Gerrymandering is alive and well

All summer and into the fall, politics junkies have been treated to an unexpected sideshow: a battle of insiders over congressional redistricting. That the redrawing of district lines gives rise to political gamesmanship should surprise no one. The federal census that takes place at the start of every new decade is always followed by a reapportionment of seats in the US House of Representatives, and the consequent reshuffling of voters can make or break political careers.

But the post-2000 redistricting was supposed to be politically painless. For the first time since 1970, this year’s reapportionment does not cost Massachusetts a seat in Congress. Therefore, there would be no need to pit incumbent against incumbent in an electoral game of musical chairs. Nonetheless, we have watched the spectacle of a five-term Democratic congressman, Martin Meehan of Lowell, brought to his political knees by a single, if inordinately powerful, state lawmaker of his own party, House Speaker Thomas Finneran, by the simple act of drawing lines on a map–a map that was, at the time, no more than hypothetical.

Tisdale’s “Gerry-Mander:” : “A New Species of Monster.

For those who love democracy more than politics, these Machiavellian machinations may be more bewildering–and disturbing–than diverting. And they raise an unavoidable question: Why does this fundamental act of representative government seem to carry with it such opportunities for political mischief?

Perhaps it’s because no other act of democratic governance compares in its mix of high principle– “one man, one vote”–and sheer, unadulterated self-interest. Representative government is impossible without grouping citizens for the purpose of choosing their representatives. Yet how district lines are drawn may, by itself, determine who gets elected to be representatives. Thus every attempt to redraw congressional boundaries, including Finneran’s, both invokes lofty principles of fair representation and embodies the exercise of raw political power. And it’s been that way since the founding of the republic.

The original gerrymander

Manipulating district lines for partisan advantage goes back to the legendary Elbridge Gerry, who is credited with inventing the practice in 1812. A Harvard graduate and a man of great wealth and stature, Gerry belonged to the so-called “codfish aristocracy” of Marblehead, his father having made a fortune shipping dried cod to Spain and the West Indies. In the words of John Adams biographer David McCullough, “Gerry viewed mankind as capable of both great good and great evil.” An ardent patriot who was independent by nature, he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but he refused to sign the national constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, though he ultimately became the fifth vice president of the United States.

Gerry was also known for his cunning and political craftiness. Twice elected, in 1810 and 1811, to one-year terms as governor of Massachusetts, Gerry switched his party allegiance from Federalist to Jeffersonian Democrat. Led by Gerry, the Democrats redistricted the General Court, as the state Legislature is formally known, consolidating Federalist strength in just a few seats. The Federalists cried bloody murder, and Gerry’s map became the talk of the Commonwealth. Elkanah Tisdale illustrated how the Democrats carved up the Essex state Senate district in order to gain unfair advantage over the Federalists in a famous cartoon that appeared in the Boston Gazette. One observer remarked that the cartoon looked like a salamander, which gave rise to the term “gerrymander.” It was an addition to the American political lexicon that has yet to outlive its usefulness.

Partisan interest in district lines has continued ever since. From the late 1850s to the 1940s, Yankee Republicans dominated the 13 county commissions (which, until 1930, controlled redistricting) and the General Court, maintaining political control despite a large influx of famine- and post-famine-era Irish Catholic immigrants, thanks to skillful gerrymandering. The Democrats achieved a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time in 1948 and took control of the Senate in 1958, which set the stage for a watershed redistricting–following the 1960 census.

With states like California and Florida growing much faster than the Bay State, Massachusetts lost two of its 14 seats‹which were then held by six Republicans and eight Democrats. State Sen. Kevin Harrington of Salem was assigned the task of redistricting the state in 1962. A faithful Democratic Party man, Harrington concocted a gerrymander that would have assured the Democrats nine of the 12 House seats. But Republican Gov. John Volpe insisted that the two major parties split the loss of the two congressional seats, which they did. But they shared the pain in a way that strengthened each party’s hand. Republicans gave up the Back Bay district of Laurence Curtis–the last Republican to represent a Boston-based district–who, despite serving five terms, was too liberal for GOP tastes. The Democrats sacrificed Thomas Lane of Lawrence, who had previously served time in federal prison for income tax evasion. No asset to his party, Lane lost to Bradford Morse, a popular Republican incumbent, in the 1962 election.

One man, one vote

Redistricting had never been pretty–or politically indifferent–but partisan maneuvering turned technocratic after two landmark US Supreme Court decisions in the early ’60s. Up to that time, rural legislators exercised disproportionate influence in both Congress and state legislatures across the country. Though the cities were burgeoning with immigrants and domestic migrants, farmers and conservative interests based in the countryside dominated legislative caucus rooms.

In 1962, the Supreme Court outlawed malapportionment in its landmark decision of Baker v. Carr, and confirmed the ruling in Reynolds v. Sims two years later. “As nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s,” the court declared. Based on this new “one man, one vote” formula, the court forced states to correct the political imbalance between growing cities and dwindling rural areas.

But the court’s requirement that districts be drawn with nearly identical populations has made the political mischief we have seen every decade since almost unavoidable. The kinds of “communities of interest” that might make a natural basis for electoral districts are based on settlement patterns, ethnicity, history, and other social bonds; they do not form in equal sizes. But the requirement of equal numbers forces the drawing of districts based on populations that add up to the right number. Common interests, however they are defined, are necessarily a secondary consideration.

The equal-numbers mandate also forces states to readjust district lines every 10 years to reflect the smallest movement in population, even if reapportionment does not alter the state’s total number of seats. The resulting jurisdictional shifts may have little impact on the voters at large, but contain tremendous implications for people in office–and their prospective challengers.

In 1970, the one man-one vote requirement forced redistricting because of population changes within congressional districts–a move that gave Democrats the chance to pick up a congressional seat. Republican Hastings Keith decided not to seek reelection in the Cape Cod-based 12th Congressional District in 1972. His Democratic rival, Gerry Studds–a descendant of the father of gerrymandering, for whom he is named–who had nearly beaten Keith two years before, narrowly defeated Republican state Sen. William Weeks, thanks largely to the removal from the district of seven towns that had voted Republican in the previous election.

The next two rounds of redistricting–in 1980 and 1990–were not only more bizarre but also more politically disruptive, since each involved the loss of a Massachusetts seat in Congress. The 1980 redistricting gave us the spectacle of two incumbents (Barney Frank and Margaret Heckler) facing off in the same reconfigured district in 1982, with Frank the surprise victor in what turned out to be a Democratic year. In 1990, declining population forced a consolidation of districts in and around Boston. Seven-term incumbent Brian Donnelly deferred to 10-term congressmen Studds and Joe Moakley, both fellow Democrats, and gave up his district. The effort to accommodate the remaining incumbents also resulted in the snakelike districts in the southeastern part of the state that have, at least ostensibly, offended Speaker Finneran so much that getting rid of them is reason enough to unseat a sitting congressman and fellow Democrat.

Finneran’s quake

Redistricting, like politics itself, ain’t beanbag, to paraphrase Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley. But Finneran’s redistricting foray, unveiled July 11, was breathtaking in its audacity. It was a unilateral move, made with little consultation of his colleagues and in sharp departure from the traditional House-Senate collaboration on this politically sensitive process. (Finneran later professed not to have realized that the redistricting committee was a joint body.)

Finneran justified this redistricting maneuver on the grounds of the elegance of its product: a new district map allegedly free of the usual gerrymandering shenanigans. Taking advantage of two districts lacking (in his eyes) an incumbent whose interests had to be protected–as a result of Moakley’s recent death and Meehan’s apparent interest in running for governor instead of re-election–he could redraw Massachusetts’s congressional map nearly from scratch. Finneran proposed representation based on compact boundaries that, he argued, gathered together true communities of interest. These districts would include a new seat in Bristol County that unites the cities of Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton–a region that has been sliced and diced among multiple districts since the early 20th century–and a “majority-minority” district anchored in Boston–a goal of reformers for a generation. “We’re trying to rewrite history and give it a little more cohesion,” Finneran declared.

The Speaker’s pious words by no means insulated him or his map from political dissection, however. Editorialists in the Merrimack Valley screamed that Finneran did to their region what prior maps had done to southeastern Massachusetts–carve it up in a way that made true representation impossible. And some minority activists pointed out that Finneran’s proposed 8th CD was not majority-minority at all, when it came to the voting-age population, and that the Lynn and Revere white ethnics drawn into the district were less likely to support a black or Latino candidate than the Cambridge liberals who had been removed. Indeed, the so-called majority-minority district seemed drawn as much to protect incumbent Michael Capuano of Somerville as to boost minority representation. Meanwhile, politicos in Lynn objected to being redistricted out of the North Shore.

But politically, these were quibbles compared to the impact on Meehan, who learned that his district was on the chopping block the very day that his federal campaign- finance bill was moving to the floor of the US House of Representatives. The timing, indeed, was lost on no one, as most observers saw Finneran’s move as payback for Meehan’s criticism of Finneran over construction of a new Patriots football stadium and for refusing to fund the new Clean Elections Law. Now Meehan the reformer has abandoned thoughts of a run for governor and has been reduced to lobbying state Senate President Thomas Birmingham for the district-line status quo in order to save his seat–and his job.

Let’s make a redistricting deal

However, apart from its unnecessarily provocative nature–increasingly, Finneran’s trademark–the Speaker’s gambit falls solidly into the gerrymandering tradition. That is, it freely mixes high-minded concern for representation with gritty political advantage.

After all, one can view Finneran’s map as just another redrawing based on political self-interest, wrapped up in rhetorical window dressing about communities of interest, minority representation, and the like. Or one can embrace it as raising the ideal of compact, contiguous districts that represent true communities of interest over the political self-interest of any individual incumbent congressman.

Or it can be seen as a brilliant, but cynical, hybrid: Finneran draws from scratch sensible districts that represent authentic communities of interest (including long unrepresented minority communities) at the same time that he settles a political score with Meehan. The latter interpretation makes Finneran’s move a combination of high principle and Machiavellian power mongering that would make Elbridge Gerry proud.

Gov. Swift has indicated she will veto any redistricting map that takes apart the 5th District, as Finneran’s does. In September Senate President Birmingham proposed a map that keeps Meehan’s seat largely intact and makes the 8th District neither more nor less majority-minority than Finneran’s, but with white voters from neighborhoods considered more liberal. It also keeps the New Bedford-Fall River area together, but in Frank’s 4th District, rather than a new one.

Despite all the lofty talk about representation and communities of interest, redistricting is always about political advantage–a subject there is always more than one way to look at. Take Finneran’s proposed reunification of the long- gerrymandered southeastern region of the state. Are the interests of Fall River better served by a first-term representative elected in a newly created Bristol County district, or by having both Jim McGovern and Barney Frank fighting for the struggling mill city on Capitol Hill?

Meet the Author
As redistricting winds its way to an end this fall, don’t be surprised if more political scores get settled. And be prepared to hear from the losers that they are the victims of gerrymandering.

It can be no other way. For, in the end, there are no idealized, perfectly representative districts from which any politically crafted map is a corrupt and self-serving departure. There are only conflicting versions of political self-interest‹the self-interest of individual politicians, of political parties, of specific communities, and of the state as a whole. Stay tuned for coming attractions.

Richard Hogarty is a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.