Forry’s redistricting debt

Change in district paved way for her Senate victory

The election last year of Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American state representative from Dorchester, to the state Senate seat representing South Boston has been hailed as the clearest sign yet of the arrival of a new day in Boston politics. The symbolism of her victory is unmistakable, yet it owes as much to a redistricting plan quietly hatched more than a dozen years ago as it does to any dramatic shift in city demographics or voting patterns.

When Forry eked out a narrow victory last year over Southie’s state rep, Nick Collins, in a special election for the First Suffolk Senate seat, it made national news. It meant a black woman from Dorchester would be representing the insular enclave most closely identified with the dominance of Irish-Americans in Boston politics. Even more jarring to the image of Boston as a place haunted by race tensions and resentments, tradition dictated that Forry, as South Boston’s new senator, would take the reins as host of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, the annual pilgrimage of politicos to Southie that usually feels more like a throwback to the city’s past than nod to its future.

In the run-up to this year’s breakfast, which takes place on Sunday, the press has eaten up every detail of Forry’s diligent efforts to prepare for her big moment in the spotlight. We’ve learned that she has taken lessons in Irish step dancing. She filmed a routine at Sullivan’s, Southie’s famous hot dog stand, along with the breakfast’s two most recent hosts, Steve Lynch and Jack Hart. This week came news that she’s even been coached in the fine art of zinger delivery by Bill Bulger, who hosted the breakfast before those two and put it on the national political radar.

The scene of Forry presiding over Sunday’s breakfast will mark one more important milestone in Boston’s march away from its parochial past. But the accounts heralding the significance of her election have tended to ignore a crucial part of the story: While the city has unquestionably changed, the boundaries of the Senate district itself have changed even more. A 2001 redistricting plan, designed deliberately to increase the chances of a minority candidate winning the seat, is the biggest factor behind why a Haitian-American woman will be leading the crowd in crooning Irish ballads on Sunday morning.

No one may appreciate that fact more than the disgraced former Boston pol who watched news of Forry’s victory last spring from behind the walls of federal prison in Connecticut.

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who was released from prison last September after serving 30 months on corruption charges, says she was watching the news in federal prison in Danbury that night last April when MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell exclaimed that “something very extraordinary is happening in Boston.” If the projections hold, Wilkerson recalls O’Donnell saying as a picture of Forry appeared on the screen, “that woman is about to become the state senator in the very district represented by Billy Bulger.” Wilkerson was excited by the news, but chuckled at O’Donnell’s characterization because, she says, “it was a substantially different district than the one represented by Billy Bulger.”

For decades, South Boston was the hub of the First Suffolk Senate district. The district included all of South Boston, but then fanned out to capture slices of Allston, Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, Chinatown, Roxbury, and Dorchester. That configuration, coupled with South Boston’s traditionally high voter turnout, explained how Southie’s 30,000 residents were able to maintain a stranglehold on a district with 160,000 people.

Wilkerson, who represented the adjacent Roxbury-based Second Suffolk Senate district, was the lone black member of the 40-person Senate during her 16 years in office. She says one of her chief goals had always been to push for a creation of a second Boston Senate district in which a minority candidate would stand a strong chance of winning. That opportunity arose with the round of redistricting that followed the 2000 census.

The final stages of the redistricting process played out in late 2001, just after the district’s state senator, Steve Lynch, captured the congressional seat left open by the death of longtime congressman Joe Moakley. With no incumbent in the “Southie seat” looking to protect the make-up of the district, senators had considerably more leeway in redrawing district lines. Meanwhile, Wilkerson, with a seat on the redistricting committee, had an inside perch from which she pushed her plan.

What emerged was a dramatically reshaped First Suffolk District. The district shed the spokes pointing out to various neighborhoods and instead extended its reach south to encompass nearly all of Dorchester and Mattapan. Southie was now the tail wagging the much bigger Dorchester and Mattapan dog in a district where two-thirds of the residents were minorities. 

“I understood I needed to do a whole boatload of work in Dorchester and Mattapan in order to prove myself,” says Jack Hart, the Southie state rep who won the reconfigured Senate seat following Lynch’s departure. When Hart resigned last year after more than a decade in the seat, Forry pounced at the opportunity and squeezed out a narrow victory.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

In pushing for a redrawn district that might be favorable to a minority candidate, Wilkerson gave over to the First Suffolk a good chunk of minority-dominated precincts in her district that had been bedrocks of support. “Very few people could understand why I would be willing to reduce the number of minorities in the district I represent,” she says. “A lot of people scratched their heads.”

Nowhere does political self-interest reign supreme more than in redistricting. That made Wilkerson’s move an unusual one of broader principle. Her disaster-strewn political career, on the other hand, showed considerably less fidelity to principles of ethics and law. It was marked by years of campaign finance and tax violations, capped by her 2008 arrest and conviction for taking $23,500 in bribes to influence the awarding of a liquor license.

Wilkerson says she won’t be watching the telecast of Sunday’s breakfast because she’s speaking that morning at a Dorchester church to mark Women’s History Month. But, she says, “I’m going to watch the rerun on TV for sure.”