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[talking politics]

The emperor has no clothes (continued)

TO GET A sense of how this played outside of Massachusetts — where most commentators have given the plan high marks — I telephoned Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne. When I explained that Meehan was losing his district under the redistricting plan, Dionne was so stunned he asked me to explain again what had happened. I did. The details didn’t add up for Dionne: a Democratic Speaker redraws the state’s congressional districts in such a way as to ensure the elimination of a popular Democratic congressman. I asked Dionne if he could think of any precedent for this. He drew a blank. " The trouble is to think about where there was no lost seat. I cannot think of a case like this, " he said. " Most states do exactly the opposite. Most states try to preserve seniority. " (The news wasn’t all bad for Dionne. Under Finneran’s plan, his native Fall River will finally earn its own congressional seat.)

Actually, there is one case that somewhat parallels the situation in Massachusetts. California is gaining a seat in Congress, and the New York Post reported last week that state Democrats are considering carving up a mostly Republican congressional district that is now held by a Democrat. They hope to give the Democratic sections of the district to nearby lawmakers who could use additional votes, such as US Representative Cal Dooley. The loser? US Representative Gary Condit of Modesto, who has been questioned three times by police in Washington, DC, about his relationship with Chandra Levy, a former intern who has not been seen or heard from in two months. But Meehan is no Condit. Strange place, Massachusetts.

As Dionne says, other states try to help their incumbents during redistricting. This is not just a matter of protecting insiders. Those familiar with Washington know that the more experienced a delegation is, the more federal dollars the delegation can win for its state. Doesn’t anyone remember what Moakley did for Massachusetts? And how he did it? Moakley’s chief asset was his seniority. That’s how he won his high-ranking position on the influential Rules Committee. That’s what gave him the clout to bring in money for the Big Dig and the federal courthouse that now bears his name.

Mark Nevins, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is focused on coordinating House races across the country, declined to comment on the specifics of the Massachusetts redistricting effort. But he did note that " from our perspective it’s bad to lose Democratic incumbents, " adding that the party is trying to " retake the House and move to a more centrist Democratic agenda. "

Minority leader Richard Gephardt, who would be in a position to take over as Speaker of a Democratic House, would have good reason to be annoyed by Finneran’s power play. One issue that Gephardt’s rival, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, has handed to the Democrats this year is campaign-finance reform — Meehan’s bill. And the Lowell congressman has been speaking in its behalf at rallies across the country, including one in Boston last week. Now with Meehan under attack — and by a fellow Democrat, no less — forget about seeing him join Gephardt at speeches contrasting the Democratic and Republican Parties. It’s not a stretch to say that Finneran’s seeming act of revenge against a politician who disagrees with him on campaign-finance reform has the potential to affect national debate on the issue.

But Finneran’s actions have even more devastating implications for Massachusetts. Meehan is on the brink of becoming a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. And if the Democrats retake the House in 2002, Meehan will become chairman of the House Armed Services Research and Development Subcommittee, where he is already the ranking Democrat. Meehan is the only member of the Massachusetts delegation with the clout to direct some of that committee’s $44 billion budget to the Commonwealth. If other members of the delegation need something from the committee (which happens often enough — defense contractor General Electric has a plant in Lynn, which will be in Capuano’s district under the proposed plan, while Raytheon is in Burlington and Sudbury, in Markey’s and Frank’s new districts) they can call on Meehan for help. Discounting Meehan now is foolhardy, especially at a time when President George W. Bush is considering pumping $8.3 billion into an expensive missile-defense program. Although Meehan has been critical of the so-called Star Wars plan, if Bush were to go forward with it, Meehan would be in a key position to steer research-and-development money to Massachusetts. Finneran’s plan — need it be said? — would scuttle that influence.

Finneran’s allies make some interesting points in defense of his reckless plan. The most popular is this: Finneran has finally crafted a minority-majority district. The Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker, for example, wrote that the plan gives the Speaker " a slice of moral high ground, " adding that " Massachusetts could for the first time have a district in which a majority of residents are people of color. "

Trouble is, even though this may be true on paper, don’t expect voters from the reconfigured Eighth Congressional District to elect a Maxine Waters any time soon. Census data show that the district is only 51.5 percent minority, and in Boston minority-voter turnout is notoriously low, according to political analysts. Besides, the minority population of this district actually consists of several disparate ethnic groups — not just Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians, but Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Caribbean blacks, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians — each with distinct electoral interests. Remember, the reason James Hahn, a mainstream white liberal, will be the new mayor of Los Angeles is that African-Americans voted for the white guy while Latinos voted for Antonio Villaraigosa, a progressive Latino.

Finneran’s plan also scoops away the liberal heart of the Eighth District, Cambridge, and moves it to the Fourth District — represented by Frank. In place of the People’s Republic will be Revere and Winthrop, home to centrist Italians who will surely gravitate toward Capuano. State Representative Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge, who praises Finneran for creating a minority-majority district, nevertheless points out that " the 33 percent minority population of Cambridge and all of Cambridge would be well served by remaining a part of the Eighth Congressional District. " In fact, Finneran’s changes will probably make the district more conservative.

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Issue Date: July 19-26, 2001

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