The once-in-a-decade redistricting process has again laid bare deep divisions on the Boston City Council, stirring up fresh debates around race and sparking acrimony that has at times grown personal.
With just weeks before a crucial deadline, the 13-member body is at odds over a new proposal — ironically being touted as the “unity map” — backed by prominent community advocates and councilors leading the redistricting process. Supporters say their map would strengthen political opportunities for people of color in a city long dominated by white voters and white elected officials. But some councilors are furious over the way the proposal would carve up two of the city’s traditional political power centers, Dorchester and South Boston.
A council meeting Monday featured raised voices, serious accusations, and thinly veiled attacks among councilors; Tuesday brought public confrontations on City Hall Plaza.
It’s yet another display of the council’s painful divides, which often fall along racial lines, as well as the growing pains of governing a city where the balance of political power is shifting. Councilors are debating not just which district boundaries to move, but which principles should guide those decisions — and, in a process that inevitably involves tradeoffs, which communities’ needs to prioritize.
Those disputes come at a time when the nation is acutely aware of redistricting’s fraught nature: in the wake of a scandal in Los Angeles, where racist remarks made by city councilors during the mapmaking process opened deep community wounds and led to several resignations.
There are no fewer than five maps circulating among city councilors. But public discussions have focused less on finding compromise around particular precinct boundaries and more on councilors’ frustrations about the process — whether it’s how the debate itself should unfold or at what point passion gives way to poor decorum. They have even debated which City Hall room is the best venue for these arguments.
These clashes come at an already tender time for the council after the body’s president, Ed Flynn, removed Councilor Ricardo Arroyo this summer from the chairmanship of the redistricting committee after years-old sexual assault allegations surfaced against Arroyo during his unsuccessful campaign for Suffolk district attorney. (Arroyo has vehemently denied the accusations and was never charged.)
City Councilor Liz Breadon, who replaced Arroyo as chair of the committee, joined him, Councilors Tania Fernandes Anderson and Julia Mejia, and prominent advocacy groups at a news conference on City Hall Plaza Tuesday to push a new proposed map. They stressed that this version is not final, but said it would roughly equalize the population among districts and solidify political opportunities for communities of color.
“This map really reflects the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, and also what’s needed for communities of color in Boston to be really equitably represented in the City Council,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.
But the councilors also acknowledged that not all of their colleagues will be thrilled with this version, which, among other changes, moves portions of South Boston into the Dorchester-based District 3 and chunks of Dorchester into neighboring District 4, which already includes parts of Dorchester in addition to Mattapan and parts of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.
“Maybe a councilor or two won’t be happy with this map,” Fernandes Anderson acknowledged Tuesday. But at least some of that opposition, she suggested, is simple self preservation: “Some folks are naturally, and humanly, afraid of losing their seat.”
Indeed, the “unity map” touted Tuesday has already proven deeply unpopular with some of her council colleagues.
Much of the rancor focuses on the changes it would make around large public housing developments in South Boston. Currently, the Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony and the West Broadway and West 9th Street complexes are all in District 2, represented by Flynn. The proposal would put West 9th Street into neighboring District 3, while the two other complexes would each straddle the boundary between Districts 2 and 3.
At a council session Monday, Flynn repeatedly called that plan “unconscionable.” The mild-mannered council president grew unusually forceful as he made clear he is “strongly opposed” to splitting up Southie.
“When people are trying to dismantle my district, and eliminate public housing out of my district, I take that personally,” Flynn said.
And City Councilor Frank Baker, who represents Dorchester-based District 3, said Monday that the proposal would “take a sword to my district” by removing several majority-white precincts in the southern part of Dorchester. Among them is the area around Florian Hall, which is one of the city’s most conservative pockets, and, come election season, one of its highest-turnout areas. That makes it a powerful well of votes for Baker, the most conservative member of an increasingly progressive 13-member council.
Arguing for that part of Dorchester to stay in his district, Baker pointed not to political considerations but to shared interests and close relationships. Those are communities united around their parishes, he said in an interview this week: a “union community, veterans community, Neponset community, that plays hockey together, that plays baseball together.”
But advocates seem to think “that community doesn’t matter here, they’re white,” Baker said at the tense council meeting on Monday.
“It’s still America. I think everybody matters,” he added.
Redistricting is a Rubik’s cube, and frequently a political mess, too, requiring elected officials to balance legal and geographical considerations while keeping an eye on their own interests. That includes making sure their own homes remain in their current districts, so they don’t have to compete in new ones, and hanging on to neighborhoods where they know they have strong support.
The federal Voting Rights Act, which governs the redistricting process, is intended to protect citizens who have historically been disenfranchised by poll taxes and unjust political boundaries. It requires mapmakers to ensure people of color are given a fair chance to wield political power, meaning not so “packed” together that their influence is limited, or “cracked” among so many districts that their voices are drowned out. Officials can be vulnerable to legal challenges if they fail to draw “opportunity districts” where people of color can come together to elect the candidates they favor.
“This is the work to continue to move our city forward, recognizing and acknowledging the racial divides, the old fights and wounds that continue to hold us, but determination to push past them — believing that at some point, we will be a better city for it,” said Tanisha Sullivan, who heads Boston’s chapter of the NAACP.
It stands to reason that the race-conscious redistricting process has resurfaced tensions on the council, several councilors said Tuesday.
“Whenever the conversation about race enters into the chamber, there’s always going to be discomfort,” said City Councilor Julia Mejia. But “if we can get this right,” she added, the redistricting process should “set the stage for us to have the kind of representation that we’ve been screaming for.”
The map introduced by Breadon and Arroyo has powerful backers, but so far remains just one of many proposals. Breadon said Tuesday it was “not the final product,” and the council will hear more public testimony this week before taking a formal vote. Flynn announced a community meeting in South Boston Wednesday evening to discuss the maps, and the council’s redistricting committee will hold a public hearing Thursday in Dorchester.
As if to illustrate the ongoing tensions, the dispute spilled out onto City Hall Plaza midday Tuesday. As advocates and the group of city councilors concluded their news conference for the “unity” map, another pair of city councilors arrived to take issue with it.
Councilor Erin Murphy cornered one of Breadon’s staff members as he lugged posters of the maps back to City Hall, criticizing the way Breadon’s office has handled the process. And Baker confronted Sullivan near a construction fence on the plaza, where the two argued for about 10 minutes, both gesticulating angrily.
“These are all paid advocates,” Baker fumed to reporters. “This is a joke.”