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[talking politics]

The emperor has no clothes (continued)

Finneran boosters have also been saying this: The districts look more rational on the map. The Globe published an editorial praising the plan for its " compactness and cohesion of interests. " Yet the Second Congressional District still stretches in an ungainly manner from Agawam to Bellingham. And what do the northern Route 2 communities of Harvard and Shirley in Finneran’s new Third Congressional District — which he calls the " 495 District " — have in common geographically with Franklin, on the Rhode Island border? Meanwhile, back in the Eighth, Cambridge and Somerville — which have much in common demographically — would be separated in Finneran’s calculus. Finally, why are Fall River and New Bedford more deserving of a congressional seat than Lawrence and Lowell? Says Paul Sullivan, the political editor of the Lowell Sun: " We have commonalities in communities here that are being torn up because Tom Finneran doesn’t like Marty Meehan. " Finneran’s retort is that census data and economic figures show that the southern part of the state is the fastest-growing portion of the Commonwealth. Yet the area between the Merrimack Valley cities in Massachusetts and Nashua, New Hampshire — Meehan’s old district — is also booming. Growth in Bristol County, home to Fall River and New Bedford, is less than one percent greater than growth in Middlesex County, home to Lawrence and Lowell — a fact conceded by Finneran’s redistricting team. Is that a large enough margin to justify such dramatic change?

More interesting are the arguments privately mounted in Finneran’s defense. The first is nothing more than plain old schadenfreude: Marty deserved what he got. He didn’t spend enough time in the State House. He was too busy gallivanting around the country like a big shot, stumping for campaign-finance reform. In other words, we finally get a representative who is actually trying to change systemic abuses, and he’s being punished for it. Though Meehan spent some time this week groveling before lawmakers on Beacon Hill in an effort to preserve his district, the notion that a US congressman — any congressman — should ever have to kowtow to a local state rep is ridiculous.

Then there’s this: Tommy’s smarter than anyone else and he won’t abuse it. Globe columnist Joan Vennochi took a whack at this one July 17, when she wrote: " Trying to figure out Finneran’s motives is not just mentally exhausting. It takes away from an honest evaluation of the real pluses and minuses of his redistricting proposal.... Finneran is a very smart man. And that means we should expect more of him, not less. " Finneran was certainly intelligent in crafting a plan that looked good on the merits. His arguments for promoting district rationality, keeping contiguous areas together, and advancing minority representation are hard to refute. But ask Finneran’s House enemies, namely the progressives, whether the Speaker ever abuses his power and you’ll get an earful — off the record, of course.

Finneran has been able to avoid much of the criticism levied against past House Speakers like " Iron Duke " John Thompson and Tom McGee by not acting with their heavy-handedness; he anticipates what the objections will be, just as he did with the redistricting plan. He knows how to take full advantage of the apolitical age in which he presides. But so much power concentrated in one place — with barely a counterweight from the Senate president, the governor, or even the congressional delegation — cannot be beneficial to the Commonwealth in the years to come.

IT’S SAFE to say that Finneran wouldn’t have gotten away with his redistricting plan if Moakley were still alive and healthy. For all the jokes about how everybody now invokes Moakley’s name, Moakley was committed to the Massachusetts congressional delegation. When Massachusetts was slated to lose a congressional seat in 1980, he lobbied state legislators to craft a slightly more favorable district for Barney Frank, whose district was being combined with that of Republican Margaret Heckler. Moakley had learned from former Speaker Tip O’Neill, who, in turn, had learned from Speaker John McCormack.

In fact, Moakley had preliminary conversations on redistricting with Finneran and with Senate president Tom Birmingham, and he convened the Massachusetts delegation in February to discuss possible changes. But before he could follow up, he became ill. Although much of the anti-Meehan sentiment seems to focus on the congressman’s inability to decide between running for governor and running for re-election, friends of Moakley say he would have advised Finneran, at minimum, to talk to Meehan before coming out with his plan. With Moakley gone, Finneran apparently feels free to operate without restriction.

The largely favorable reaction to Finneran’s redistricting proposal makes it likely that the plan — or at least some form of it — will be implemented. But radical redistricting has not always worked to the benefit of top Massachusetts officials. One such victim of his own redistricting plan was Elbridge Gerry, who was elected governor of the state in 1810 and later mapped out new congressional districts. Gerry’s critics likened his twisting, turning congressional districts to salamanders — giving rise to the term " gerrymander. " Enraged electoral opponents voted Gerry out of office in 1812. He failed upward — ending up as James Madison’s vice-president in the same year — but his name has become attached to a term of political opprobrium.

Finneran says his districts will stand the test of time. Indeed, he says that the previous set of twisting and turning congressional districts " would not survive a 20-minute presentation, " whereas his own carefully drawn districts " will survive 20 years. " But it remains to be seen whether the new districts will be remembered for their rationality or, like Gerry’s, for their notoriety.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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Issue Date: July 19-26, 2001

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