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Councilor Flaherty testifies against Boston in case challenging new political map

Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

City Councilor Michael Flaherty took the stand against his colleagues Tuesday, arguing they improperly took race into account when drawing the city’s new political map last fall, as he provided testimony as a witness in a federal lawsuit that has split the council and underscored the painful divisions in Boston politics.

Flaherty was one of four dissenting votes in November, when the council approved new city council district boundaries that shuffled thousands of voters to roughly equalize the population in each district and, proponents say, empower communities of color to elect candidates of their choice.

Now, Flaherty and a number of other politicians from South Boston and Dorchester are witnesses in a case asking the court to block the redrawn map from going into effect on the grounds that it violates the Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution. One councilor, Frank Baker of Dorchester, has even helped fund the lawsuit against the city and the council on which he serves.

Supporters said the map would strengthen political opportunities for people of color in a city long run by white voters and white elected officials, while critics took issue with the way it carved up neighborhoods in South Boston and Dorchester and split a public housing development between two districts.


“They weren’t protecting neighborhoods, established neighborhoods,” Flaherty said of his colleagues during several hours of testimony against the city Tuesday morning. “It all turned on race, your honor.”

The city has defended both the map and the redistricting process. A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu declined comment Tuesday.

Race is a central consideration in the redistricting process, which is governed by the federal Voting Rights Act, a law that aims to protect against repeating the injustices of the past by ensuring communities of color are not disenfranchised by political boundaries. Mapmakers, for example, cannot “pack” communities of color into so few districts that their political power is limited, nor “crack” them among so many districts that their voices are drowned out. Maps that fail to draw so-called opportunity districts, where communities of color can come together to elect the candidate of their choice, are vulnerable to lawsuits.


It’s not uncommon for government redistricting processes to be challenged in court; such cases routinely drag on for years, and many have made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. But that councilors themselves are involved in a case against the city is a striking illustration of redistricting’s political stakes, as well as the depth of the ideological and racial divisions within the legislative body. Those tensions have led to dramatic and emotional moments during public council meetings — accusations of racism and predatory behavior, and an invocation of longstanding conflict between Catholics and Protestants — and made it difficult for the body to coalesce around significant legislation.

The redistricting process, already a fraught tangle of race and power that requires mapmakers to balance legal, geographical, and political considerations, foregrounded that discord like no other council debate.

After weeks of contentious meetings and ugly disputes, the council approved last fall a map that shifts voters from the South Boston-based District 2 into Dorchester-based District 3, and swaps some precincts between District 3 and Mattapan-based District 4. Proponents say the shift was necessary to avoid “packing” Black voters into District 4, while critics of the map say the shift was not only needless but ill advised.


The new map made other small changes around the city, but left most other council districts largely untouched.

In the redistricting process, “race is front and center,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, one of the authors of the map, who attended Tuesday’s hearing but did not testify. “It’s telling that no [elected officials] of color are standing up and saying this map violates the 14th Amendment or the Voting Rights Act, and in fact… every elected of color on the council voted for this map.”

Tuesday’s testimony, he added, “illustrated pretty plainly just how frivolous this lawsuit actually is.”

US District Judge Patti Saris will hear more testimony in the case this week. Representative Stephen Lynch, whose district includes South Boston, is listed as a potential witness against the city.

Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.