Voting rights groups seek to intervene in redistricting case as councillors ready maps

Councillors Flaherty Breadon and Flynn

Councillors Michael Flaherty, Liz Breadon and Ed Flynn confer before a recent meeting. Redistricting is back before the Council after a judge's order calling on councillors to take another shot at a map of the nine district boundaries. (Gintautas Dumcius photo)

Lawyers for several voting rights advocacy groups, which played a role last fall in redrawing the political boundaries of the nine City Council district seats, are now seeking to intervene in the federal court case at the center of the city’s chaotic political scene.

NAACP Boston, MassVOTE, the Chinese Progressive Association and other groups are seeking to intervene in the federal redistricting lawsuit. They filed a motion to do so, requesting the opportunity for an oral argument to make their case.

“In a voting rights case in the City of Boston, Boston’s communities of color should have both voice and legal representation,” said the motion, which was filed Wednesday and attacked the defense of the map offered by City Hall attorneys as “anemic.”

US Judge Patti Saris last week directed the City Council, which typically has four at-large members and nine representing districts, to take another shot at drawing a map of the nine district seats. She granted a preliminary injunction, saying the civic groups and assorted city residents who argued that discussions of race wrongly predominated the redistricting process had a likelihood of success in their case, effectively blocking the map that passed the Council in a 9-4 vote last fall.

The case centered on councillors’ effort to move four precincts in Dorchester’s Cedar Grove Neponset and Adams Village areas, flush with white super-voters, to District 4 from District 3. Ward 16 Precinct 9, part of Adams Corner, was left behind in District 3.

The judge ruled that two other parts of the lawsuit fell short, handing wins to City Hall attorneys on those fronts. She ruled against the plaintiffs’ claim that the transfer of four precincts from Dorchester-based District 3 to District 4, which includes Dorchester and parts of Mattapan, diluted the power of Black voters in District 4. Their argument over Open Meeting Law violations by city councillors also fell short, in the judge’s eyes.

But voting rights groups, upset over the case’s outcome and unhappy with the map proposed by Mayor Michelle Wu in the days after last week’s court ruling, are now attempting to enter the courtroom as defendants themselves.

No councillor was called to defend the map, while map opponents called the three of the four councillors who oppose the map, NAACP Boston and the other groups said, including Councillors Michael Flaherty and Erin Murphy, and Council President Ed Flynn. District 3 Councilor Frank Baker, who like the other three has funded the lawsuit against the map, did not take the stand. The defense called a Tufts University professor, known for her redistricting expertise, as its lone witness.

NAACP Boston and the other groups also attacked the map submitted last week by Mayor Wu. Tanisha Sullivan, the head of NAACP Boston, in a declaration attached to the filing, claimed Wu’s map divides neighborhoods with voters of color, such as Jamaica Plain.

But Wu’s map also unites large numbers of neighborhoods which have a diverse population, particularly Dorchester’s Fields Corner, Uphams Corner, and Bowdoin-Geneva, within District 3. (The map also unites Neponset within District 3, a key focus of the judge’s order.)

"The City of Boston values the continued engagement of these organizations in the redistricting process,” a Wu spokesperson said Wednesday night, in response to the filing. The tight timelines as a result of the judge’s order meant the Wu administration had to work to release a map quickly to move conversations along and reach consensus, he added.

The Wu administration is hoping for the Council to take up a final compromise map by its May 24 meeting, and to get something passed by May 30 in order to preserve a timeline that calls for a Sept. 12 preliminary and a Nov. 7 final election.

“The map and the precincts are all about math, and how many can fit into one particular district, and there are always going to be trade-offs involved,” Wu told the Reporter on Wednesday.

“The goal was to ensure we could solicit feedback and keep iterating,” she added.

Some of the criticism of both the city’s defense and the Wu map found in the voting groups’ filing previously surfaced in a Tuesday evening “emergency” meeting of Jamaica Plain Progressives.

As the Jamaica Plain Progressives (JPP) meeting got underway, there was some internal confusion about which precincts should be considered to be Jamaica Plain ones. Later, some attendees adopted the same near-apocalyptic tone used by some Dorchester residents last fall, when they were unhappy with precincts shifting between Districts 3 and 4. Precincts shift every election cycle due to population imbalances within council districts flagged by the US Census every ten years.

JPP attendees also heard from Councillor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune and Jamaica Plain Councillor Kendra Lara (District 6), who both submitted their own maps earlier this week.

Flaherty submitted his own map, No. 4, on Wednesday. When pressed for specifics, Flaherty told reporters, “If there’s any major change in my map, it’s District 8, Mission Hill. Mission Hill is currently in District 8, which is the downtown city councillor. So you’ve got Back Bay, Beacon Hill, some of our more affluent neighborhoods and residents, and you have Mission Hill smushed in.”

He moves Mission Hill to District 6, from District 8, which is vacant.

All four maps now head to the Civil Rights Committee, chaired by Louijeune. A hearing is set for 2 p.m. Friday.

Some councillors including District 5 Councillor Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park and Mattapan), had been expected to challenge which committee would get the maps, as part of a power struggle within the 12-member body. But that effort was abandoned, hours after Arroyo’s name was included throughout two independent reports on probes of US Attorney Rachael Rollins. The reports, released Wednesday, laid out repeated efforts by Rollins to interfere in the 2022 election to succeed her as Suffolk County DA by boosting Arroyo and leaking information about his opponent, then-interim DA Kevin Hayden.

Meanwhile, a home rule petition moving deadlines for candidates gathering voter signatures to get on the ballot, since the dates were upended by the judge’s order, passed the Council. Once the petition, first proposed by Wu earlier this month, has the mayor's signature, it speeds to Beacon Hill for approvals from the governor and the legislature.

If approved, the new date considered to be the last day for filing signature-gathering papers would be June 23, instead of the current May 23 deadline.

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