Let's redistrict fairly

The Lowell Sun
December 6, 2010

State Rep. Jim Arciero, D-Westford, filed a bill months ago to create an independent redistricting panel and we applauded it. The state Legislature should take a serious look at adopting the plan.

Beacon Hill could use a boost in confidence from the public, and what better way to achieve it in the new year than by implementing a transparent redistricting process.

Redrawing legislative and congressional districts is fraught with peril for legislators, who are guided by self-interest and preserving voting blocs rather than examining population shifts, changing demographics and creating fair boundaries that serve to engage political participation.

The last time redistricting was an issue, in 1992, the Town of Chelmsford got carved up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey, with four slices going to four different legislators, and House Speaker Tom Finneran was indicted on a federal perjury charge and convicted. The sordid episode revealed the seamy and secretive side of redistricting, with legislative leaders meeting behind closed to reshape the political map and take care of their own. Majority Democrats made districts even more impregnable for party incumbents. Until the 2010 election, nearly 70 percent of state legislators ran unopposed in all races held since 1992.

On Nov. 2, 17 Republicans won election to the House, doubling their number to 34. They are still a minority in the 160-member body but their total represents the largest party bloc since Republican Gov. William Weld held office in the early 1990s. The GOP also had 16 state senators, allowing Weld to sustain his veto power. The political dynamic created checks-and-balances that led to debate and consensus on major issues.

Interestingly, that changed in 1992 when Democrats redrew the legislative maps and made it difficult for the minority party to hold onto those seats. Will it happen again?

In Chelmsford's case, Republican state Rep. Carol Cleven found her seat eliminated entirely, with four Democrats picking up the nine precincts. Today, the 34,000 person community is represented by Corey Atkins, D-Concord; David Nangle, D-Lowell; Tom Golden, D-Lowell, and Arciero. It's difficult for Chelmsford to speak in one voice on Beacon Hill.

The Town of Billerica, which is Chelmsford's neighbor and similarly sized, has one state rep. Lowell, with 106,000 residents, has three.

We believe the Legislature can do something bold and brave. Give up the secret politicking and appoint an independent commission to examine the data and develop three redistricting models that politicians can choose from. The end result would build integrity and fairness into the process.