Upset with how Boston’s redistricting process unfolded last fall, City Councilor Frank Baker is helping to fund a federal lawsuit against the governing body on which he serves that challenges how the new boundaries were drawn.
Baker, the District Three councilor from Dorchester who is known as the most conservative voice on the council, donated $10,000 from his campaign account to the Boston Ward Seven Democratic Committee last Dec. 21, according to campaign finance records. That same day, the Ward Seven committee donated an equal amount to the Ward Six Democratic Committee with the stated purpose of “redistricting.” Both ward committees are headquartered in South Boston, where the redistricting process was particularly controversial, according to state records.
The chairman of the Ward Six committee, Robert O’Shea, was at one point the lead plaintiff in the litigation challenging the redistricting process, but was dropped from the suit earlier this month.
Baker confirmed he made the contribution to support the redistricting lawsuit, which names the city, Mayor Michelle Wu, the City Council, and the city’s election head as defendants.
“It was to help the effort, yeah,” said Baker in an interview.
The revelation is the latest turn in federal litigation that underscores the divides on the council, and in Boston politics more broadly, between a new crop of progressive politicians, many of them people of color, and more established political power brokers, many of whom are white and more moderate.
Nowhere were those dynamics clearer than during last fall’s debate about redistricting, the once-a-decade process that required councilors to roughly equalize the population in each of the nine council districts in response to changes captured by the census. After weeks of painful and deeply personal debate, the council approved a new map that reshuffled thousands of voters among districts, aiming to amplify the political power of communities of color while carving up some white neighborhoods in two historical power centers, Dorchester and South Boston.
Supporters said the map would strengthen political opportunities for people of color in a city long run by white voters and white elected officials. But critics objected to the domino effects those efforts had in other parts of the city. The new map, for example, splits between two council districts the Anne Lynch Homes at Old Colony, a Southie housing development named after US Representative Stephen Lynch’s mother — a move critics argue could muffle the political voice of its residents.
And the map carved up Baker’s current constituents, severing a cluster of majority-white, high-turnout precincts in the southern tip of Dorchester that he argued was the “core” of his district.
“That’s the most glaring thing,” Baker said recently. “Everyone is talking about the core of their district. Adams Corner is my core and they split it right up the middle.”
Baker’s vehement opposition to the map — which he insisted was not politically motivated but fueled by concerns that it separated tight-knit communities built around Catholic parishes — was no secret. But for the councilor to help fund a lawsuit against the body he serves on is a striking illustration of the council’s deep divisions, which are not just ideological but also fall along lines that are racial and deeply personal.
The lawsuit has also attracted intense interest in South Boston, where resistance to the new map is stiff. The list of potential witnesses for the case includes a who’s who of Southie pols: Lynch, City Councilors Ed Flynn — who is also the council president — and Michael Flaherty, and state Senator Nick Collins.
Political candidates, including Baker, can make unlimited financial contributions to local party committees, under the state’s campaign finance law. However, the ceiling for local party committee contributions to other local party committees is supposed to be $5,000 annually, which means December’s offering from Ward Seven to the Ward Six committee may violate state campaign finance law.
“I think the committee has a problem,” said Ken Cosgrove, a political science professor at Suffolk University, of the contribution. “I’m not certain [Baker] does, he might, and this is what drives people crazy” about campaign finance law.
Speaking generally, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance said, “There are rules against earmarking contributions, and rules against disguising the true source of contributions.” But whether a specific transaction is prohibited by law can only be determined on a case-by-case basis after a legal review, he said.
“OCPF does not comment on issues that may or may not be under review for specific candidates or committees,” said the spokesperson.
The map ultimately approved by the council added to Baker’s district a group of more diverse Dorchester precincts, including parts of Fields Corner. Proponents said the map changes were necessary to empower communities of color to elect their candidates of choice, and in particular to avoid illegally “packing” Black voters into the Mattapan-based District Four that borders Baker’s district.
The Voting Rights Act, which governs the redistricting process, is meant to ensure people of color are given a fair chance to wield political power, protecting those who have been historically disenfranchised. That means they cannot be so “packed” together in one district that their influence is limited elsewhere, or “cracked” among so many districts that their voices are drowned out. Map makers can be sued if they don’t draw “opportunity districts” where people of color can come together to elect the candidates they favor.
Advocates said the new map reflected the spirit of that federal law, and elevated the voices of people of color. But Baker called the council’s redistricting process “lopsided,” arguing that the final map harms “underserved communities.” The process of balancing populations among districts at some point “became about race,” said Baker, who is white.
Originally filed in Suffolk Superior Court last November, the legal complaint alleges the City Council violated the open meeting law three times last October while discussing redistricting. It also asserts the redistricting plans violated the city charter, the Voting Rights Act, and the US Constitution.
The list of plaintiffs in the suit includes residents from South Boston, Dorchester, Mission Hill, and Mattapan, as well as a handful of South Boston civic associations.
The lawsuit asserts that the entire redistricting process lacked transparency. It also stated that both the public and the councilors were not afforded an opportunity to view or offer feedback in a public hearing on the final map, which, according to the complaint, would dilute Black voting power in District Four, which includes Mattapan, Dorchester, and parts of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale, for “no reason.”
“The City Council redistricting process was flawed and unfair to the most vulnerable residents of the city, particularly public housing residents, immigrants and language minorities,” read the complaint.
Attorneys for the city batted away the suit’s claims in court filings, arguing that the case is deeply flawed and that a judicial review of redistricting legislation would represent a “serious intrusion on the most vital of local functions.” The redistricting plan, they say, was enacted following an “informed and carefully prescribed legal process codified” in the city charter.
“They fail to even allege the most basic elements of their claims, and certainly do not provide the Court with the record or statistical evidence necessary to support them,” read one filing from the defendants.
The plaintiffs, the city says, fail to explain how moving one housing development from District Two to District Three is an example of race-based redistricting. The city argues that the changes in demographics to District Three, which is Baker’s, are minimal.
Under a 2012 plan, the district was 41.5 percent white and 18.2 percent Black; under the new plan those figures changed to 41.9 percent and 17.4 percent, respectively.
The case has attracted significant interest from a host of local civil rights and civic associations, including the Chinese Progressive Association, the Boston branch of the NAACP, and the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition. That collection of groups filed an amicus brief in the case stating that the plaintiffs in the suit “are merely attempting to supplant the democratic process and impose their desired policy outcome on the public.”
“Although Plaintiffs opine that the redistricting process silenced Boston’s racial and language minorities, the reality is that Plaintiffs’ requested relief would actually do so,” read their brief.
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Emma Platoff can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.