By Paul Crocetti
Feb 12, 2011
Every 10 years, a special group of people gets together to draw some lines.
If only redistricting were that simple.
In Massachusetts, the process of forming Congressional districts often calls to mind such controversial words as “gerrymandering” and “Finneran.” And lawmakers this year are faced with the especially delicate task of reducing the number of districts from 10 to nine.
“We learn from history,” said state Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford. “We have a whole new set of players from the last time this was done.”
The state’s last foray into redistricting was viewed as highly politicized and eventually led to the indictment and conviction of former House Speaker Thomas Finneran over statements he made about the process.
Area lawmakers last week generally seemed enthused about a pledge to make redistricting more public this time.
“I think an open, transparent, public process is the way to proceed,” said U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-3rd.
The special Joint Committee on Redistricting, led by state Rep. Michael Moran and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, plans to hold at least 10 public hearings. And with improved technology, such as computer programs that can draw up districts, the public has a lot of opportunities to weigh in, said state Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge.
“I would anticipate a particularly robust process,” Moore said. “I think there’s a lot of interest in it.”
Some legislators want residents to have an even greater impact on redistricting, but the proposal to have an independent commission recommend the district lines didn’t gain much traction.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton was a rare Democrat to support the independent commission. Giving the public an official hand in the process could help take some of the politics out of it, he said.
But Eldridge is pleased with the planned public hearings. He aims to attend at least two of them and may hold his own community meeting about redistricting.
“It’s critical given what happened 10 years ago,” said Eldridge.
Though state Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, voted unsuccessfully with the small Republican minority for an independent redistricting commission, he said he has felt included and respected so far.
“It is going to be an interesting process,” Ross said. “I look forward to it.”
The work is just beginning.
Legislators are expecting more specific population data in April that will give them a better sense of how to draw up the districts. The state already knows it has not gained in population as much as other areas of the country and will lose one U.S. House seat.
Though it’s early, Moore said he expects the biggest district changes to fall east of Interstate 495.
The public hearings should follow mid-year, and the state Legislature will ultimately vote on the districts.
In the coming days, Moran and Rosenberg are expected to travel to Washington to meet with members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation. Though the private nature of those meetings raised some eyebrows, McGovern said he thinks they will be less about what the delegation wants and more of a chance for the chairmen to outline the process.
Fernandes said he thinks it is appropriate to have both public discussions and private ones in which lawmakers can share a frank discussion without worrying about how people will dissect every comment.
“Chairman Rosenberg and Chairman Moran are creating a transparent redistricting process that places public input, fairness and openness as the highest priorities,” U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-7th, said in a statement. “The people of Massachusetts have long been and will continue to be represented by one of the strongest delegations in the U.S. Congress.”
Though legislators are awaiting the new population data, some have hopes for the layout of the districts, such as reducing the number of communities that have more than one representative. For example, Wayland is represented in the House by both Markey and Niki Tsongas, D-5th.
Congressional seats have fallen victim to gerrymandering, said state Rep. Steven Levy, referring to the practice of shaping districts to benefit one political party at the expense of another. A district’s communities should have similar commercial and economic interests, Levy said.
“What do we have in common with Fall River?” said Levy, R-Marlborough, referring to McGovern’s district, which hooks from Worcester into southeastern Massachusetts.
The redistricting team should try to hold regional interests together, Fernandes said.
Tsongas, in a statement, agreed.
“There is a clear rationale to the Fifth District, which is connected by its urban areas, the rivers that run through it, and by the shared geography and history of the district’s cities and towns – most of which have been part of this district for decades,” Tsongas said. “Accordingly, I will make the case to the Legislature and Gov. Patrick that the current configuration of the Fifth District should be maintained to the greatest extent possible.”
Inevitably, people will feel they have won or lost. But those outcomes shouldn’t feel as political as they have in the past, Fernandes said.
“I love the district I have. I’ve gotten to know the communities and the people. It’s kind of part of my extended family,” said McGovern, who is planning to run again in 2012. Even so, he realizes, “Some lines have to be altered.”