Diverse Leadership in Lowell
Candidates of Diverse Backgrounds Assume High-Profile Leadership Positions in Lowell
First Election Cycle Follows a Federal Voting Rights Lawsuit against City
A groundbreaking federal voting rights lawsuit filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights and Ropes & Gray against the City of Lowell, Massachusetts had a direct and significant impact on the racial composition of key municipal leadership and boards assuming office today. Six people from diverse backgrounds were sworn into the school committee and city council – making those bodies the most diverse ever in the city’s history.
The federal Voting Rights Act case, Huot v. City of Lowell, produced a landmark Consent Decree requiring Lowell to change its at-large government voting system to ensure a fairer and more equitable election process with the intent of empowering voters of all backgrounds and diversifying the pool of elected officials to be more reflective of the nearly 50% minority community, according to Robert Jones, partner, Ropes & Gray, which provided legal services to the case pro bono.
“We are thrilled with the result of the election. The original lawsuit was brought on behalf of Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino residents of Lowell, but its impact extends to the entire community,” Rob said. “The lawsuit also serves as a blueprint for other communities that are looking to improve the diversity of leadership in municipal government.”
Filed in 2017, the lawsuit argued the City of Lowell was diluting the voting power of its minority populations, particularlyHispanic/Latinos and Asian-Americans. At the time the lawsuit was filed, both the Lowell City Council and School Committee were comprised of only white representatives. A settlement reached two years later required the city to abandon its at-large electoral system and move to one of several alternative options that the parties agreed would provide equal voting opportunity to all. Through a community-driven process, the city ultimately chose a district-based model that was put in place for the 2021 election cycle.
Oren Sellstrom of Lawyers for Civil Rights, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said the Lowell case has inspired other Massachusetts communities to voluntarily revamp their voting systems and rules to encourage greater minority representation. Everett has already done so, and Haverhill and Revere are in the process of changing. The City of Worcester also recently agreed to enter into a Consent Decree modeled on Lowell’s, to settle a Voting Rights Act lawsuit there.
“The Lowell lawsuit has been instrumental in bringing about needed change not only to Lowell, but also to many other cities across the Commonwealth. The result has been significantly greater diversity of representation, which makes local government more accountable and representative and strengthens communities as a whole,” Oren said.
In addition to the significant increases in diversity seen on Lowell’s City Council and School Committee, the City appointed Sokhary Chau from the City Council as Mayor, making him the City’s first Cambodian American mayor. The city of Lowell has one of the largest populations of Cambodian Americans in the U.S.
Following the successful suit against the City of Lowell, and funded by attorneys’ fees awarded in the case, Ropes & Gray created the Ropes & Gray Justice Fellowship at Lawyers for Civil Rights to provide recent law school graduates with a paid, full-time position to pursue advocacy in racial justice and immigrant rights. Sara Wilson serves as the current fellow.
“Voting rights and diverse representation are priorities and we are proud to partner with Lawyers for Civil Rights on these important issues,” Rob said.