Defending the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting Will Not Be Done on the Cheap

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Special Joint Committee on Redistricting is now conducting hearings to give citizens in different parts of the state the opportunity to have their say on how Congressional districts should be redrawn when Massachusetts loses one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives next year.

"It's essentially a 'Survivor' series and one congressman is going to get voted off the island," says Massachusetts House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading.

We now have 11 Congressmen; next year we'll have 10.

The task of the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting would be made much easier if one of the sitting Congressman, say John Olver, who qualified for Medicare long ago, or John Tierney, who was badly wounded by his wife's money-laundering conviction, would volunteer to turn his summer recess into a permanent one, but that's not likely to happen.

Thus, in at least one area of the state, two incumbent Democrats who have been friends and colleagues for years will have to go into the redistricting cage for a Texas death match. It won't be pretty.

But the sorriest aspect of redistricting, which is required after every federal census at the start of a new decade, could well be the cost to the taxpayers of Massachusetts, who will have to pay to defend the work of the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting against the inevitable lawsuits by parties who feel aggrieved by the process.

If one former longtime member of the Massachusetts House has it right, that cost could total in the high seven figures!

"Just look at the record," said this ex-lawmaker, who was never known as an alarmist during his chairmanship of the Taxation Committee. "In 1991, the state spent maybe $30,000 addressing the legal fall-out from redistricting. In 2001, that figure jumped to $2,000,000. I will not be surprised if the redistricting defense costs to the state this year and next reach $6,000,000."

One of the big reasons this former legislator, and many others, anticipate legal challenges to the work of the redistricting committee is the push coming from many quarters, including stalwarts of the Republican Party, to create a minority-majority district in Greater Boston.

Redrawing the Congressional lines in the state capital to accommodate this desire would mean that some longtime incumbents (Hello, Mike Capuano and Steve Lynch!) would lose reliable parts of their districts in Boston. Many political observers don't believe the special committee will have the stomach for that.

Indeed, the chairman of the special committee, Stan Rosenberg, Amherst's state senator, is on record as basically saying that a nicely shaped, geographically sensible district is not a priority for those who have to redraw the Congressional lines.

The MetroWest Daily News quoted Rosenberg in May as asserting, "Shape is irrelevant. What really counts is that we can elect someone who can meet our needs and is reflective of our needs."

The conventional wisdom is that the map of a district decides the result of an election there, but not everyone buys that.

For example, Tim Storey, a senior fellow and redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, believes that district lines are important in determining who wins the first post-redistricting election but are not the ultimate determinant.

"Redistricting does not determine elections; other things have a big impact on elections," Storey flatly told the MetroWest Daily News.

As the special committee conducts its hearings around the state, it can count on the sitting Congressman in each district to show up and argue eloquently for the preservation of that district in more or less its current shape and scope.

Their speeches all boil down to: This situation cries out for tweaking, not bold action!

Ed Markey was at the committee hearing in Framingham last week, for example, urging its members to protect the integrity of his district, which includes Framingham, Natick and Wayland.

If he didn't, the folks out there would think he didn't love them. And Markey hasn't managed to stay in the Congress since 1976, where he now ranks ninth in seniority, by appearing indifferent to his constituents.

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