ADD THE SCRATCHY sound effect of recordings from the 1920s and 30s, close your eyes, and it was possible for a moment to think the thundering from City Hall was James Michael Curley stoking his base, claiming Boston’s Catholics were again under attack by the imperious Brahmins who had so long subjugated them and held tight to the reins of power.
It was clear that the Boston City Council debate over redistricting was going to get heated on Wednesday. The process has been marked by clashing calls to honor voting rights principles aimed at ensuring minority rights and to respect neighborhood boundaries.
But few were expecting the turn things took when, in a brief burst of fury, City Councilor Frank Baker managed to invoke the sectarian battles of the the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland while also reviving images of the century-old battles of Boston Catholics against the Yankee Protestants who had long ruled the city.
Baker, a white Irish Catholic councilor, represents Dorchester’s District 3, which runs along the neighborhood’s eastern flank from the Milton line to South Boston. He has railed for weeks against a redistricting plan – which was approved on a 9-4 vote at Wednesday’s meeting – that moves his district farther north while shifting out of District 3 two overwhelmingly white, high-voting precincts at its southern border and moving them into neighboring District 4, represented by Black first-term City Councilor Brian Worrell.
When Baker rose on Wednesday to speak out against the plan, he channeled his ire in a jarring way at the redistricting committee chair, City Councilor Liz Breadon, who moved to Boston from Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s.
Baker, who has argued against Catholic parishes he now represents being split between council districts or moved out of his district, said he spoke that morning with a priest, who told him local clergy have been following the redistricting issue closely.
“They’re viewing this exercise as an all-out assault on Catholic life in Boston. And it’s not lost on them that the person that’s leading the charge is a Protestant from Fermanagh,” he said, citing the county in Northern Ireland where Braedon grew up.
His fellow councilors and members of the public in the chamber appeared stunned by Baker’s remarks. Before the murmurs that quickly started turned to yells, City Council President Ed Flynn called a brief recess. When the council reconvened, Flynn ruled that Baker had broken council rules with his attack on Braedon and offered him the floor.
“I apologize first to the chair and to the body. A good Catholic boy like myself shouldn’t do that,” said Baker.
When Braedon then rose to address the charge leveled at her, she did not hold back.
“It is an insult to me to have a colleague in this city council insinuate that I am discriminating against Catholics,” she said. “It is an insult and a disgrace.”
Braedon went on to make clear she condemned the treatment of the Catholic minority by Protestants in Northern Ireland, which was partitioned from Ireland in 1921 and has remained part of the United Kingdom. “The greatest travesty in Northern Ireland’s history was the systematic disenfranchisement of Catholic people,” she said. She likened the civil rights movement that began in Northern Ireland in the 1960s to the Black civil rights movement in the US.
“I’ve committed my adult life to trying to fix the wrongs in the world,” Braedon said. When it comes to the redistricting map she put forward, Braedon said, “I am standing up for the rights of our minority communities – Hispanic, Asian, Black – to have equal access to voting and to have an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.”
Curley, who was first elected in 1914 and served four terms as Boston mayor, traded heavily in ethnic and religious grievances to motivate the city’s Irish Catholic working class to the cause of his campaigns.
Jack Beatty, author of the acclaimed Curley biography The Rascal King, said there was a strong whiff of the Curley method in Baker’s intemperate attack. “He made hay with that sort of thing,” Beatty said of Curley. Baker’s comments felt “like the past reawakening” with “something from the grave reaching out its hand,” said Beatty. “He was beating a dead horse even then,” Beatty said of Curley’s efforts to leverage the idea of pervasive anti-Catholic sentiment in Boston.
James O’Toole, professor emeritus of history at Boston College and the author of books on Catholics in Boston and the US, called it a “throwback” moment. What’s more, while Baker said local clergy were viewing the redistricting plan as an “all-out assault on Catholic life in Boston,” O’Toole pointed out that the Catholic population of Boston has changed dramatically since the days when it was overwhelmingly Irish and Italian, with Hispanics and Haitians now accounting for a large share of Catholics in the city.
While the days when anti-Catholic bias reigned in Boston are ancient history, O’Toole said even raising the specter of the more recent “Troubles” in Northern Ireland seems tin-eared and dated, almost 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement settled the worst of the conflict. “It seems to me that’s yesterday’s mindset,” he said.
In a statement released on Thursday, the Archdiocese of Boston distanced itself from Baker’s comments. “We do not believe the process is an assault on Catholic life,” it said. But the statement went on to suggest more redistricting deliberations should take place, as Baker and the three other councilors who voted against the plan have urged, “so that all districts within the city have fair representation.”
Bill Forry, publisher of the Dorchester Reporter, tweeted that Baker’s remarks were a “disgraceful moment.” He also chided the archdiocese for not being more forceful in its response to Baker’s comments. “Sadly, this falls short of what was required: a full-throated condemnation of Councillor Baker’s bigoted remarks directed at Councillor Breadon,” Forry said of the archdiocese statement.
A day after his apology, Baker reversed course and revived his charge of anti-Catholic bias. “Yesterday in remarks on the Council floor I channeled exactly what I have been hearing from Catholic constituents for months: the redistricting process in Boston has been conducted unlawfully to intentionally harm them for who they are,” he said in a statement on Thursday claiming the process violated the Voting Rights Act and other statutes. “I won’t be silent on it.”
Big population changes, led by rapid growth in the South Boston-based district represented by Flynn, required changes to equalize the population of the nine council districts. Braedon and other supporters of the plan’s shift of several predominantly white precincts out of Baker’s district and into Worrell’s also argued that Worrell’s district was too “packed” with Black voters, diluting their ability to influence other district races.
Critics of the redistricting plan are likely to pursue a legal challenge to the changes – if Mayor Michelle Wu signs off on the map – and they have also claimed there were Open Meeting Law violations in several recent discussions of the plans.
For her part, Braedon said she left Northern Ireland for Boston to escape the sectarian strife and also because, as a lesbian, she said she was “unable to live fully my life and express myself.”
While growing up in Northern Ireland, Braedon said in an interview, she was raised to shun the sectarian battle lines that defined life for so many residents. Her family owned a country store in a rural area where most of their customers were Catholic. Braedon said she also attended a public high school that stood out because of the good relations between Catholic and Protestant students.
“The BBC came and did a feature on us at one stage,” she said. “They were very curious how we got along.”
As for the remarks she gave at Wednesday’s council meeting, which drew applause when she finished, Braedon, a generally soft-spoken figure on the council, said it takes a lot to get her to seize attention in that way.
“I stay away from the limelight. I’m not really a speechmaker,” she said. “But I was taken aback by that,” she said of Baker’s attack. “Because that’s not who I am.”