After days of pressure from advocates — and facing the prospect of a lawsuit — Massachusetts lawmakers on Tuesday moved to reshape their proposed map of state legislative lines to carve out a new Brockton-based state Senate district where the majority of residents would be people of color.
The redrawn seat south of Boston marks the biggest pivot among House and Senate districts from what lawmakers initially unveiled last week as part of the decennial redistricting process. The reversal also represents a major victory for advocacy groups who argued that the original Senate proposal would dilute the political power of minority residents in Brockton, New England’s only majority-Black city.
Census data show that Massachusetts’ population growth over the last decade was driven by Black, Hispanic, and Asian residents. Advocacy groups said lawmakers must draw districts that empower those communities of color to elect their preferred candidates, sending them to a Legislature that has remained far whiter than the state as a whole.
The version the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Redistricting released Tuesday — and which the House is likely to vote on Thursday — proposes tying Brockton with Avon and parts of Randolph, a 35,000-person community, where like Brockton, roughly 70 percent of the residents are people of color.
It also would attach the towns of Plympton and Hanover, which are currently grouped with Brockton, to neighboring Senate districts. The Brockton district’s population would be 37 percent Black, with people of color making up a majority of the population. The non-Hispanic white population would stand at 46 percent.
In the original proposal released Oct. 12, Senate leaders had proposed keeping Brockton, a 105,000-person city, clustered with several mostly white suburbs that surround it, leaving the seat virtually unchanged from its current iteration, which is represented by Senator Michael D. Brady, a Brockton Democrat. Advocates and residents are concerned that under the current boundaries, the more conservative white voters in surrounding suburbs drown out the voices and interests of Brockton’s communities of color.
The Drawing Democracy Coalition argued this week that lawmakers may have violated voting rights law by not drawing a majority-minority Senate district based around Brockton, whose entire State House delegation is white. But by now reshaping the lines, the Senate map would double the number of majority-minority districts in the 40-member Senate chamber from three to six. The other two, featured in the original plan, include Lawrence and a combination of Chelsea, Everett, Charlestown, and Cambridge.
State Senator William N. Brownsberger, the Belmont Democrat co-leading redistricting efforts, said the new boundaries surrounding Brockton are a response to robust community feedback, including a Monday letter that hinted at litigation.
“This is a compromise position which we hope will be perceived as reasonable,” Brownsberger said. “We’re stretching to respond to the strong input we’ve received.”
Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and gubernatorial candidate who sits on the redistricting committee, said she is “relieved” the panel responded to calls to recognize the “opportunity for BIPOC empowerment around Brockton.”
“I’m glad the Senate will be on the right side of history on this one,” said Chang-Díaz, the only woman of color in the Senate.
The district resembles, but is not identical to, one advocates proposed earlier this year which would have grouped Brockton with Randolph, Avon, and Stoughton. William Dickerson, executive director of Brockton Interfaith Community, said the reworked district is a “good start,” but he questioned if the changes will be enough to help begin reversing decades of disenfranchisement that “has really left people feeling powerless.”
Others praised the change, saying it was proof both that advocacy matters and that lawmakers were genuine in promising an open process.
“Often we wonder, is it worth it to testify? Is it worth it to show up? And the answer is yes,” said Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table and a convener of the Drawing Democracy Coalition. “How Randolph and Brockton are represented will be major signals for how I think all people of color are represented. That’s why we had such a big focus on those communities. Having a district that causes elected officials to be responsive and accountable to residents of color is important to the State House agenda.”
The proposal also makes small changes to another newly drawn majority-minority district anchored by Lawrence, adding slightly more of the neighboring city of Haverhill’s communities of color in an effort to keep neighborhoods whole.
Local elected officials had panned the originally proposed map for splitting Haverhill, calling it a “disaster” for the city. The new proposal still cuts through Haverhill, largely grouping its Hispanic communities with a Lawrence-based district, but the adjustments “neaten” the boundaries and ensure neighborhoods aren’t split, Brownsberger said. The Lawrence-based district remains majority-minority, with a 59 percent Hispanic population.
The House map released Tuesday largely hews to the plan lawmakers first released last week — lauded by advocates — and promises to increase the number of majority-minority districts in the 160-seat chamber from 20 to 33, including ensuring two such districts in Brockton.
State Representative Michael J. Moran, who led the House’s redistricting effort, said the bill released Tuesday would keep the town of Foxborough entirely within a district represented by Republican Representative F. Jay Barrows — after previously proposing to split it — while also reconfiguring two majority-minority districts in Framingham and New Bedford to add to their share of residents of color.
Creating such districts was a “principle of redistricting that we placed very high on the map,” Moran said. “There wasn’t much more we could have done, I don’t think.”
The lower chamber is likely to vote on the maps Thursday, Moran said. The Senate is planning to follow next week, Brownsberger said. The proposed lines would go into effect for elections next year.
House members face a tighter clock than their Senate counterparts in ensuring the maps are approved quickly. House candidates must live in their districts for a calendar year before competing in the 2022 general election, which has galvanized lawmakers to finalize the maps by early November.
House and Senate leaders said they drew them with the goal of amplifying the political voice of people of color in the communities where their ranks have grown the most over the past decade: largely in the Boston area, but also in Worcester, Springfield, and Lawrence, a Latino-majority city of immigrants in the Merrimack Valley.
History shows that drawing majority-minority districts — particularly when no single ethnic group makes up more than 50 percent of a district’s population — does not always empower communities of color to elect candidates of color, nor does it ensure that the legislative body will grow more diverse.
But advocates emphasize that fair maps are necessary, even if not sufficient, for ensuring communities of color secure political representation and for providing candidates of color the chance to break into an old-school political system where insiders reign and most insiders are white.