The state Legislature's Redistricting Committee will hold another of its regional hearings Saturday. This time it will be at the Lee Elementary School in Dorchester, and organizers expect a large turnout. Minority groups around Massachusetts are speaking up at these hearings well before congressional and legislative district maps are redrawn.
On a recent Tuesday night, about a dozen or so people, all representing various community organizations, gathered at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. They listened to a Powerpoint presentation that explains the ins and outs of redistricting. This once-a-decade process can be confusing and somewhat wonkish, but the political stakes are very high, especially for minority groups who want to see increased representation at all levels of government.
Out of the 200 legislative members on Beacon Hill there are nine African Americans, two Asian Americans and one Latino in the House of Representatives, and one Latina in the State Senate.
"So one of the things we ask you to do is to define, rather than be defined," said Cheryl Crawford, of the group MassVote. "And by doing that, you have to learn the process. First learn the redistricting criteria that your redistricting body is following. Know who the players are."
The message isn't lost on the audience.
"I think it’s very important," said Sarah Flint of the group Mothers for Justice and Equality. "If we have minority representation, there is more of an understanding of our issues. Not to go white and black, but there is a difference. You do not know the issues that a person of color faces."
Under-representation is a major concern, especially for the various minority groups in Massachusetts. Right now, for instance, there are no people of color in the state's congressional delegation. The last African American to represent the state on Capitol Hill was Sen. Edward Brooke, who left office more than 30 years ago.
On Beacon Hill, the numbers are only slightly better. Out of the 160 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives there are nine African Americans, two Asian Americans, and one Latino. A Latina is the sole minority in the 40 member State Senate.
"The under-representation is in some ways a function of how district lines are drawn," said Kevin Peterson. Peterson is co-chair of the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition, a group focused on making sure minorities are not overlooked during the redistricting process.
"There is a great deal of energy and effort now, particularly within communities of color, to engage this process so that there are not irregularities or maps that are presented that effectively disenfranchise them."
Disenfranchisement following the redistricting process of 10 years ago prompted the Boston-based Black Political Taskforce to launch a lawsuit in 2003. It was successful in proving the newly-drawn legislative districts diluted minority voting strength in Boston and Chelsea. The suit ultimately led to the conviction of former Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran on obstruction of justice charges. Peterson said historically, the redistricting process has not been good for minorities.
"To that degree, minorities, activists, organizations that are focusing on the civil rights arena, are galvanized into action to preemptively engage this process so we don't find ourselves in the place we were 10 years ago," Peterson said.
Peterson's group has been talking openly with the Legislature's Redistricting Committee. Others, including MassVote and the Latino civic education initiative ¿Oíste? have also spoken with the panel tasked with drawing the new district maps.
"People are turning out at hearings, which is the first job," said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) who is co-chair of the legislature's redistricting committee.
"They're coming to those hearings with some level of knowledge that is higher than 10 years ago, again because they are getting training and technical assistance and can actually get help in working with Census data and working with the software that shows what kinds of configurations you can create."
Members of the Mass. Black Empowerment Coalition have yet to present their own versions of the district maps, saying they'll unveil those later in the process.
But just this week, another group with Republican ties, Fair Districts Mass., presented two possible congressional plans. Each plan drastically redraws districts around Boston and creates one where minorities would make up more than 55 percent of voting age residents. Kevin Peterson doesn't endorse those plans, but said they represent the beginning of a conversation.
"I think it is a strong statement in support of fairness and equity and minority involvement within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Peterson said. "It is an attempt to introduce the civic and electoral possibilities during this redistricting process, particularly for African Americans, Latinos and Asians."
The Fair Districts Mass. plan makes no attempt to preserve existing congressional district lines, nor does it seek to protect incumbents, something the Legislature has historically done in the past.
Fair Districts Mass. and other groups will spend the next few months making their case before the Redistricting Committee. It has to produce a final state legislative districts plan by the fall and a congressional plan by the end of the year.
This program aired on May 13, 2011.