Boston lawmaker's tough task: redrawing legislative map

The Bay State's constitution requires redistricting, based on a mid-decade census. And Speaker George Keverian has chosen Rep. James Brett to head the House panel that will reshape the legislative map and cut Boston's delegation. For the next two years, James T. Brett of Boston may be one of the most popular members of the Massachusetts legislature, at least among fellow lawmakers.

But some colleague friendships may prove not all that long-lasting. Much could hinge on the skill with which the fourth-term Dorchester Democrat handles what has to be one of Beacon Hill's toughest assignments, that of carving up the commonwealth into new districts.

Although more than willing, if not eager, to take on the project, there is no way he can please or even satisfy all of the legislators with whom he now sits.

The Brett political shoulders, however, seem broad, and standing behind him is Speaker George Keverian, a man who knows the Bay State's political boundaries almost as well as he knows his name.

And despite his leadership responsibilities, it is hard to imagine the latter not becoming involved in the process of shaping the districts from which state representatives will be elected in 1988 and the decade beyond.

In choosing Mr. Brett to head the redistricting committee, Speaker Keverian certainly was aware of the special dimensions of the challenge facing his appointee, since projections based on the 1980 federal census indicate that Boston will have to lose at least three state House seats.

Making Brett's task especially difficult is the fact that his home district is one of the city's two smallest and those abutting it in the Dorchester-South Boston area have too few inhabitants to come even close to meeting one-man, one-vote standards.

Exactly how many of Boston's 19 House seats must disappear will depend on the state's decennial census, due to be completed next fall. That head count, in all 351 cities and towns of the commonwealth, will be the basis for redistricting the House and Senate.

While preliminary work by Brett, and those who will be named to his panel, should be well under way by next winter, it is questionable whether the realignment of legislative boundaries will be completed much before early 1987. Long before then, however, Brett and his colleagues may have worn out several maps and used up many of the crayons lent to him by Keverian.

Yet regardless of how fast the redistricting goes and how few, if any, sensitive political toes get trampled on in its course, there just might be a better way of getting the job done.

As conscientious and evenhanded as legislative redistricters may be, some of the population figures they must deal with could well be off the mark. That's because the head count is conducted by municipal employees, such as policemen and firefighters, whose accuracy as census takers might be faulty. With not only the extent of legislative representation at stake but also the level of state aid to the community, the temptation for an overcount can certainly not be overlooked.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation (MTF) and others have suggested a better arrangement might be for Massachusetts to base its legislative districting on the federal decennial census, as the other 49 states do.

That would seem to make good sense, except that the latest federally collected population data are now five years old and the next such enumeration by Uncle Sam is not scheduled until 1990. Even if the federal census figures were hot off the press, however, the Massachusetts constitution requires legislative redistricting here be based on a state census, taken in mid-decade.

That, of course, could be changed -- something well worth lawmakers' serious consideration.

Use of federal census figures, if nothing else, could save the Bay State more than $6 million -- hardly a pittance -- which might better be spent in other directions, including helping reduce the largely unfunded public employee pension obligation.

Even more of an inducement for the change, next time around, is the availability of considerably more data than is collected in the state census.

Efforts by black legislators to expand this year's state count to include racial and ethnic data failed in the waning days of the 1984 session. Quite understandably some local officials wanted no part of anything that might take more work, even though this time around the state has quadrupled, to a dollar a head, what a city or town is paid for each resident counted.

Agreement since has been reached for the secretary of state's census division to get racial and ethnic data later this year from some 40 communities where minorities made up at least 3 percent of the local population in the 1980 federal census. A fuller tally, embracing each municipality and subdivision is to be provided, by local officials, in 1986 as part of their annual door-to-door so-called street listing.

Presumably this will provide whatever is needed, so that each of the newly shaped House and Senate districts will ensure proper representation for blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities within the legislature.

Depending on how new lines are drawn, the Boston black community could gain another House seat, even if overall the city has a net loss of three or more seats.

While MTF projections indicate the state's overall population growth has been only 1 or 2 percent since the last Massachusetts-run census in 1975, shifts within the commonwealth in some areas have been substantial.

Cape Cod and the islands (Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket Counties), for example, have recorded an estimated 39 percent gain, and neighboring Plymouth and Bristol Counties have 18 and 8 percent more residents, respectively, than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County (Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop) appears to have shrunk by about 14 percent.

In all fairness, this adds up to more House seats for heavily underrepresented southeastern Massachusetts and fewer chairs for Boston. Obviously several House members from Boston have to be anxious about their political future.

Similarly in jeopardy could be some of the seven state senators whose present elective turf is all or partly in Boston. Within the next few months Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, whose district is one of the smallest of the state's 40 senatorial territories, is expected to name the chamber's redistricters, including Brett's counterpart.

Of course, comfortable lawmaking seats for Mr. Bulger and Mr. Brett are all but assured. Self-preservation, after all, is one of those political laws seldom broken, in at least insofar as legislative redistricting is concerned. -- 30 --

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