be reflective of the community,’ I believe the values that I hold are the values of my neighbors here in Brockton.”
DuBois said she also sees merit in redrawing the Senate district to connect Brockton and Randolph.
“It didn’t happen,” she said. “But it does make sense.”