BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers have plenty on their plate for the new year, but the most politically perilous task they face may be the drawing of new legislative and congressional districts.
The last time lawmakers waded into the redistricting debate, the process ended up in federal court with former House Speaker Thomas Finneran ultimately pleading guilty to an obstruction of justice charge.
Come January, lawmakers get to start all over again.
There are some signals the redistricting debate could be even more turbulent this time. Because of expected population loss, the state faces the prospect of losing one of its seats in Congress, throwing the existing 10-district map in the air.
Shifts in population within the state during the past decade also mean lawmakers may have to tweak or redraw many Massachusetts House and Senate districts to make sure they contain nearly equal numbers of residents.
The looming redistricting battle has renewed a debate about whether the task should be placed in the hands of an independent commission.
Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, is a strong advocate for a commission.
Galvin said that while the state constitution gives lawmakers the authority to draw the new maps, having a commission produce two or three alternatives to choose from would keep the focus on the goal of producing “compact and contiguous” districts.
“Unfortunately the process in the past has been full of secrecy and mischief,” he said. “That is something we should seek to avoid this time.”
Senate President Therese Murray brushed aside calls for a commission. Murray said the senate has already begun preparing to draw the new maps.
“We’ve already set up our committee,” said Murray, D-Plymouth. “It would be a little late to (create a commission).”
Murray has tapped Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, to lead the redistricting effort in the Senate.
Rosenberg said that while naming an independent commission may sound good, there’s no reason lawmakers can’t do as good a job.
“There is no evidence to support the idea that you come up with a better result” with an independent commission, Rosenberg said.
He conceded that the potential loss of a congressional seat and shifts in population from western Massachusetts toward the metropolitan Boston area will make the redistricting task tougher than a decade ago.
“It will be more challenging,” Rosenberg said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has also shown little appetite for an independent commission. Earlier this year, DeLeo gave Rep. Michael Moran, D-Boston, the task of overseeing the redistricting process in the House.
The decision to keep the redistricting process inside Beacon Hill is drawing criticism from government watchdog groups and Republican lawmakers.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said placing the process in the hands of a commission is the fairest way of drawing legislative and congressional districts. She said at least nine other states rely on some form of redistricting commission.
Wilmot’s group attempted unsuccessfully to persuade lawmakers to adopt a commission model after the last redistricting debate.
“It’s not an easy sell. People don’t tend to give up power without a fight,” said Wilmot, adding that it’s likely too late for a commission now. “Our goal in this session is to have the most transparent process possible.”
Republican lawmakers have also lobbied for a commission.
House Republican leader Brad Jones, who saw GOP numbers in the House more than double in last month’s election, said creating a commission is less to do with trying to discourage Democrats from trying to draw districts unfavorable to Republicans and more to do with taking the process out from behind closed doors.
“In an ideal world we would go forward with some kind of independent commission to look at the numbers and separate out some of the politics,” said Jones, R-North Reading.
Massachusetts has a storied history with redistricting.
In the early 1800’s, former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry gave his name to the practice of contorting political districts to favor the party in power. Gerry didn’t invent the word, but after critics commented that the twisted districts conceived by his party, the Jeffersonians, resembled salamanders, Gerry’s name has forever been associated with “gerrymandering.”
After the most recent maps were drawn a decade ago, opponents sued, claiming the map of Massachusetts House districts discriminated against blacks and other minority voters in Boston while protecting Finneran and other incumbents.
During his testimony, Finneran repeatedly denied seeing the map until it was filed with the House clerk, even though there was nothing illegal about his playing a role in drafting it. He later said he misrepresented his role because he was offended by claims of racial bias.