After weeks of blistering debate, the Boston City Council on Wednesday passed a new map of council voting districts with surprisingly little drama, just meeting a critical deadline to prevent delays to the fall elections.
The bitter and combative council process, marked by personal attacks and political accusations, came to an end with minimal discussion and then a 10–2 vote in favor of the revised map. Progressive Councilors Kendra Lara and Julia Mejia voted in opposition.
“This was obviously a very contentious process. Whenever legislators are drawing lines, there’s a lot at stake for people individually, and we always have to remember to center what’s most important to the voters,” At-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who chairs the committee that took over the redistricting process in recent weeks, said as she introduced the final proposal. “We have a membership of 12, and it is really difficult to get everything that everyone wants.”
The council was on a tight timeline to redraw the boundaries of the nine council districts after a federal judge earlier this month blocked a previous map from going into effect, finding that the body had likely considered race in an improper manner when it drew the lines last fall. That gave the divided, often dysfunctional council just weeks to craft a new map that passed legal muster — a rushed process that yielded perhaps the most bitter and personal debate yet for this council.
The new district boundaries would be in effect for the next decade, starting with this fall’s municipal elections. The map leaves many council districts all but untouched while making more significant shifts in Dorchester, Mattapan, and the South End, an effort to roughly balance the population in each district to account for changes captured in the decennial census.
Working off a proposal authored by Louijeune, councilors spent long hours over the past few days moving and trading precincts in an effort to balance population and unite communities with shared needs and interests.
Notably, the new map returns to Dorchester-based District Three a number of majority-white precincts at the southern tip of the neighborhood, a particularly contentious area that had been shifted into neighboring District Four under the blocked map. The border between Districts Three and Four — and the motivation for where it was drawn — was a matter of particular scrutiny in the federal litigation.
The councilors also united Little Saigon by moving two precincts into District Three, and kept together Chinatown and some affordable housing developments in the South End — both features advocates and residents had sought in public testimony.
And Councilor Ricardo Arroyo’s District Five retains a certain slice of Mattapan — Ward 14, Precinct 14 — that had been a particular point of contention. Arroyo had vehemently opposed an earlier proposal that moved that precinct into a neighboring district, but voted for the map that kept the area in his own. He and some civil rights leaders argued it was critical that it be included in his district to ensure voters of color had the numbers to elect the candidates of their choice.
The proposal now heads to the mayor’s desk. The 10-councilor majority is large enough to override a veto.
“We plan on reviewing this new map shortly and are thankful for the council’s intensive work to reach consensus on a tight timeline, especially the leadership of committee chair Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune,” a spokesperson for Wu said Wednesday.
Negotiations over the map seemed to continue even after the council’s weekly meeting began at noon on Wednesday. Councilors debated the map until 8:30 Tuesday evening, arguing over the placement of a handful of precincts in a repetitive discussion that included as many personal attacks and accusations as it did suggestions for boundary shifts. Louijeune did not appear in the council chamber to present the compromise proposal until nearly an hour after the meeting began.
Redistricting is a challenging task under the best circumstances. The once-in-a-decade process requires map makers to balance political, legal, and geographical considerations — and in this case the council had just a few weeks to do it, under the watchful eye of a federal court.
Following the judge’s ruling, the revived map-making process grew intensely personal, with some councilors accusing others of machinations to benefit their own political careers, and others criticizing Louijeune for the way she incorporated feedback into the map proposal.
“Certain communities have been heard,” while others have been ignored, Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said Tuesday evening during the council’s final hearing before the vote. “Why do certain councilors . . . get more of a say?”
She alleged the process had been unfair, dominated by horse-trading and backroom deals. “This is that dirty stuff that we talk about,” she said.
On Wednesday, Fernandes Anderson voted in favor of the slightly tweaked map.
Councilor Michael Flaherty seemed to suggest — without explicitly naming him — that Arroyo was seeking a change to one precinct along the Roslindale-West Roxbury border “as some form of payback or retribution.” Flaherty cautioned the council Tuesday to ensure “that there’s no sort of political agendas and any sort of political nefariousness at play” in line drawing, referring to a precinct Arroyo wanted to move out of his own district, where Arroyo had lost in last fall’s bitter primary election for Suffolk County district attorney.
Arroyo denied that politics played any role in his push to move the precinct.
Louijeune acknowledged that the contentiousness of the process could take a toll on the public trust. She has said repeatedly that redistricting would be better handled by an independent commission, a process that is used in a number of states, including California, Michigan, and Arizona.
“Let’s be honest: We are elected officials who have to get elected, and so the lines will matter to you if it changes the ability of you to win reelection,” Louijeune said after the vote. Map making, she said, exemplifies the ugliness of “sausage making.”
Mejia and Lara, the two dissenting votes, said in interviews after the council meeting that they were disappointed not only with the map but with the process that delivered it.
“I do believe that we failed,” Lara said. “We capitulated.”
Lara said there had been no equitable compromise.
“South Boston was not impacted, Neponset area was not impacted — they got to stay together,” she said, referring to predominantly white areas of the city. “The compromise was everywhere else. And so we maintain power in communities that have historically already been powerful at the expense of everybody else.”
In particular, she argued, Dorchester-based District Three could have been envisioned as a stronger “opportunity district” where voters of color could come together to elect the candidates of their choosing.
But most councilors, as they closed out Wednesday’s meeting, praised Louijeune and congratulated one another on reaching consensus.
“Everybody didn’t get 100 percent of what they wanted,” said Councilor Gabriela Coletta, whose East Boston-based District One in the new map extends further into the downtown area. “At least we can walk away and say that this was truly a compromise.”