Boston introduced city council districts in 1983, with nine district councilors and four members at-large. From the beginning, minority voters have been underrepresented in the configuration of council districts. The African-American community and other people of color have continuously been packed into two of the nine districts. Meanwhile, the downtown neighborhoods in which LGBT people have historically clustered—Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, the Fenway, the South End and contiguous parts of Roxbury, and Bay Village—have been split up among three districts. As a result, the district map has been weighted to the more conservative neighborhoods at the city’s periphery, like South Boston, white Dorchester, Hyde Park, and West Roxbury.
Yet Boston has changed since 1983. Now people of color—African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans—are 53% of the city’s population. If you count the LGBT community and progressive constituencies, as many of two-thirds of voters sharply diverge from the non-diverse, at-large Council that so fiercely resisted racial integration in the 1970’s. But there are still only two district councilors of color, and no LGBT councilors at all (by contrast with the 1980’s.)
On August 22, a bare majority of the City Council voted to entrench the status quo, and if anything, blunt the effect of population shifts that have weakened the outlying conservative neighborhoods. Minority voters are even more tightly packed into two districts than they were originally, while District Two, which historically included South Boston, the South End, Bay Village, and Chinatown, has been reconfigured along lines less progressive than last year, when it nearly elected Chinatown’s Suzanne Lee with strong LGBT backing.
The LGBT vote in the downtown neighborhoods was always split among three districts—the Second, dominated by South Boston, the Seventh centered on Roxbury, and the Eighth centered on the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and Fenway. The Eighth has always been the gay-friendliest, electing an openly gay councilor for the first twelve years. The Second District has been the least gay-friendly, with an avowed homophobe, South Boston’s Jimmy Kelly as its longest-serving representative. His successor Bill Linehan makes clear with his participation in the exclusionary “Allied War Veterans” St. Patrick’s Day Parade each year that he represents South Boston first, with a drop-by during LGBT Pride week as a sop to South End sensibilities.
As LGBT, minority, and progressive strength has mounted in the Second District, South Boston’s Councilor Linehan, in charge of redistricting, pushed to further splinter the South End. This thriving neighborhood has lost two precincts to District Seven, on top of two stripped away ten years ago. Linehan exchanged the South End precincts where he has tended to lose badly for low-turnout downtown districts in the vicinity of City Hall. South Boston’s relative dominance of the district will continue despite the neighborhood’s diminishing clout in the transformed city. Incumbent protection is the clear, overriding effect—and probably intent.
A coalition of advocacy organizations representing communities of color intends to file suit in federal court arguing, for the first time, that the Boston City Council districts violate the Voting Rights Act, in the classic two-fold prohibited pattern: packing minorities into relatively few districts, and leaving them outnumbered in surrounding districts. The LGBT community lacks standing under federal law, but almost any boundary changes in favor of the minority communities of color would benefit the LGBT community. Councilors from minority communities have invariably been staunch LGBT allies.
Although City Hall may consider this insider coup a done deal, the federal courts will have their say. LGBT advocates should follow the upcoming litigation with a view to lending support to the minority coalition however possible. Then, hopefully with court intervention, a more inclusive process can get started to make the Boston City Council look more like Boston.
Don Gorton is the former Chair of the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance and a longtime Boston activist.