In Boston redistricting, battle lines form over district lines 

Councilors at odds with deadline looming

DEPENDING ON WHO you ask, the Boston city council redistricting process is either moving ahead sensibly toward a reasonable resolution or a train wreck that is unnecessarily slicing up neighborhoods into new districts and creating tension where it’s not needed. 

Such are the divergent views of a body that has been riven with conflict over everything but the wisdom of a hefty pay raise for its members, an issue on which the 13 members stood unified – but must now grapple with a response to a mayoral veto. 

Every 10 years the council must redraw lines for its nine district-based seats. After considering population changes reflected in the decennial US Census, it’s often a matter of shifting a precinct or two here or there to rejigger the map in a way to have districts of roughly similar sized population, as required by law. 

The current round of redistricting, however, requires more than slight tinkering around the edges. Because of booming development in the Seaport area as well as the Lower End section of South Boston around the Broadway MBTA Station, the population of City Councilor Ed Flynn’s district has ballooned to more than 14,000 residents over the target of 75,000 people per district. Meanwhile, the adjacent District 3, represented by Dorchester’s Frank Baker, has lost population and is about 6,500 people short of the target size. 

No small-scale tinkering will shed Flynn’s District 2 of that number of residents or add the needed new precincts into Baker’s District 3. 

What’s emerged, though, is a cartographic mishmash of maps, with at least five proposals now on the table. 

Added to the mix is tension on the council over the fact that City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo was bounced from his chairmanship of the redistricting committee by council president Ed Flynn when decades-old allegations of sexual assault emerged during Arroyo’s September primary run for Suffolk district attorney. (Arroyo, who lost the primary, denied the allegations.) The council is facing an early November deadline to approve the new boundaries a year before the 2023 municipal election. 

Baker said the process is becoming “a sideshow,” with the succession of new maps being dropped. He decried the fact that councilors aren’t trying to work together in an open meeting to craft new district boundaries.  

Arroyo unveiled a plan on Tuesday dubbed the “unity map” together with City Councilor Liz Breadon, who was tapped by Flynn to helm the redistricting committee, the local NAACP, and other community groups. He called it a “compromise map” based on listening to what councilors all said. 

One of its biggest changes is in refashioning Baker’s district and the adjacent District 4, which also covers a big swath of Dorchester and Mattapan. Since the advent in 1983 of the current council system of four at-large seats and nine district seats, the two districts have largely divided up Dorchester between east and west. That has largely also aligned with the neighborhood’s racial demographics, with predominantly white neighborhoods along its eastern corridor on the coast and Black neighborhoods running its length more inland, to the west. District 3 has had three white councilors, including Baker, over those nearly four decades, while District 4 has elected three Black councilors. 

The plan Arroyo and Breadon unveiled would divide the neighborhood between its northern sections, which would be in Baker’s District 3, and the southern precincts, which would go in District 4, currently represented by Brian Worrell. 

In decrying an earlier map proposed by Arroyo, that would have had his district stretch all the way to Copley Square, Baker insisted that district lines respect “parish boundaries.” That nod to a time when heavily Catholic Dorchester neighborhoods were often identified by parish drew a sharp rebuke from the community paper in the neighborhood. In an editorial, the Dorchester Reporter said “the parish dynamic has no place in a present-day discussion about political redistricting,” noting that Dorchester is now a “multicultural stew” and most residents are not Catholic churchgoers. 

The new map Arroyo and Breadon unveiled would keep parishes together – but it would shift several of those in the southeast part of Dorchester that Baker now represents into Worrell’s District 4. 

Baker isn’t moved. He said Breadon “looked totally bullied out there today” after she and Arroyo gathered with advocate groups on City Hall Plaza to present the new plan.

Breadon didn’t return a call on Tuesday. 

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.

Baker has a map of his own that will be presented today, and said the current broad configuration of districts makes sense, with his district including all the neighborhoods along the “spine” formed by Dorchester Avenue, which share common concerns on transportation issues. 

Former city councilor Larry DiCara said there is always one time-honored principle at work in redistricting. “It’s the age-old game of cover my tuchus,” he said. “Everyone wants a district that makes it easier to get reelected.”