Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A Real Threat to Power

A while back I posted on a legislative hearing involving a proposal to revampt the process of congressional and legislative redistricting. The legislation would have established a special commission, the members of whom would be independent of the legislature (but perhaps not completely), who would be responsible for redrawing legislative district boundaries based upon a few simple principles:

Districts must be comprised of contiguous towns, respect town and city borders, and maintain compactness. The commission would not be allowed to consider the home addresses of any sitting lawmaker or the party affiliation or voting history of residents.

The idea would be to remove the almost irresistible power of the legislature's leaders to use the redistricting process to reward allies, punish enemies, and maintain or consolidate the power of the ballot box.

The proposed legislation is going nowhere, as predicted, so the coalition of advocates is taking their constitutional amendment to the people, and will attempt to garner sufficient signatures to have the question appear on the ballot in the next statewide legislative election. Backers must gather more than 66,000 signatures this fall for their ballot question, then get at least 51 of the Legislature's 200 lawmakers to vote for it in two successive sessions. After that, a majority of voters would have to approve of the change in the 2008 election.

This is an idea whose time has arrived. Practically speaking, if you look at some of the congressional and legislative districts that current exist as the result of years of political maneuvering , you have to wonder how much worse it could possibly get.

For instance, here's Congressman James McGovern's district.McGovern was originally the congressional aide to Congressional dinosaur Joe Early. Early served back in the days of Tip O'Neil and Joe Moakley. He got caught up in the congressional banking scandal, where congressmen were cashing checks on insufficient funds for years.

Early's district looked quite a bit different then. But Peter Blute, a state rep from Shrewsbury, came out of nowhere and beat Early. To get the seat back, the Democrats carved up Blute's district and Jim McGovern won the seat (with solid support from organized labor -- no surprise there). Note how the district runs from Fall River (east of Providence) all the way to Princeton (north of Worcester).

Here's the district of Barney Frank at the right. It starts in Newton (where, I believe, Frank used to live), and snakes through eight single towns before it begins to show continuity between towns. Frank's district evolved to this point beginning many years ago, when the Democrats had an opportunity to combine the district of Frank and Margaret Heckler, a Republican who eventually became President Reagan's Ambassador to Ireland. This was a good way to do it, adding gritty blue collar Fall River, taking away some of Heckler's base towns. Frank's district inherited New Bedford after the retirement of Gerry Studds, when Bill Delahunt, long from Quincy, preferred to have his old Quincy base added to the 10th, necessitating the shrinking of the district at the southern end.

Here's one more that raises a laugh. The Middlessex Suffolk and Essex state senate district of former Senate President Tom Birmingham. Here is a description of the district:

Consisting of the cities of Cambridge, ward 3, precinct 2, ward 6, ward 7, ward 8, precincts 1 and 2, ward 9, precinct 1, ward 10, precinct 2, Everett, and Somerville ward 1, precinct 1, ward 2, precinct 1, all in the county of Middlesex; the city of Boston, ward 2, ward 21, precincts 4, 6, and 7, ward 22, precincts 1, 2, and 5; the cities of Chelsea and Revere ward 6, all in the county of Suffolk; the town of Saugus, precincts 2, 6, and 10, all in the county of Essex.

While this effort is well-intentioned, and I may even collect signatures for it myself (been a long time), it will suffer the same fate as other efforts of the citizens in the past. It will be ignored by legislative leaders, because each of them understands that they will not lose an election as a result of ignoring their constituents on such an issue.

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