By Alex Bloom
LAWRENCE — A new proposal for state legislative districts could give Merrimack Valley Latinos a stronger voice in electing area politicians to Beacon Hill — but possibly at the expense of current legislators including state Senators Barry Finegold and Steven Baddour.
The Dominican American National Roundtable created proposals to restructure Merrimack Valley voting districts for two new state representative districts and one new state senate district to maximize the numbers of Latino residents living in the districts.
Under the proposal, Finegold, D-Andover, would lose Lawrence from his district. And Baddour, D-Methuen, would have Lawrence added into his district.
The Dominican group offered the proposals to the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting at their Lawrence hearing on June 13. The 24-member committee is tasked with redrawing boundaries for federal and state legislative districts for the next 10 years based on new population numbers from the 2010 Census.
The proposal creates two state representative districts — one for east Lawrence and one for west Lawrence — that each have more than 70 percent Latino representation. The proposal also calls for a state senate seat that combines Lawrence with the eastern half of Methuen, most of Haverhill and a small piece of Andover — creating a district with 44 percent Latino representation, according to the numbers provided in the plan.
Maria Teresa Feliciano, the president of the Dominican American National Roundtable, said the districts will reflect and strengthen the populations that already exist.
"We're not bringing Latinos and putting them in a place," Feliciano said. "They already are there."
But the districts — particularly the state senate district — could spell trouble for Merrimack Valley incumbents.
Now in his first term as state senator, Finegold needed a 6,000-vote margin in Lawrence to overcome narrow margins in the other three district towns to win his seat in 2010.
"If Lawrence gets chopped out of his district, he loses a big asset in Lawrence and that's Mayor (William) Lantigua and his ability to help deliver the Hispanic vote," said Richard Padova, a professor of history and government at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
And Baddour, who has staked out tough stances against drivers licenses and state tuition for illegal immigrants, would find himself fighting for a district that includes New England's most Latino city.
"There's a huge assumption being made," said Baddour, who did not comment further. "From my perspective, I'm going to continue to push to keep the district that I represent intact."
The redistricting committee hopes to have state legislative districts created by September or October, according to state Rep. Michael Moran, D-Boston, who co-chairs the committee.
Moran would not comment on the proposal, but said the committee has received many maps in public hearings. By the end of July, the committee will have hosted 13 redistricting hearings around the state.
"Hopefully in the end after we review them all, it'll be the best ideas that rise to the top and we'll have the best overall map that we can get," Moran said.
Lawrence added 4,334 new residents in the last 10 years, coming in fourth behind Boston, Plymouth and Revere as the Bay State city adding the most residents in that time.
At the same time, Lawrence's Hispanic population has grown by 13,344 residents, a 31 percent increase. Lawrence's Hispanic population now makes up 73 percent of the city's 76,377 people, making the city arguably the most Hispanic city in New England.
"It just makes sense," Feliciano said. "A growing population deserves to be represented."
The Dominican American National Roundtable and Oiste, a state Latino political organization, organized a meeting in April for residents to discuss creating Latino-centric districts, and the two groups helped draw up the proposed maps.
Alejandra St. Guillen, the executive director of Oiste, said Latinos have very different community needs, from improving the levels of education, to combatting foreclosures, to seeking health care.
"We need to get people who are in the General Court who are advocating to improve those issues," St. Guillen said. "People will do that if they have the voting bloc to back them up."
Oiste is also looking to facilitate Latino-heavy districts in East Boston, Worcester and Springfield.
Creating the districts could also mean that the 200-member General Court becomes less monolithic. Currently the Bay State has six Latino legislators on Beacon Hill, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. In 2009, there were five Latino legislators and nine African-American legislators. The two populations make up 16 percent of the state.
"You look at the Legislature and does the Legislature reflect the population?" St. Guillen said. "No, the answer is a resounding, 'No.'"
She argued that ethnicity does make a difference to the district, saying that it can affect, "who gets responded to, who gets calls back, who gets people at their events, who gets stood up for."
Feliciano and St. Guillen both said that they don't expect the new districts to choose Latino residents, but that Latinos need the chance to decide that for themselves.
"If they choose a non-Latino, that's fine," Feliciano said. "It's still their choice."
State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst and co-chair of the redistricting committee, argued that bringing more politicians of color to the General Court is not simple, as constituencies do not follow expected behaviors. State Sen. Jack Hart, D-Boston, represents a district where Caucasians are in the minority, and state Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, is an African-American politician in a majority Caucasian district.
"Creating opportunity does not mean that someone will take advantage of the opportunity and even if they take advantage of the opportunity, it doesn't mean they'll get elected," Rosenberg said.
The committee has a difficult road ahead, as redistricting consistently fuels frustrations throughout the state.
"You're going to get people mad at you and you're not going to please everybody," Padova said. "When all is said and done, it's not going to be perfect and people will tell you that."
The state's percentage of minorities increased by 4 percent since 2000, meaning many districts will face controversial boundary changes.
"Regions that have not had to wrestle with this dynamic before will now have to wrestle with it," Rosenberg said.
But not every map suggestion submitted to the committee will turn into a new district.
"Sometimes it's not as easy as some would think because everybody can draw a great map when they start with just their town or just their district," Moran said.
The proposal for Latino-heavy districts could find support in the Andovers, as the proposal unties them from a legislator with interests in Lawrence. State Rep. Paul Adams, R-Andover, represents a sliver of Lawrence in addition to Andover and Tewksbury. State Rep. David Torrisi, D-North Andover, represents both Lawrence and North Andover.
North Andover Selectman Rosemary Smedile supports the plan, pointing out that North Andover and Lawrence have very different needs and interests.
"There's this push and pull between towns and cities on the needs that they have, and I think it's actually hurt the suburban communities," Smedile said.
Finegold, a member of the redistricting committee, viewed the plan at the June 13 hearing. He would not comment beyond stating that he will fight to keep his district of Andover, Lawrence, Dracut and Tewksbury.
"I don't want to see any changes to my district," Finegold said. "I love all four of these communities. They're all wonderful communities."
Baddour, who represents seven communities from Methuen and Haverhill to Salisbury, said he had not seen the proposal but that he wanted to keep his district intact as well.
"I'm working hard to ensure that the district that I represent today remains intact," Baddour said.
Baddour said he doesn't want to see cities and towns split between districts, as would be the case in the proposed senate district that includes half of Methuen, part of Haverhill and a piece of Andover.
"I think it's important that on the senate side that we represent entire communities and not parts of communities," Baddour said.
St. Guillen and Feliciano said that Baddour's stances on illegal immigration had nothing to do with the senate proposal.
"We're not concerned about saving people or kicking them out," St. Guillen said. "That's not our concern."
Padova believes Baddour, with his strong campaign organization, could survive in a district that included Lawrence.
"I think at the end of the day, his incumbency and his strong political organization will carry the day for him."
The Dominican American National Roundtable's proposal will be refined. Feliciano, the Dominican organization's president, said the group will create new maps to split the communities by precinct, as the state requires.
Feliciano said the group has succeeded in creating new districts this year in New Jersey and they hope they will have some influence in Massachusetts.
"I expect and I hope that the Massachusetts commission will be sincere and genuine in listening to the testimony at the hearings that we're representing," Feliciano said.
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