Careful carving: Keep politics out of redistricting

Plus, Scott Brown and 'DADT.'
By EDITORIAL  |  January 12, 2011

1112_deleo_main
PEER PRESSURE: Both Murray (left) and DeLeo have opposed a redistricting commission in the past. This time around, their fellow legislators should pressure them to change their tune.
The news last week from the US Census Bureau was as expected: Massachusetts is losing one of its 10 congressional districts. That loss of representation in Washington is unfortunate, but it is important that the state legislature not compound the problem with a politically controlled redistricting process. They should quickly, at the start of the 2011 session, create an independent commission to redraw the political map.

Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary of State Bill Galvin, and good-government groups like Common Cause and FairVote have called for a redistricting commission, which a dozen other states now use in some form, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It is not just a way to prevent the partisan "gerrymandering" (a term that originated here in Massachusetts) that favors one party over another.

A more insidious problem of redistricting lies in the desire of incumbents, of any party, to maintain their familiar, safe boundaries. Their political lives lie in the hands of those drawing the districts — and that's a sure recipe for corruption, or the appearance of it.

That applies not only to congressmen, but also to state legislators, whose districts must also be redrawn to account for shifts in population within the state.

What state lawmaker would dare oppose Senate President Therese Murray, or Speaker Robert DeLeo, knowing that those two hold the power to redraw their district to ensure their defeat?

It doesn't take a raving cynic to suspect that this is precisely why Murray and DeLeo reject the use of an independent commission — and why, when Beacon Hill Republicans forced a vote on it in 2009, barely any Democrats bucked their leaders, and the measure went down to lopsided defeat in both houses.

Frankly, it is only the mind-boggling arrogance of power that allows DeLeo and Murray to continue blocking the creation of an independent redistricting commission, in the current atmosphere. Consider that the last Census, 10 years ago, led to the perjury indictment of Speaker Thomas Finneran — whose trouble stemmed from naming as House redistricting chair the consummate political horse-trader Thomas Petrolati. Petrolati is currently at the center of the latest Beacon Hill abuse-of-power scandal, involving patronage at the Probation Department.

DeLeo's tone-deaf dismissal of a redistricting commission — like his defense of patronage — rests essentially upon the argument that this is the way it's always been done.

That's not good enough, by a long shot. Nor is the claim that we are too late in the process to create a commission. Many states using such bodies have not yet appointed their members. The actual Census data for redistricting has not even been released.

DeLeo and Murray should change their tune, and agree to a commission, with members appointed by themselves, Patrick, and Galvin, whose recommendations would still require approval by the legislature and governor.

But it is unlikely, given their history, that any outside pressure will prompt that switch. That is why we urge individual legislators to speak out in favor of the plan — and in particular, for Brighton representative Michael Moran to do so.

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