Senate faces blowback over proposed districts

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Voting rights advocates knocked the Senate redistricting proposal as “overcautious.” A state representative with eyes on a seat in the other chamber slammed the potential split of Haverhill as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” And in the most visible sign yet that internal dissent is rumbling, a member of the Senate called for her colleagues to just hit pause and reconsider its map.

Three days after lawmakers unveiled their proposal for redrawn state legislative districts based on 2020 U.S. Census population data, the House’s version continues to draw mostly positive reviews while the Senate’s has been the focus of growing criticism.

Activists and some lawmakers are vexed by several decisions baked into the Senate map, including the emphasis on citizen voting-age population rather than the total population and the number of majority-minority districts it would create.

Both branches are accepting feedback on their proposals, and the House plan is more time-sensitive since approving new districts by Nov. 8 would likely allow incumbents and challengers to comply with the constitutional requirement that they live in the district for one year before Election Day.

For the Senate, though, no such one-year requirement exists, eliminating any soft deadline.

Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat in one of the Legislature’s most competitive districts, on Friday said she wants the Senate to extend the public comment window beyond its Monday expiration and work through “legitimate feedback” about concerns with the map.

“The Legislature has received legitimate feedback from Bay Staters regarding continuity, cohesiveness, and equity in their districts, and I share those concerns,” Rausch told the News Service. “Fortunately, the Senate has time to carefully consider this public input, especially regarding Black and brown communities in Eastern Massachusetts and risks of diminished representative power. I hope the Senate will provide more time for public comment and reconsideration of the proposed map, given its current critiques and likely additional constructive community feedback.”

Rep. Michael Moran, who co-chairs the Redistricting Committee, hinted during a Friday hearing that the approaching deadline may already be factoring into some real estate decisions.

“We have to allow people the ability to move if they need to move, and I believe there is a spot on my map, maybe two, where somebody may have to move,” Moran said, without elaborating on which individuals to whom he referred.

“A Disaster for Haverhill”

The Senate map would create a new majority-minority district in the Merrimack Valley consisting of Lawrence, Methuen and parts of downtown Haverhill.

Unlinking Lawrence, which has the largest share of nonwhite residents in the state, from its neighbor Andover would help ensure that the city’s Latino and Hispanic population has the opportunity to elect a senator of their choice, remedying what Redistricting Committee Co-chair Sen. William Brownsberger called a Voting Rights Act violation under the existing map.

But to accomplish that, Senate map-drawers split portions of Haverhill with significant Latino populations from whiter portions of the city, which would instead fall into a district snaking from Wilmington up to Amesbury.

Rep. Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat who launched a Senate campaign based on the existing Senate district, said Friday that the decision “signals that Haverhill Latinos are expendable in order to satisfy a Voting Rights Act concern in Lawrence.”

“It’s essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Vargas said. “Latinos have been working for the past decade to develop our own identity and political capital in the city of Haverhill. This plan dilutes our voices and assumes we have more in common with Lawrence than our own home community just because we’re Latino.”

Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini told the Redistricting Committee that he worries a split of his city would minimize its political voice in Senate elections, leaving one piece overshadowed by the full communities of Lawrence and Methuen and the other chunk drowned out by the six municipalities it would join.

“A Haverhill candidate will find it impossible to get elected or almost impossible to get elected in either Senate district and make it almost impossible for our city to have an elected member of the state Senate,” Fiorentini testified. “It’s a disaster for Haverhill, which is redoing its precinct lines. In several areas, there will be people in the same precinct who will have different ballots for state rep, different ballots for different Senate districts.”

Advocates suggested the Senate find another way to craft a majority-minority district in the Merrimack Valley, such as combining Lawrence, Methuen and Dracut.

While unveiling the maps Tuesday, Brownsberger said splicing off part of Haverhill was the only viable option to create a district that would address Voting Rights Act concerns and ensure Lawrence and Methuen formed a district where Hispanic residents are a majority.

“This was a decision we made reluctantly,” Brownsberger said.

Across Massachusetts, the proposal divides Haverhill and nine other cities or towns into multiple Senate districts, a total of 11 fewer split communities than the 2011 map.

Little Action in Brockton

Other pressure points on the Senate map are in the Brockton-Randolph area and in Boston, where Rep. Dan Hunt has hinted a lawsuit may challenge the decision to split the city’s Ward 16 across two Senate districts.

The Drawing Democracy Coalition called for combining Stoughton, Randolph and Brockton, which together form a crooked C shape nestled around Avon, into a single district. However, the Senate’s proposal would keep Randolph and Stoughton in a narrow district that winds around Brockton’s western border and instead would leave the city in the same district as its southern and eastern neighbors.

The area’s Black population has grown substantially in the past three decades, and in the 2020 U.S. Census, Brockton and Randolph had the highest and second-highest share of Black residents in the state at 41 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

“As a result of the lived experiences they share, the cultural bonds they possess, the challenges they face and the policy interests they hold, these communities form a clear community of interest,” said MassVOTES Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford. “They must be in the same state Senate district. If these concerns are not addressed, we worry the Black and brown, low-income and immigrant residents of Massachusetts will see themselves seriously underrepresented in the Massachusetts state Senate.”

During Friday’s hearing, Brownsberger said his team was unable to draw a Brockton district with race as a driving factor because Black residents do not constitute a majority of the population even if they reflect a sizable share.

“If there was a Voting Rights claim there, believe me, we would do it,” Brownsberger said. “It’s just not a majority-Black population, and we need a particular minority to be the basis of our Voting Rights claim which would then authorize us to engage in race-based districting.”

Moran said House lawmakers also turned their eyes toward the Brockton area early in the redistricting process in the hopes they could craft a district where Black residents represent more than half of the population.

Brockton is separated from Stoughton by Avon, though, which Moran said has too large a white population to make a majority-Black district viable. Instead, the House proposed an incumbent-free district centered around Brockton that Moran said an African American candidate may be able to win.

Some District Data Unavailable

Most House and Senate districts are set to change if lawmakers approve the maps unveiled this week.

The Redistricting Committee published demographic data, shapefiles and Census block links for all 160 proposed House districts and 40 proposed Senate districts, but officials on the committee will not provide information indicating how many voters would shift from one to another in their proposal.

Brownsberger said Tuesday that the median Senate district would change by about 20 percent. Some are set to evolve even more: the district represented by Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover will be “almost two-thirds new,” and the central Massachusetts district represented by Sen. Anne Gobi of Spencer will be “over 50 percent new,” Brownsberger said.

Despite using the median metric in his public remarks, Brownsberger declined to make the district-by-district percent change data available in response to a News Service request.

Six Senate districts would remain unchanged from the current lines that have been in place since 2011. Three of those are today held by Michael Rodrigues of Westport, Cindy Friedman of Arlington and Jason Lewis of Winchester, the top trio of Democrat lawmakers on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The other three are currently represented by Republican Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, Democrat Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford and Democrat Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn.

More than 30 districts would retain their shape on the House side, though a list was not immediately available. Moran said he did not have data available quantifying district-level constituency changes and pointed to individual districts that he said would undergo the most sizable transformations.

What is now the 2nd Suffolk District held by Rep. Dan Ryan of Charlestown would shift by about half, Moran said. Other notable changes Moran flagged would hit districts represented by Rep. Natalie Blais of Sunderland, Rep. Nika Elugardo of Jamaica Plain, Rep. Christopher Hendricks of New Bedford, Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford, and Rep. Jon Santiago of Boston.

Some online tools, such as the Redistricting & You interactive map produced by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research, allow users to flip back and forth between the existing map and the proposed lines to better comprehend planned changes.

The Redistricting Committee appears to have taken a light touch with crafting new political lines for the districts currently held by some members of the leadership teams.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano would lose a chunk of northeastern Holbrook he currently represents but otherwise see no other shifts.

Senate President Karen Spilka’s new district would include all of Natick, half of which is in her current district. The portion of Franklin that Spilka currently represents would slide into the neighboring district represented by Rausch, which itself would morph substantially.

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem would not lose any communities and would move from representing half of Wellesley to the whole town. Assistant Majority Leaders Joan Lovely and Michael Barrett would each lose one community — Topsfield from Lovely’s district and half of Sudbury from Barrett’s — with no new cities or towns added to either.

Changes would be more significant for some Senate higher-ups. The district represented by Assistant Majority Leader Sal DiDomenico of Everett would become one of the new majority-minority districts by adding parts of Cambridge and removing sections of Allston and Boston’s West End that Brownsberger said today represent “sort of an appendix that was hard to connect to the rest of the district.”

Brownsberger, who also serves as president pro tempore, would see his district expand to include Allston and parts of Cambridge, while stretches of Boston’s Back Bay he represents today would move to another district.

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