Massachusetts Democrats often talk as if President Obama walks on water, but when it comes to his plea for drawing bipartisan congressional districts they are happy to let the outgoing president's words sink like a rock.
The Commonwealth could have a very different looking electoral map for the 2022 elections (just six years away!) if it adopted the long-term strategy President Barack Obama called for in his last State of the Union address.
"I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around," Obama said. "Let a bipartisan group do it."
Local leaders are distancing themselves from Obama's call that congressional districts be designed by independent, bipartisan commissions instead of elected politicians. The problems of gerrymandering and and partisanship Obama is trying to fight, Massachusetts Democrats say, are in other states, not here.
Though the Legislature's two chambers are increasingly at odds these days on procedural matters, the House and Senate agree that the system in place is a fair one. House leaders say they're satisfied with the current system, where a legislative committee sets the district lines for Beacon Hill seats as well as the state's nine-member congressional delegation. The maps are drawn up and approved by the Legislature before being signed into law by the governor.
"Independent Redistricting Commissions are a way of, sort of, taking the raw political power out of the process and dividing it up more equitably; taking the power to chose the voters from the politicians who are going to be running … in order to make it less political," Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government accountability advocacy group, told WGBH News.
"Last time around the Legislature was very good about sharing that power and creating an open process and really involving the community," Wilmot said. "But because it's about political power, it's very likely that Massachusetts will go back to some of the bad ways of the past."
In a statement, Senate President Stan Rosenberg told WGBH News that he understands Obama’s desire for reform, but that the problem is with other states, not Massachusetts.
"In far too many states, redistricting has been used to polarize political parties, silence minorities, and elect leaders who campaign on stalling the system. In those states bipartisan commissions may make sense, but here in Massachusetts we have chosen a different path," Rosenberg wrote.
The last redistricting effort, which Rosenberg himself co-chaired, "allowed lawmakers to do the job which the voters and the constitution requires of them. Our efforts were praised as fair, transparent, and inclusive by community leaders across the state," Rosenberg wrote.
House leadership also stands by the work done by the redistricting committees and pointed to the 13 public hearings, public website and cooperation with Republicans and advocacy groups that created more minority-majority seats at the state level.
Rep. Brad Jones, the top Republican in the House, supports changing to a bipartisan commission, but also thinks the Legislature's done a fair job lately drawing lines.
"My guess is, if you look, you can find examples on both sides of the aisle in states, depending on who controls the process," Jones said.
Under a bipartisan arrangement, Massachusetts Republicans would have a lot to gain if they could succeed in carving out a red-leaning congressional district centered around the more conservative center of the state.
"It certainly is appealing," Jones said. "If you look at the results of the last gubernatorial election, maybe even some of Scott Brown's races and some of the rep seats and things out there, there is sort of a swath of red from north to south."
For his part, Gov. Charlie Baker isn't jumping at the opportunity presented by Obama's speech to make redistricting an issue in Massachusetts and potentially boost the chances for his party to win a seat in Congress. According to press secretary Elizabeth Guyton, Baker "believes the voters of Massachusetts deserve a transparent and accountable system to elect their local and federal representatives.” In any event, a move to change the districting system would have to come from the Legislature, not Baker's executive branch.
Rep. Edward Coppinger is the current chair of the House's Redistricting Committee and is DeLeo's lead lieutenant for setting up the process before the next national census in 2020.
"The idea that a citizen-led bipartisan commission can produce districts that are fairer or eliminate expensive litigation to defend a plan is not supported by the facts of the last two redistricting cycles, as states relying on a redistricting commission have had their plans challenged at a higher rate than legislatively produced plans," Coppinger wrote in a statement.
Coppinger added that Massachusetts was one of only eight states that came out of the 2010 redistricting process without a legal challenge. Each state that used an independent commission, the Boston Democrat said, did get sued over their maps.
A poll by MassINC's polling group from back in 2011 showed that nearly two thirds of Massachusetts residents disapproved of the legislative process. The poll showed that 62 percent of respondents want an independent commission to conduct redistricting, while only 23 percent favor letting the Legislature retain its authority to decide the lines.
Wilmot agrees that Massachusetts doesn't have nearly as many problems when it comes to gerrymandering as other states where officials use district lines for political ends. Wilmot praised the job Democratic lawmakers did in 2011 and said it's hard to improve on how well the Legislature handled the job.
Wilmot gives the Legislature a lot of credit for a "darn good" redistricting process in 2011 and said it's always difficult to make a change when something isn't broken.
Wilmot warns that the problems the state has had in the past when redistricting wasn't such a transparent process could return if future Legislative leaders decide to use the maps to enhance political goals.
In his Tuesday night speech, Obama said that one of the few regrets of his presidency is "that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better, leaving many American frustrated with the current political system.
Members of Congress, according to Obama, are also frustrated.
"There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber, good people who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base," Obama said in front of both houses of Congress.
Obama went on to suggest that America must change the electoral system "to reflect our better selves."
Massachusetts Democratic Party spokesman Patrick Beaudry said Obama's call to reform our national political system at the State of the Union also emphasized the role of campaign spending by Super PACs in affecting the makeup of Congress since the Citizens United case allowed unlimited political spending from outside groups.
Beaudry told WGBH News he doesn't think Massachusetts is one of the states Obama was criticizing when it comes to drawing electoral maps.
"A truly gerrymandered district, post-Citizens United, is really more the folks in Washington who have the 'no compromise,' 'tear it all down' attitude," Beaudry said.
Jones didn't expect his legislation to gain much more traction now than it did last time around. The state has plenty of time to ponder any changes they may want to make. The Legislature would only have to decide to change its district-drawing system before the results of the 2020 Census are released, so any new commission would have time to prepare maps for the 2022 election cycle.