Citywide elections called barrier to minority representation
Everett the latest community to explore changes to system
NOW IT’S EVERETT’S turn in the spotlight.
The community best known these days for its massive casino is also one of a handful of Massachusetts cities that still elects all municipal officeholders entirely citywide, with no district or ward representatives on the city council or school committee.
It’s a recipe for shutting out the political representation of people of color, say critics. Everett’s population is 44 percent white, but whites hold 75 percent of city council and school committee seats. Facing the threat of a legal challenge, the city is now looking at a change in its charter to establish ward-based seats.
Everett may be trying to stay ahead of the curve. Lowell is now moving to a combined at-large and ward-seat system for municipal offices, but it took a 2017 lawsuit to force the change. The suit followed years of complaints about the way the city’s all at-large system stacked the deck in favor of white candidates who tended to all live in one well-off corner of the city.
Haverhill state Rep. Andy Vargas, a Latino who won an at-large council seat in 2015 at age 22 before moving on to the State House, said some have pointed to his win as evidence that no change is needed. “People said, ‘Andy, you kind of make the case weaker by getting elected,’” Vargas said last year. But he said his council victory six years ago now looks more like an exception to the general rule.
Until recently, Boston had, at best, a very uneven track record when it comes to minority representation. In 1981, driven by the same arguments being aired today over representation, voters scrapped the city’s all at-large city council and replaced it with a 13-member body made up of four citywide seats and nine district seats.
Two decades later, apart from electing black councilors in two predominantly black council districts, things didn’t look much different.
“I would say the state of black politics is dismal,” veteran black leader Hubie Jones said in this 2003 CommonWealth look at the state of black political power. “We have no black congressman, we have no black at-large city councilor. We have no black mayor, [and] we’re not in shouting distance of getting one in the near future.”Almost 20 years after Jones’s lament, things look very different.
The city still doesn’t have a black congressman — it has a black congresswoman, who went from winning an at-large council seat to defeating a 10-term congressional incumbent. It also has a Latina at-large councilor and an Asian-American at-large councilor who is now a candidate for mayor, along with a black district city councilor. Meanwhile, the city council president, a black woman who holds the Roxbury-based district seat, is about to become acting mayor and could run for the seat as well.