ProPublica zeroes in on Fair Districts Mass

A ProPublica investigation found that some independent groups promoting redistricting plans across the country are anything but. It’s probably no surprise that one of the organizations that they probed was Fair Districts Mass, a group formed by one-time Republican US Senate candidate Jack E. Robinson.

What caught ProPublica’s attention? Fair Districts Mass, which bills itself as a nonpartisan advocacy group, argues that its two plans for eastern Massachusetts congressional districts would benefit African American and Latino voters. One of those proposals would join Lynn, currently in the 6th Congressional District represented by US Rep. John Tierney, with Roxbury.

Some minority voting rights advocates, however, are less than taken with the plan, saying the proposal (aka Plan B) would do little to help them.  “I don’t see a person of color getting elected in this district, if that’s the goal,” Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of the Latino political organization Oíste, told ProPublica. Latino business leaders on the North Shore don’t like the idea either.

The Pro Publica report noted that Tierney would be “effectively drawn out of a seat” under the Fair Districts Mass plan, but the state lawmakers charged with the redistricting process may have other ideas. Some think the victim is shaping up to be William Keating or Stephen Lynch.
Nearly 700 people showed up at a June redistricting public hearing to urge lawmakers to keep Lynn tethered to the 6th District and the North Shore.  

It’s a truism that journalists follow the money. Except that with Fair Districts Mass, there’s no trail to follow. The “citizen-funded” group can raise as much money as it can muster without having to disclose the identity of any of its contributors.

The architect of that strategy was Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow, who is currently advising the organization on legal affairs. According to ProPublica, when districts were reconfigured in 1990, Winslow, then a GOP operative, failed to win state approval for a “Republican Redistricting Committee” that could accept unlimited corporate donations without naming names. Under Bay State campaign finance laws, only nonpartisan groups could do so.  

State officials gave Fair Districts Mass approval to accept unlimited corporate donations in 2010. The name of the group gives no hint to its origins. Yet the application, filed by Proskauer Rose, Winslow’s law firm, was “almost identical” to the decade-old request. (An interview with two of the reporters who worked on the story is here.)

“It’s not about shifting Massachusetts from Democrat to Republican,” Winslow told ProPublica.“It creates an opportunity for challenges, for challengers to challenge the status quo.”

While Fair Districts Mass suggests a new Suffolk County-based district that extends north to Lynn could be friendly to an African-American or Latino candidate, the reconfigured North Shore district that would result from such changes could also be friendlier to Republican candidates.  
In a CommonWealth profile of Winslow earlier this year, black political consultant Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling said the Norfolk legislator was “playing the hand that works for Republicans and works for min­orities.”

The ProPublica report suggests, however, rather than protecting minority voting rights, groups like Fair District Mass are Trojan horses for partisan and corporate interests that undermine redistricting process in order to “improve the prospects of their political allies or to harm their enemies.” Elbridge Gerry would be proud. 

                                                                                                                                                            –GABRIELLE GURLEY


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