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Councilors sparring over redistricting maps

Yawu Miller | 11/29/2011, 5:50 p.m.

The City Council’s first stab at a redistricting map ignited a political firestorm last week with lines that would have cut Chinatown in half.

The map, drawn by Redistricting Committee Chairman Bill Linehan, would have conveniently cut the home of challenger Suzanne Lee from the South Boston District he now represents. Lee lost to Linehan by fewer than 100 votes in the Nov. 8 council election.

In addition to protests from civic groups in Chinatown, Mayor Thomas Menino denounced the map as gerrymandering. Linehan’s map also drew District 9 Councilor Michael Ross’s Mission Hill home into District 6, now represented by Matt O’Malley.

O’Malley and Ross responded with their own maps, each of which kept the homes of the city’s nine incumbent councilors intact in the districts they now represent. While those maps may have produced less controversy than Linehan’s, they come up short on the one thing Chinese Progressive Association Executive Director Lydia Lowe says is most needed: change.

“A number of councilors talked about keeping Chinatown whole, but I didn’t hear anything about doing more to maximize opportunities for people of color,” Lowe said. “If we just adjust the current districts, we’re not going to create those opportunities.”

As it is now, just two of the nine district council seats are represented by people of color — Charles Yancey in District 4, which includes the predominantly black precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan, and Tito Jackson in District 7, which is centered in Roxbury and includes parts of the South End, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain.

Because more than 50 percent of the city’s population is made up of people of color, political activists say it is possible to create as many as five council districts in which candidates of color would have a fair chance of winning. The majority of the city’s black and Latino population is packed into Yancey and Jackson’s districts, which are at the center of the city.

“The opportunity is there to come up with a redistricting plan that creates five districts where people of color are in the majority,” Yancey says. “In order to do that, it would require substantial, significant and profound changes in the drawing of district lines.”

In Monday’s City Council hearing, Linehan said he would draft an alternate map with five majority-minority districts, in addition to a map drawn to avoid splitting neighborhoods between districts.

Yancey says increasing the black, Latino and Asian populations in city council districts is possible. The population of Yancey’s district is 90 percent black and Latino. If his district line moved to the east, to include more of Dorchester, the Hyde Park district now represented by Rob Consalvo would see its population of blacks and Latinos increase.

There are no such proposals on the table.

“There has to be a willingness on the part of my council colleagues to move outside their comfort zone,” Yancey says. “That’s going to be a problem.”

Other than O’Malley and Ross, both of whom had their incumbency threatened by Linehan’s map, no other councilor has released a map.