Finneran at center of redistricting law suit
House Speaker Thomas Finneran is named in a lawsuit challenging the redrawing of legislative districts last year.
by Yawu Miller, Bay State Banner
May 29, 2003 – After the three rounds of redistricting that took place during House Speaker Thomas Finneran’s career, his district has stretched further and further from its Mattapan roots, crossing boundaries of race, class and municipality.
His new district stretches out of Mattapan through the whitest and highest-voting precinct in Dorchester and all the way into East Milton Square, where it has picked up two precincts.
But ask the speaker whether the needs and concerns of the white residents of the district differ from those of the people of color and Finneran’s answer is short and to the point.
“No, they do not,” he responded to Richard Benka, attorney for the plaintiffs in a class action suit against Finneran and the state of Massachusetts alleging that the speaker has diluted minority voting power through redistricting.
The plaintiffs — the Black Political Task Force and ¿Oiste?: The Massachusetts Latino Political Organization — allege that Finneran and other lawmakers violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution.
Finneran spoke during a deposition, the first opportunity the plaintiff’s attorney has to question a witness during a trial. The plaintiffs questioned the speaker about his own district, which saw its pre-redistricting minority population of 74.1 percent drop to 60.6 percent.
Interestingly, Finneran professed ignorance of the changes in the racial composition of his district:
“Do you have any knowledge of the areas or the precincts that were added to your district as a result of the 2001 redistricting?” Benka asked.
“No sir, I do not,” Finneran answered.
George Pillsbury, policy director at Boston VOTE, questioned Finneran’s assertion, pointing out that lawmakers typically know the numbers of precincts added to or removed from their districts.
“Given that every other incumbent was fighting for every precinct in their district, it strains credibility,” he said. “Every incumbent knows exactly what precincts they’re gaining and losing. Finneran and attorney Larry Dicara were the ones most involved in the creation of the plan. It’s disingenuous at best, but it seems untruthful.”
The case is expected to go to trial by the end of August. In the trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are expected to argue that Finneran’s redistricting plan has diluted minority voting strength and, therefore, impeded the chances of minority candidates seeking office.
Finneran has claimed legislative immunity, refusing to answer questions about his discussions with lawmakers about the redistricting plan and has claimed attorney client privilege, refusing to answer questions about his discussions with Dicara.
The whitening of Finneran’s district has resulted in a district that includes wealthy and upper middle-class neighborhoods in Milton, an Irish-American enclave in Dorchester that is 95.2 percent white, a predominantly African American affordable housing development in Dorchester and a still sizeable chunk of the mostly black and Caribbean population of Mattapan.
While Finneran asserted in his testimony that there are no differences between the needs and concerns of the blacks and whites in his district, voting records for the precincts in the 12th Suffolk District, however, show vast differences in issues and candidates.
In the 2001 race for city council, the four Irish-American councilors received an average of 496 votes in Dorchester’s whitest precinct, Ward 16’s precinct 12. Felix Arroyo, the only Latino on the ballot received 48 votes — just 6.4 percent of the vote.
In Mattapan precincts, however, Arroyo won on average 43 percent of the vote.
Ballot questions, too, show considerable differences between the black and white sides of the district. A year 2000 ballot question that would take away prisoners’ right to vote was supported by 60 percent of the Ward 16, Precinct 12 voters and opposed by 71 percent of Mattapan’s Ward 18, Precinct 2 voters.
While he may be color-blind when it comes to his constituents, Finneran did profess some knowledge of black Boston politics. When asked what are the particular needs of black, Hispanic and other minority residents of his district, Finneran gave a short list:
“Interests with which I am most familiar would be funding for the Metco school program, funding for a school-to-work initiative, funding for — I think goes by the title “CFDC.” It is a capital formation entity for minority businesses. Funding and legislation necessary to advance the interests of minority-owned enterprises, funding for summer job opportunities.”
While black lawmakers have routinely supported Metco, Finneran’s support is questionable at best, according to Metco Executive Director Jean McGuire.
“He has not been a friend to Metco,” McGuire said, noting that her funding has been cut back to 1980 levels. “We’re at $13.6 million. Right back to Proposition 2 1/2. I’ve lost 500 kids. We have very few bus monitors. It’s putting a lot of strain on the system.”
This article first appeared in the Bay State Banner on May 29, 2003.