In a remarkably acrimonious process that deepened simmering racial tensions, a bitterly divided Boston City Council on Wednesday created a new political map that aims to amplify the political power of communities of color, while carving up some white neighborhoods in two of the city’s historical political power centers.
The new City Council district boundaries passed largely along racial lines, with four white councilors, Frank Baker, Erin Murphy, Ed Flynn, and Michael Flaherty, voting in opposition.
The vote caps a chaotic months-long process that saw dramatic shifts in leadership, accusations of Open Meeting Law violations, controversial amendments, demands to delay the vote, a last-minute lawsuit, vitriolic attacks, and, in one particularly shocking moment Wednesday, an invocation of age-old tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The once-in-a-decade redistricting process, which concluded in a six-hour meeting Wednesday, revealed and enflamed deep racial tensions on the council, while illustrating how the balance of political power in the city is shifting.
“Stand with me and vote for this map,” said City Councilor Liz Breadon, chair of the council’s redistricting committee. “It’s addressing some longstanding disparities in our city and I really feel that the moment is now.”
Responding to a surge in population in the Seaport, and trying to avoid illegally “packing” Black voters, the new map shuffles voters from the South Boston-based District 2 into Dorchester-based District 3, and swaps some precincts between District 3 and District 4, which includes parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and parts of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.
The new map makes other small changes around the city, but leaves most of the existing council districts — including Breadon’s, in Allston-Brighton — largely untouched.
The proposal passed with enough support, nine votes, to override a potential veto from Mayor Michelle Wu. Wu said in a statement that she would review the map in the coming days.
The redistricting process requires Boston to roughly equalize the population in each of its nine City Council districts to account for swells and shifts captured in each decennial census. As they redraw the maps, councilors must balance a great deal of competing interests. There is the simple reality of the city’s knotted neighborhood geography; the desire to keep communities whole within single districts, so that like-minded neighbors can more easily come together to advocate for their interests; and a legal mandate, under the federal Voting Rights Act, to draw districts that empower people of color to elect their candidates of choice without being outnumbered by a decisive white voting bloc.
Pervading it is the unavoidable motivationof self-interest. Councilors angle, for example, to maintain within their own districts the pockets of voters they know will support them, and to keep their own residences within the districts they are accustomed to representing.
The results of the 2020 Census have forced this historically diverse council to make hard choices about which communities to prioritize, a struggle that had been brewing in the weeks of buildup to Wednesday’s vote.
Councilors and community advocates who collaborated on versions of the new map said their priority was to strengthen opportunities for communities of color to come together and win elections in what are called “opportunity districts.” But the councilors who opposed the map said that goal comes at the expense of the communities they represent, in particular in Dorchester and in South Boston, where, for example, the Anne M. Lynch Homes public housing complex would be splintered into two council districts.
The most vocal critic of the map was Baker, whose Dorchester-based District 3 would see major changes. The new map splits off a cluster of majority-white precincts in the southern tip of Dorchester, a move he said will divide neighborhoods built around Catholic parishes.
Recalling a recent conversation, Baker said a local member of the clergy told him the proposal is “an all-out assault on Catholic life in Boston.” And “it’s not lost on them,” Baker added, “that the person leading that charge is a Protestant” from Northern Ireland, referring to Breadon.
The chamber erupted at that remark, and Flynn, the council president, quickly recessed the meeting. When the councilors returned, Baker apologized, and an emotional Breadon described her upbringing in a Northern Ireland devastated by religious segregation, saying, “I take it as a personal attack that anyone would doubt my sincerity and commitment to this process.”
“This is an insult. It is an absolute disgrace,” she added. “I am standing up for the rights of our minority communities — Hispanic, Asian, Black — to have equal access to voting and to have an equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice. And if that means annoying and upsetting Catholics, I’m very, very sorry.”
“And I don’t think that is reflective of Catholic values,” she added, alluding to Baker’s remarks.
Tension hung over the chamber for the next several hours as councilors debated changes to the map. Flynn, who represents South Boston, pressed for more of that neighborhood to remain within his district.
“It’s easy for my colleagues to dismantle a community that you don’t know,” Flynn said. “I’m disappointed.”
Councilors had been hurtling toward an unofficial Nov. 7 deadline, though there was no legal mandate to finalize the maps by then. However, since candidates for office are required to live in their districts for a full year before the next general election, passing a map after Nov. 7 of this year could affect the eligibility of anyone interested in running for office. A later map “risks being characterized as incumbent protection,” Breadon warned.
The council had months to redraw its political boundaries, but was delayed by internal tumult, as well as opposition from outside groups.
Neighborhood groups from both South Boston and Dorchester have lodged complaints that councilors violated the Open Meeting Law by meeting to debate the maps without the required public notice. (The city has defended its practices.) On Wednesday, the South Boston groups filed a lawsuit asking the Suffolk Superior Court to block the council from voting on the plan given the pending complaint. A judge declined to block the vote but set a Nov. 9 hearing on the matter.
Approval of the map had also been stalled by squabbling on the council, where leadership has shifted in dramatic fashion.
In late August, Flynn stripped Councilor Ricardo Arroyo of his oversight of the process after years-old accusations of sexual assault surfaced against Arroyo during his unsuccessful run for district attorney this fall. Arroyo was never charged and vehemently denies the allegations.
Ultimately, though he no longer had a formal leadership role in the process, Arroyo was one of the most vocal proponents of the new map passed this week.
“It has been a process,” Arroyo said Wednesday, saying redistricting is “a little bit like jenga.” This map, he said, “does the very best job of meeting the moment.”