Redistricting effort looks to reestablish Black Senate seat 

Black neighborhoods in Boston were split 20 years ago in effort to expand representation

A REDISTRICTING PUSH to establish a majority-Black state Senate district in Boston is coming at a time of heightened attention to racial equity issues and demands for a seat at the table from those historically locked out of power. But the effort to redraw district lines to enhance Black voting power is actually a back-to-the-future exercise in reclaiming lost political clout. 

“We don’t think there is any issue more important in this redistricting process than achieving electoral and political justice for the Black community,” said Kevin Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition, one of the groups advocating for a redrawn Black-majority Senate district. 

There are currently no Black members in the 40-person Senate, but that has not always been the case. Redistricting in the early 1970s led to the creation of a Roxbury-based Senate seat that was held by Black officials for more than 30 years. In 2001, however, the district was split apart in an effort to fashion two Senate districts where Black candidates might be viable. 

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. 

Then-Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, at the time the lone Black member of the Senate, strongly supported the redistricting move, agreeing to give up heavily Black swaths of the Second Suffolk District seat she had held since 1993. Her district picked up predominantly white neighborhoods in Jamaica Plain and Back Bay. Meanwhile, big chunks of the district in Dorchester and Mattapan were shifted into the neighboring First Suffolk District, once the unshakable redoubt of South Boston’s William Bulger. 

“Very few people could understand why I would be willing to reduce the number of minorities in the district I represent,” Wilkerson said in a 2014 interview with CommonWealth

It probably wouldn’t have been a problem for her without the baggage Wilkerson carried into her reelection campaigns in the redrawn district. In 2008, dogged by a string of past campaign finance violations and a federal tax conviction for which she was sentenced to home confinement and then 30 days in a halfway house, Wilkerson was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary by Sonia Chang-Diaz, who went on to become the first Latina to serve in the Senate. (Weeks after the primary, Wilkerson was arrested on federal corruption charges, captured on video stuffing cash into her bra, and wound up serving time in prison.) 

In the First Suffolk District, in 2013, Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American state representative from Dorchester, won a race for the open seat after eking out a Democratic primary win by 378 votes out of nearly 22,000 cast. The win appeared to validate the thinking behind the 2001 redistricting. But Forry had narrowly won a three-way race against two white candidates from South Boston who divided the vote. 

When she resigned five years later to take a private sector job, one of those two candidates, state Rep. Nick Collins, sailed through the Democratic primary unopposed and captured the vacant Senate seat, which he has held since then.  

Peterson calls the 2001 redistricting “an utterly failed experiment, which divides the Black community.” 

“It did not work the way they thought it would,” said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of the advocacy group MassVOTE. 

Peterson and Crawford — along with Wilkerson herself — have been part of a coalition of organizations and activists pushing for the Legislature to reunite predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city into a single Senate district as part of the decennial redistricting now underway based on the 2020 US Census. 

Under the current map, non-Hispanic Blacks account for 32 percent of the population in the First Suffolk Senate District and 29 percent of the population in the Second Suffolk District. 

The redistricting effort comes on the heels of Census results showing Boston’s overall Black population has decreased by nearly 9,000 residents since the 2010 tally. The Black share of the city population has fallen from 22.4 percent in 2010 to 19.1 percent in 2020, a change many attribute to high housing costs forcing an exodus of lower-income residents from the city. 

What a majority-Black Senate district might look like is unclear. Recreating a Roxbury-based seat with boundaries similar to those of the Second Suffolk District prior to 2001 is one option. Peterson has developed a proposal with a majority-Black district centered farther south that pulls together Mattapan and parts of Dorchester and Hyde Park. 

Black activists convened a community forum in Roxbury last month attended by the co-chairs of the Legislature’s redistricting committee, Rep. Michael Moran of Brighton and Sen. Will Brownsberger of Belmont. Advocates have met four times with Brownsberger, who will take the lead on Senate redistricting, most recently last Sunday, when about 10 of them huddled with him over lunch at a South End restaurant. 

Peterson said Brownsberger has been both accessible and receptive to the arguments to create a Black majority Senate district. 

For his part, Brownsberger is reluctant to go into much detail at this stage of the always-sensitive redistricting process. 

“We’re working very hard to understand and meet our obligations under the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” he said. “It’s a bedrock of protecting minority rights in the redistricting process and we’re completely committed to abiding by that law.”

One element of the landmark federal voting statute that would argue for redrawing Senate boundaries with an eye toward the Black make-up of districts is past evidence of racially polarized voting. 

Both Boston districts have witnessed that pattern in recent elections. Collins won heavily white precincts in Dorchester far from his South Boston home in the 2013 contest with Forry. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the trail of transgressions that made her electorally vulnerable, Wilkerson’s 2008 loss saw deep divisions that played out along racial lines, with the Black incumbent strongly backed by voters in predominantly Black precincts and overwhelmingly rejected elsewhere in the district. 

“The reality is that what we learned is really just Boston’s history rearing its ugly head,” Wilkerson said last month during a live streamed discussion of the redistricting effort. People “voted down racial lines, period,” said Wilkerson, who is now pushing to reverse the redistricting changes she championed two decades ago. 

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.

Chang-Diaz is giving up her seat to mount a run for the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor, a move that gives more flexibility to the redistricting effort, where incumbency protection always plays a role. 

A draft map of proposed new House and Senate districts could emerge in the Legislature by the end of September.