“We need everyone to join us in the work,” said Mayor Michelle Wu in her inaugural speech. In a couple weeks time, we’ll know if that was a well-meaning but empty promise.
Civic unity looks a little less likely after the hyperpolitical, racially-tinged wrangling over Boston City Council redistricting got a decibel boost last week from U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris, in the role of the monsignor sent down to break up a rowdy after-hours Dorcherster Bark in the Park.
Girls’ Latin alumnus Saris, from girlhood in West Roxbury to the federal bench, has had a front row seat for all the changes the city has gone through in the past sixty years. And all that experience came in handy last week when Saris threw the Boston City Council’s redistricting map back at them for overhaul with a scathing 41-page ruling that the majority had “relied on race as the predominant consideration,” a major constitutional no-no.
It wasn’t a tough call. The Council’s liberal majority either didn’t know or didn’t care about the Equal Protection Clause’s prohibition against racial gerrymandering, openly discussing racial demographics, climaxing with Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson’s ill-advised remark that “racial tension…that’s a good thing….you know it’s due time.”
Is that a whiff of revenge for years of minority voter suppression? Smells like human nature. As Anderson, one of four newly-elected councilors of color, put it: “If we’re here and you’re not used to it and you’re uncomfortable, that is a good thing.”
But payback is not a legal principle. And while it’s an understandable impulse, the notion that race-based redistricting remains necessary to level the playing field for minority voters and their candidates in a city with a non-white mayor and majority non-white Council seems outdated to Saris: “There is no evidence on the record to support [the contention] ‘that the White majority votes sufficiently as a bloc’ to defeat the preferred candidate of Black voters [in District 4/Mattapan]. Quite the contrary: in District 4, the preferred candidate of Black voters won in 2015, 2019 and 2021 in municipal elections.”
“[Black former State Rep.] Byron Rushing was elected from a 75-85% white district for about 30 years, and [white former House Speaker] Tommy Finneran was elected from a 65-70% African-American district for about 20 years,” recalls former City Councilor Larry DiCara. “So these patterns have been evolving for a long time. And because Judge Saris grew up in the city and she has seen the city evolve, she understands.”
But do the councilors she ruled against get it? At the first post-ruling Council meeting, as Councilor Julia Mejia cast her vote against referring the redistricting re-do to a committee headed by Council President Ed Flynn, she looked right at Flynn and said “there’s a level of mistrust here.” Funny, both Councilors Frank Baker and Erin Murphy, who backed the lawsuit, used that same verb to describe their view of the defendants. Meanwhile, Flynn, hailed by Councilor Ricardo Arroyo as “one of the kindest and hardest-working people I know” when he supported Flynn’s election as president in December 2021, is now the enemy since stripping Arroyo of redistricting oversight last fall during the controversy over his personal past. Talk about payback: his council critics have threatened to use their majority to dump Flynn from the presidency.
Which brings us back to Mayor Wu, who counts Flynn as a valuable ally on rent control. Her new redistricting plan gives the plaintiffs most of what they wanted, and was promptly dismissed by the Lawyers for Civil Rights coalition as a “‘Make Boston Great Again’ proposal that threatens decades of progress.”
If Boston’s new political math finds that conciliators like Flynn and Wu equal Satan and Trump, decades of progress are threatened alright. Not to mention how it shreds Wu’s inaugural equation: “The reason to make a Boston for everyone is because we need everyone for Boston right now.”
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