Rhode Island's Redistricting
"Redistricting Commission Meetings." November 9, 2001
The state redistricting commission will be "going on the road" with alternative plans for House and Senate district borders. The public is invited to attend and comment on the plans in the following counties:
The state redistricting commission last night chose four maps that it will take "on the road" to gather comment on proposed new House and Senate districts.
Up until now, the once-a-decade process has focused mostly on stacks of census statistics and lots of lofty concepts, and it hasn't stirred much interest beyond the marble walls of the State House.
But now that the political mapmaking has begun, members of the public can see where proposed district borders have been drawn. They can find out if their senator or their representative is going to be pitted against another incumbent. And if they're pleased or if they're outraged, they can spout off during a series of public hearings, which begin Tuesday and culminate Nov. 29.
"It's going to be better than the Antiques Roadshow, " quipped Rep. Scott P. Rabideau, R-Burrillville, a member of the redistricting commission.
This redistricting is going to be particularly interesting because it coincides with a voter-mandated reduction in the size of the House, which will go from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, which will go from 50 to 38 members.
Last night, the commission chose two proposed Senate district maps and two proposed House district maps.
Rabideau noted that one of the House maps would create seven districts where the majority of the people are "nonwhite." With some "minor tweaking," he said, that number could be increased to 11 districts because four districts have at least 40-percent nonwhite population. If that is done, he said, the House would maintain the current level of nonwhite districts while shrinking the chamber by 25 percent.
"That would be a wonderful thing for this commission to do," Rabideau said. "That would be a wonderful thing for the State of Rhode Island, the City of Providence, the City of Pawtucket and the City of Central Falls."
Rep. Joseph S. Almeida, D-Providence, a member of the redistricting commission, objected to the way the Senate maps would redraw districts in the southern part of Providence. He said the proposals would "split" the district of the Senate's lone black member, Sen. Charles D. Walton, and the neighboring district, where a Hispanic candidate, Juan M. Pichardo, narrowly lost last year. The maps would put Walton and Pichardo in the same district.
H. Philip West Jr., secretary of the Fair Redistricting Coalition and executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, raised the same concern, saying the two Senate maps are too similar in that regard. "People ought to have a choice," he said.
West said he suspects the maps were drawn to protect Senate Finance Chairman Frank T. Caprio, whose current Providence district is kept mainly intact.
But Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services, said the maps were drawn to create another majority-nonwhite district in the middle of Providence. "The districts are not really split," he said.
Each of the House maps includes one district that would contain three incumbents. In one of the House maps, a Hopkinton-Exeter district would include Rep. Myrna C. George, Rep. Joseph H. Scott and Rep. Brian P. Kennedy. In the other House map, a district embracing parts of Johnston and Cranston would include Representatives Charlene Lima, Beatrice A. Lanzi and Mary Cerra.
Neither House Speaker John B. Harwood nor House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau would face an incumbent under the proposed maps. Previously, the redistricting consultant had said that some preliminary plans would place Martineau, D-Woonsocket, in the same district as Stella Guerra Brien, who is set to become the House's third Hispanic member after winning an Oct. 4 Democratic primary.
But yesterday Brace said he had based that statement on the wrong address for Brien. Actually, he said, Brien would face Rep. Robert B. Lowe, D-North Smithfield, under one scenario, or Rep. Todd R. Brien, D-Woonsocket, under the other scenario.
Woonsocket voters, therefore, may have a Brien vs. Brien race in their future.
So is Stella Brien, who is married to Jon Brien, related to her colleague, Todd Brien? "He may be a very distant cousin," she said. "We may have to do a family tree to get to the bottom of it."
Stella Brien said she is relieved she won't be facing the House majority leader. "But I'll have to battle it out no matter what," she said. "My feelings haven't changed. I still have the same concerns for my district."
The Senate maps would avoid three-way races, but each would include 12 districts containing two incumbents.
One map, for example, would include these pairings: Senate Republican leader Dennis Algiere vs. Democratic Sen. Donna Walsh; Sen. J. Michael Lenihan vs. Sen. James C. Sheehan; Sen. James Donelan vs. Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey; Sen. Hanna Gallo vs. Sen. Aram Garabedian; Sen. David V. Igliozzi vs. Sen. Robert T. Kells, the new Lincoln police chief who has said he will not seek reelection; Sen. Domenick J. Ruggerio vs. Sen. Catherine E. Graziano, who is on the redistricting commission; Sen. John Roney vs. Sen. Rhoda Perry; Sen. Paul W. Fogarty vs. former Senate Majority Leader Paul S. Kelly; Sen. Daniel Connors vs. Sen. Brian Hunter; Sen. John F. McBurney III vs. Majority Whip Thomas R. Coderre; Sen. William Enos vs. Sen. Walter Felag Jr.; and Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed vs. Sen. J. Clement Cicilline.
Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons would not face an incumbent under either scenario.
"I certainly don't consider either one of these maps a final plan," said Sen. Joseph A. Montalbano, vice chairman of the redistricting commission. "We need to refine it in terms of communities of interest, and incumbency comes into play on this, as well. It's going to very difficult to do given the 25-percent reduction."
Of course, Brace noted, the whole process would be a lot easier if 25 representatives and 12 senators would simply volunteer to step down after next year. When he meets with legislators, Brace always asks if they would like to volunteer. "Many of them glare at you," he said.
But about a dozen legislators have indicated they might not run again, Brace said. He wouldn't identify them, and in many cases, he said, their decisions hinge on the new mapmaking. But in any case, he said, not enough have indicated an interest in avoiding some of the head-to-head matchups that lie ahead.
A redistricting panel was particularly concerned about what would happen to the South Providence district of Democratic Sen. Charles D. Walton, the only black senator.
As the state Senate shrinks from 50 to 38 members, the redistricting commission will aim to create at least four districts where the majority of people are "nonwhite."
A consultant last night offered three scenarios for redrawing Senate district lines as Rhode Island changes its political map to reflect new census figures and a downsized General Assembly.
Attention immediately focused on how to protect minority representation in a Senate that now has one black member and no Hispanic members.
"We are recommending that to avoid a violation of the Voting Rights Act, a rough rule of thumb should be to keep 4 of the 38 seats as nonwhite seats," said Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services.
Two of Brace's proposed maps would create four "nonwhite" districts, while the other map would create five such districts. In each case, one of the districts would embrace all of Central Falls, and the other districts would be in Providence.
Compared to other states, Rhode Island contains far fewer districts where more than half the population is from a single minority group. So Brace focuses on what percentage of a district is "nonwhite," a grouping that includes black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American residents, as well as those in the "other" category.
Under the current 50-seat Senate, five districts are more than half "nonwhite," so keeping the same proportion in a 38-seat Senate translates into 3.8 "nonwhite" seats, Brace said. Those calculations are based on the overall population in each district.
Courts also look at voting-age populations, Brace said, and by that measure the Senate now has three "nonwhite" districts, which translates into 2.28 "nonwhite" seats in a downsized Senate.
But Sen. Joseph A. Montalbano, D-North Providence, who heads the Senate subcommittee of the redistricting commission, said the panel has no intention of using that measure and is shooting for four or five "nonwhite" districts. "The feeling seems to be, and I agree, that if the law says you should have 3.8 minority districts and you can make more, you should make more," he said.
The panel paid particular attention to what might become of the South Providence district of Democratic Sen. Charles D. Walton, the lone black senator.
One of Brace's plans would cut off northern portions of Walton's district while stretching it west to include the heavily Hispanic Elmwood neighborhood. The Senate subcommittee contains no black members, but its two Hispanic members, Alma Felix Green and Yahaira Placencia, said they were concerned that the map would split up and dilute the black constituency in Walton's district.
"You are increasing the overall nonwhite population," Green said. "But you are doing it at the expense of the African-American population and in favor of the Hispanic population."
H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island and secretary of the Fair Redistricting Coalition, raised the same concern after last night's meeting, saying Walton could end up in a predominantly Hispanic district and lose the next election. "That would be tragic," he said, because if redistricting is done carefully, Walton could be re-elected and the Senate could gain up to four Hispanic members.
West, an Elmwood resident, said, "Those of us who live in the city don't want Latinos and African-Americans set against each other."
Walton's district is now 25.7-percent black, and Brace's maps would reduce that concentration to anywhere from 21 percent to 24 percent. But no matter how the map is drawn, it's impossible to bring that percentage above 24 percent, assistant consultant Jodi L. Steenhoek said. And that fact, Brace said, reflects demographic changes in Providence, which has seen a sharp increase in Hispanic residents while blacks have moved to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.
Montalbano said the task is difficult because each district must increase in size, but he said the subcommittee wants to keep the concentration of black residents as high as possible in Walton's district. "Senator Walton is the only minority in the Senate," he said, "and we are not looking to hurt him."
The subcommittee also called for keeping Jamestown in a Newport County Senate district rather than connecting it with a West Bay community. The Jamestown Town Council has asked to be in the same district as Newport.
"That would be fair and beneficial," said Sen. John A. Celona, D-North Providence. Sen. David E. Bates, R-Barrington, agreed, saying, "When a town council requests something like that, it should be taken seriously."
Few area residents will have a new state senator under a redistricting plan announced this week and that the state Senate is expected to approve tomorrow.
The redrawing of state legislative district boundaries is required every 10 years, after the national census is completed, to account for shifts in the population.
The only change in this area is that half of Attleboro will move from the district represented by Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques, D-Needham, to the district represented by Sen. Jo Ann Sprague, R-Walpole.
The dividing line will roughly be County Street, from the Rhode Island line to downtown Attleboro, then North Main Street from downtown to the North Attleboro line. Sprague will generally have the areas south and east of that line, while Jacques will keep areas north and west of it. A few streets near South Attleboro that are south of County Street will remain in Jacques's district.
Because Southeastern Massachusetts was one of the fastest-growing areas in the state in the last decade, legislative districts in this area swelled, but not at the expense of area communities keeping the same senator. The two districts that currently are entirely within Bristol County would stretch to pick up areas of Plymouth County to account for the growth, under the plan.
As an example, the 1st Bristol District, currently represented by Sen. Joan M. Menard, D-Somerset, would be called the 1st Bristol and Plymouth District, as Menard picks up the Plymouth County towns of Lakeville and Rochester.
The plan, once approved by the Senate, would be joined into a single bill with the House of Representatives's plan for House redistricting, which that body approved last week. The bill would then need Governor Swift's signature before becoming law.
Here is an overview of what area districts would look like:
1st BRISTOL Current senator: Joan M. Menard. New name: 1st Bristol & Plymouth. Would comprise: Fall River, Freetown, Lakeville, Rochester, Somerset, Swansea, Westport.
Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex Current senator: Cheryl A. Jacques. New name: Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex. Would comprise: All of Wards 1 and 2 and Precinct A of Ward 3 in Attleboro; Precincts 2, 3 and 4 in Franklin; Millis; Precincts 6, 7, 9 and 10 in Natick; Needham; Norfolk; North Attleboro; Plainville; Sherborn; Wayland; Precincts B, F and G in Wellesley; Wrentham.
Norfolk, Bristol & Plymouth Current senator: Jo Ann Sprague. New name: Bristol & Norfolk. Would comprise: All of Wards 3, 4, 5 and 6 and Precinct B of Ward 3 in Attleboro; Dover; Foxboro; Mansfield; Medfield; Norton; Rehoboth; Seekonk; Precincts 1, 4 and 5 in Sharon; Walpole.
1st Plymouth & Bristol Current senator: Marc R. Pacheco. New name: 1st Plymouth & Bristol. Would comprise: Berkley; Bridgewater; Carver; Dighton; Precinct 1 in Halifax; Marion; Middleboro; Raynham; Taunton; Wareham.
The tough choices and high stakes of redistricting became much more tangible last night when a consultant presented the redistricting commission with three maps of possible new districts for the state House of Representatives.
"I know I've done a good job if everyone is a little mad at me," said Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services, which has been hired by the state to coordinate the redistricting process. "And I'm sure that is going to be the case."
Each map came with a list of which districts would have incumbents pitted against each other. And those lists are particularly long because this time, the once-a-decade redistricting process is coinciding with a reduction in the size of the General Assembly.
"To an extent, we recognized where incumbents live, but when you are downsizing, people are going to be paired simply because they live close to each other," Brace said. So, for example, one plan places Reps. Joanne M. Giannini and Thomas A. Palangio in the same district because the two Providence Democrats live near each other, and it places Reps. Charlene Lima and Michael Pisaturo in the same district because the two Cranston Democrats live near each other, he said.
Commission members also confronted competing priorities, such as the desire to protect a minority-rich Newport district and Jamestown's request to remain in the same district as the city of Newport. A commission subcommittee concluded the higher priority should be the protection of the Newport district.
But no final decisions were made during the workshop session. Another subcommittee will focus on state Senate districts during a similar workshop tomorrow, and the full commission will come together Nov. 8.
Brace said he chose a different starting point in the state for each of the three maps. For Map A, he began in East Bay. For Map B, he began in South County. And for Map C, he began in Providence.
"I can see they all have pluses and they've all got minuses," said the commission chairwoman, Rep. Denise C. Aiken, a Warwick Democrat.
Rep. Robert E. Fleury, a West Warwick Republican on the commission, asked Brace to come up with another map beginning in the middle of the state.
Rep. Joseph S. Almeida, a Providence Democrat on the commission and president of the Rhode Island Minority Caucus, said, "It would appear to us from the minority community that we should start from urban areas, or we are going to get crushed."
Brace said each of the three maps would create eight House districts where the majority of the population is "nonwhite." Seven of those districts are in Providence, and one is in Central Falls.
But minority issues were not limited to those cities. For example, the commission debated how to draw district lines in the Newport district of Democratic Rep. Maxine Shavers, a black woman in a district that is now 31 percent "nonwhite."
Rep. Scott P. Rabideau, a Burrillville Republican on the commission, said he thought it was "very important" to maintain that concentration of minority voters in that district. He said he recognizes that Jamestown officials want the town to be in the same district as Newport. But, he asked, "Is that inviolate?"
Rabideau supported a plan that would put Jamestown in the same district as North Kingstown, noting Jamestown children attend North Kingstown schools. He said that was preferable to another plan, which would lump concentrations of Newport minorities in with predominantly white Jamestown.
Aiken noted Jamestown is legally part of Newport County and that residents use courts in Newport. "I'd personally go with their Town Council's wishes," she said. But the subcommittee concluded that the Newport district would be the No. 1 priority and Jamestown's wishes would be the No. 2 priority.
The issue of minority representation also came up when Rabideau urged the commission not to carve up the Narragansett Indian reservation, which covers 1,800 acres in the heart of Charlestown. Almeida agreed, saying, "I suggest we keep tribal land as one solid chunk." Aiken said, "I think we all agree we want to keep tribal land as much as possible in one district."
Rabideau also spoke in favor of a plan for the state's northern region that he said would give more small towns a single representative. Too often, sparsely populated towns are now carved up into different districts, so towns must rely on legislators who live elsewhere, he said. The plan would make his Burrillville district more Democratic, but he said he supports it anyway, because "it's better for the town."
A coalition of union and community groups has proposed a redistricting map that is being greeted with praise from minority leaders and scorn from Republican legislators.
The proposal comes as the state is redrawing Rhode Island's political map to reflect new census figures while also reducing the size of the General Assembly to meet a voter mandate.
The ad-hoc coalition, called Democracy Counts, proposed new districts for the state House of Representatives but not the state Senate. Coalition leaders submitted their map to the redistricting commission, saying they aimed to keep districts compact and contiguous and to avoid splitting up "communities of interest" such as neighborhoods and parishes.
"Whether it leads to more minority representation in the House can't be guaranteed, but I'd say it makes sure their interests are represented," said Kathryn J. Hopkins, policy director for Ocean State Action, which is part of the coalition. "Race can't be the overriding factor in drawing maps, but race can't be ignored."
The map would rearrange districts that now lump minority-rich parts of Providence with predominantly white parts of surrounding towns , such as Cranston, North Providence and Johnston. "All the decisions in Providence reflect the fact that surrounding areas are not necessarily 'communities of interest' with the people within the city," Hopkins said.
The new coalition includes Ocean State Action, itself a coalition of labor and community groups; Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a community group in Providence, and the Neighborhood Empowerment Workshop for Education, Research and Action.
State Rep. Joseph S. Almeida, a Providence Democrat who is on the redistricting commission and is president of the Rhode Island Minority Caucus, said he hasn't had a chance to study the coalition plan indepth but believes it would help ensure minority representation. "I know Ocean State Action is supportive of the minority community," he said, "and I'll probably go along with their recommendations."
Providence Councilman Luis A. Aponte, who represents the lower South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods, praised the proposal, noting it would reduce the number of legislative districts that cut across city and neighborhood borders. "It's well thought out," Aponte said. "When you're going from 100 to 75 House members, with all the political considerations, I think they did a good job."
H. Philip West Jr., executive director of the government-watchdog group Common Cause of Rhode Island, also credited Democracy Counts with trying to protect minority representation.
West noted the map includes a predominantly Hispanic district in Central Falls, although he questioned whether two such districts are possible. He also noted the map would create a House district for Providence's Silver Lake neighborhood that does not extend beyond the city border. Silver Lake is now part of a district that includes part of Cranston and is represented by a Cranston resident, Democratic Rep. Charlene Lima. "Certainly," he said, "the proposed district would have more potential for electing an Hispanic representative than it did before."
The map would pit some Providence incumbents against each other. For example, Almeida would be in the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Aisha Abdullah-Odiase, and Rep. Thomas Slater would be in the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Leon Tejada.
But Aponte credited the coalition with minimizing the number of incumbent clashes. "To respect municipal borders and reduce the size of the legislature, some of that in unavoidable," he said.
While praised by Democrats, the map came under fire for its treatment of Republicans, who now account for 15 of the 100 House members.
"It creates districts unfavorable to most incumbent Republicans," said Rep. Richard E. Fleury, a West Warwick Republican who is on the redistricting commission. He described the map as coming from "a special-interest group that likes bigger government than most Republicans are accustomed to."
"That's a legitimate exercise of their constitutional rights," Fleury said of the map. "And I have a constitutional right not to vote for it."
West agreed that the map would take a toll on the districts of GOP legislators. "Whether they have actively targeted Republicans or not, I don't want to judge," he said.
But West noted the map would put two Middletown Republicans -- Rep. Christine M. Callahan and Rep. Bruce J. Long -- in the same district. And he noted the map would leave Coventry Republican Rep. Nicholas Gorham in a district that stretches across four towns -- Coventry, Foster, Glocester and Burrillville. "They are taking most of his Coventry constituents away and giving him chunks of Glocester and Burrillville, forcing him to run in unfamiliar territory," he said.
The map would stretch the district of Jamestown Republican Rep. William H. Murphy into three towns -- Jamestown, Narragansett and South Kingstown -- while pitting him against a Democratic incumbent, Donald L. Lally Jr.
"It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," Murphy said of the proposal. He said his island community is connected in a variety of ways to Newport and to North Kingstown, "but there is absolutely no connection between Jamestown and Narragansett or South Kingstown." He said he doesn't think the coalition meant to pit a Republican against a Democrat. "They just ran out of room," he said. "I'm fearing Jamestown is being used as a filler."
Hopkins said the coalition did not intentionally target Republicans. "It's a factor of just how difficult it is to draw these lines when the legislature is being reduced by 25 percent," she said.
Democracy Counts was concerned about the impact on GOP legislators and is open to changing the map, said Kate Coyne-McCoy, a coalition member and executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. "There's no way to do this and keep everyone happy, even your friends," she said, adding she considers Murphy a "fabulous legislator."
The problem, Coyne-McCoy said, is the shrinking of the General Assembly. "We are in this mess to begin with because Common Cause fought hard for downsizing," she said. "If you have fewer representatives, they are going to be representing more people in more towns. It's simple math."
"If you do the middle right," Coyne-McCoy said of the statewide redistricting map, "then by the time you get to the outside, the population is not dense enough and you have fewer options."
The Rhode Island Foundation and the Urban League of Rhode Island are offering up to $15,000 for proposals that would stir public discussion about legislative redistricting and address its impact on relations among racial, ethnic and cultural groups.
The money is available to nonprofit organizations, which must submit proposals by Nov. 19. Potential projects include a series of public forums, neighborhood meetings or workshops, a conference and debates on radio or public-access cable television.
The goal is to "encourage informed debate and wide participation in the redistricting process while building 'bridges' across groups and creating a consensus on how best to move forward," said Kris Hermanns, a grants officer with the Rhode Island Foundation.
The state is not only redrawing its political maps to reflect new census figures, but it's also reducing the size of the General Assembly to comply with a 1994 voter mandate. The state Senate is shrinking from 50 to 38 members, and the House of Representatives is shrinking from 100 to 75 members.
The money will come from the Dorothy H.W. Hunt Fund, which was established at the Rhode Island Foundation in 1971 "to strengthen race relations and promote racial equality." Dorothy Hazard Witherby Hunt, who died in 1970, was a supporter of the Urban League of Rhode Island from its founding in 1939. She was president of the Providence-based organization for five years and in 1954 was named honorary president of the organization for life.
Proposals, which will be reviewed by representatives from the foundation and the Urban League, should be sent to The Rhode Island Foundation, One Union Station, Providence, RI 02903. For information, contact Hermanns at 274-4564 or at [email protected] .
The Rhode Island Special Commission on Reapportionment held its final public input meeting Tuesday night. The panel in charge in creating new General Assembly and Congressional Districts now begins preparing a few different proposals for presentation to state lawmakers.
The two biggest issues facing the commission are the growth in Rhode Islandís Hispanic population and the fact that the General Assembly is being downsized by 25%. Panel members are trying to consider both factors simultaneously. For the House, ìweíve got to create 75 new Districts,î said State Representative Denise Aiken, who chairs the commission.
Some advocates are pushing the commission to avoid oddly shaped districts for political expediency. ìWe need to hold communities of common interest together wherever possible. The largest areas would be the regional. But then we come into towns and cities. And so we have suggested that we never crack a town into multiple Senate or House districts if it can be kept within a single district,î said H. Phillip West, Director of Common Cause.
The Common Cause proposal would break the state into five regional clusters with most districts staying within municipal boundaries.
Some commission members and advocates for minorities in the state are calling that concept into question. They want to make sure that representation for black and Hispanic voters is increased. Hispanics now make up nearly 9% of the Rhode Island population, according to the Census Bureau. Lucia Gomez of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund argued that racial displacement changes traditional views of community.
ìI feel that community of interest is just another word for saying you actually looked at race. And it is okay to look at race, because communities do live in that way, and the segregation is extremely high between Latinos living far away from Anglos and Asians living far away from African Americans, and living closer to Anglos than they do to Latinos. I mean, municipal boundaries are fantastic, but insome places it hinders a populationís growth,î said Gomez.
Later this month, the Commission holds workshop meetings with members of the House and Senate. The panel then must work out a few plans for lawmakers to consider.
Hispanic and black leaders came to the State House last night, pressing their case for maintaining and gaining political power as Rhode Island takes on the twin tasks of redistricting and downsizing the General Assembly.
Members of the newly formed Latino Voting Rights Coalition began the evening with a news conference on the State House stairs, emphasizing that Rhode Island's Hispanic population doubled in the 1990s.
"Latinos are here and are ready to monitor the process and suggest solutions to improve our ability to translate our numbers into political power," Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, said prior to last night's redistricting commission meeting.
He introduced Lucia Gomez, a redistricting specialist from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, saying, "We have in our possession the software and the information necessary to follow the process as it unfolds and stand ready to challenge any attempt at undercutting the voting rights of our communities."
Rodriguez said the coalition is now focusing on how redistricting will affect Providence and Central Falls, the two municipalities with the highest proportions of Hispanics in the state.
Central Falls, at 47.8 percent Hispanic, should not be lumped into legislative districts that include largely white Cumberland and Lincoln, he said. Rather, Central Falls should be linked with Pawtucket, which he called "a closer community of interest."
In Providence, which is 30 percent Hispanic, the coalition would oppose any attempt to eliminate or reduce districts that are now heavily populated by Hispanics, Rodriguez said. The group is particularly concerned, he said, about the future of Senate District 10, a 49.7-percent Hispanic district that includes Providence's West End, Elmwood and Reservoir Triangle neighborhoods.
Rodriguez noted the District 10 incumbent, Democratic Sen. Robert T. Kells, was named Lincoln police chief earlier this month, and reiterated the argument, made by Lincoln's Republican leader that the town charter prohibits Kells from being both senator and chief. If the district lacks an incumbent, he said, it would become vulnerable in the redistricting process. So, Rodriguez said, "We urge Senator Kells to do what he knows is right and resign his post in the Senate in order for District 10 to be preserved."
Reached later, Kells said he doesn't plan to seek reelection next year, but he doesn't plan to step down, either. He reiterated the argument, made by Lincoln's Democratic town administrator, that the charter does not bar him from being senator and chief. "That's absurd," Kells said of the call for his resignation. "I'm the senator elected for this district. It sounds like sour grapes on their part."
Among those at yesterday's news conference was Juan M. Pichardo, who lost to Kells by 94 votes after mail ballots were counted in last year's District 10 election. Pichardo said he plans to run for the legislature again next year in part because he wants to bring a Hispanic voice to the Senate.
The Senate, which will shrink from 50 to 38 members as part of the voter-mandated downsizing, now contains no Hispanics and one black member, Democratic Sen. Charles D. Walton, of Providence.
Former state Rep. Harold M. Metts, chairman of the Minority Reapportionment Committee, urged the redistricting commission to redraw maps to allow minorities to serve in the state Senate and House. "Senator Walton is a little bit lonely," Metts said. "He needs someone to help him carry that burden. It's time we had another minority senator."
That possibility would likely increase under maps submitted to the commission by Angel Taveras, a former congressional candidate who is now chairman of the Fair Redistricting Coalition. He said he drew the proposed maps without regard to race, but three of the Senate districts would contain substantial minority populations.
Taveras drew seven Senate districts within Providence, with just one of the districts crossing the city line. If districts in the southern part of Providence include parts of Cranston, he said, minority representation would be diluted.
H. Philip West Jr., secretary of the Fair Redistricting Coalition and executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, called for the commission to respect municipal borders wherever possible. He presented a map that divides the state into five regional clusters and then slices each region into legislative districts while crossing as few town boundaries as possible. He cautioned against "cracking" a town into multiple Senate and House districts, saying that often hurts the poorest communities.
West said municipal borders should be a higher priority than where incumbents live. But commission members immediately pointed out that Taveras's Providence map would put two Senate committee leaders in the same district -- Finance Chairman Frank T. Caprio and Health, Education & Welfare Chairwoman Catherine E. Graziano, who is on the redistricting commission.
Taveras said he did the maps without taking the location of incumbents into account. "When I saw that, I said 'Wow,' " he said of the Caprio/Graziano district. "I said other things, too, but I won't repeat those. I haven't been able to address it in a way that politically makes sense."
Government watchdog groups say U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy's campaign treasurer has a conflict of interest in sitting on the redistricting commission that will redraw congressional district borders.
State Rep. William San Bento Jr., a Pawtucket Democrat who has been Kennedy's campaign treasurer since 1994, was appointed to the 16-member commission by House Speaker John B. Harwood in July.
But his role in the Kennedy campaign only began receiving attention over the past two weeks, after Kennedy himself questioned whether his former chief of staff, Anthony Marcella, should be on the redistricting panel.
H. Philip West Jr., executive director of the government-watchdog group Common Cause of Rhode Island, said he had not known about San Bento's involvement with the Kennedy campaign until told by a reporter, but he said San Bento does have a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from congressional redistricting decisions.
"If Representative Kennedy wants a certain set of lines and Speaker Harwood agrees, he will get those lines and one vote won't matter, but for appearance's sake, Representative San Bento should recuse himself," said West, secretary of the Fair Redistricting Coalition. "It is a conflict, and my guess is he won't vote on congressional redistricting. He is an honorable person."
Robert P. Arruda, chairman of Operation Clean Government, agreed San Bento should recuse himself. "There is no conflict in a legal sense, but from a good government and responsible government standpoint, that would not be proper," he said. "He shouldn't be told to recuse himself. He should know it. It's a no-brainer."
San Bento said he sees no conflict of interest. He said he has been friends with Kennedy since Kennedy sat behind him in the state House of Representatives, and he's honored to be his campaign treasurer. But, he said, "Most treasurer posts are more ceremonial than anything else," and he said he receives no pay as treasurer, while Marcella made $125,000 a year as chief of staff. Also, he noted he's one of 16 votes, and he emphasized that his priority is how state representative districts will change.
"The key is that I'm a member of the House appointed by the speaker, and I'm there to do the job for the House," San Bento said. "I'm not really concerned about congressional district lines."
But since the commission will redraw congressional districts, should he recuse himself from those decisions? "To be truthful, I never considered that before," San Bento replied.
"I don't want to make any snap decision. But no watchdog group should be trying to tell me how to do my job in the House."
West took no position on whether Marcella should recuse himself, saying, "There's a little difference between a former staff member and someone who is currently active for Patrick Kennedy's reelection -- how significant a difference I don't know."
But the question highlights the nature of redistricting, West said. "It reveals that, from start to finish, it's a political process," he said. "The critical point is that the voters and the people in the communities must not leave the decisions only in the hands of professional politicians."
Two weeks ago, Kennedy questioned whether Marcella should be allowed to serve on the commission and have a say on congressional districts. Kennedy cited federal ethics rules prohibiting former top-level staff members from lobbying congressmen for one year after leaving House employment, and provided a letter Marcella wrote to Kennedy outlining a congressional redistricting plan. Marcella replied that he wasn't lobbying, that he discussed the idea with Kennedy beforehand and was trying to work out a consensus plan.
The issue then arose: If Marcella can be accused of having a conflict as Kennedy's former chief of staff, does San Bento have a conflict as Kennedy's current campaign treasurer?
"That's a valid point," replied Kennedy's chief of staff, Dean J. Martilli. But the difference, he said, is that San Bento never sent Kennedy a redistricting plan and is not subject to federal ethics rules.
U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin said he sees no need for San Bento to recuse himself. "He's a good man," Langevin said of San Bento, "and I'm sure everyone on the commission will do their best and be fair and evenhanded and act in the public's interest." Harwood said he sees no need to bar Marcella or San Bento from congressional redistricting, saying all his appointees are "honorable and hard-working." Marcella agreed, noting state legislators on the commission will be making decisions about their own districts. "So are they in conflict too?" he asked rhetorically.
The General Assembly is trimming the fat from its ranks on a scale not seen nationally in nearly two decades. One in four seats in the 150-member Legislature will be eliminated under a redistricting plan lawmakers began hammering out Tuesday. The downsizing is due to a 1994 voter mandate, and also must account for population changes in the past decade.
"Every Rhode Island district will change significantly. It's both exciting and frightening,'' said Phil West, state director of the government watchdog group Common Cause.
Rhode Island's downsizing is the largest on a percentage basis since Illinois and Massachusetts each cut their House chambers by 33 percent in 1983, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Unlike those states and others a decade before, however, Rhode Island is making deep cuts in both legislative chambers. Some, like West, believe the move is long overdue.
"Rhode Island has one of the largest legislatures in proportion to its population of any urbanized state in country,'' West said, adding fewer lawmakers may translate into more efficient government.
Minority groups and others fear changes will cost them hard-earned representation, with political leaders protecting themselves and cronies.
"By the way district lines are drawn, (lawmakers) will either ensure fair and competitive elections or guarantee the perpetual re-election of favorite incumbents,'' West said.
The 16-member redistricting
commission that will redraw the Rhode Island political map met for the
first time last week and elected state Rep. Denise C.
Aiken , a Warwick Democrat, as its chairwoman.
The largest conflict so far is over the composition of the panel that would draw the new political lines.
The once-a-decade redrawing of the country's political maps strikes fear like few other features of American democracy. And the downsizing of the Rhode Island legislature in 2003 adds a particularly cruel twist, forcing lawmakers here into a cutthroat game of musical chairs that will leave at least one in four without an Assembly seat.
The debate over the game's ground rules got under way at a Senate committee hearing last night that touched on everything from the makeup of a redistricting commission to the desired shape of electoral districts and the public's role in the inking of district lines.
A group of activists that calls itself the Fair Redistricting Coalition dominated the testimony. Its members, from civil-rights, government watchdog and religious groups, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to adopt detailed standards to assure that minority voting blocs are protected, neighborhoods are kept intact, and that fairness trumps raw politics in how the district lines fall.
Yet the coalition's bill, introduced by Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, an East Greenwich Democrat, is a wish list that even its sponsor acknowledges will survive only in parts as it moves through the Assembly. "I'm a political realist," Lenihan said.
The redistricting bill considered most likely to pass is backed by Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons and Senate Judiciary Chairman Joseph A. Montalbano, who presided over last night's hearing. The Irons bill, modeled after the one enacted after the 1990 Census, is not so much at odds with the Lenihan bill as it is less specific about the redistricting standards and the extent of public participation.
The largest conflict between the bills is the composition of the panel that would draw the new political lines. The Irons legislation lets the General Assembly make all the appointments, whereas the Lenihan bill also lets the governor and the state's congressional delegation name some appointees. The General Assembly has fiercely guarded its prerogative in redistricting, and both supporters and opponents of the Irons bill say that any effort to give appointing authority to non-Assembly members is likely to fail. Still, Irons and Montalbano signaled a desire last night to reach a middle ground with the Fair Redistricting Coalition, which has emerged as the only public voice outside the State House on the issue of redistricting.
"This is all about compromise," Montalbano, a North Providence Democrat, said after the two hours of testimony from the coalition's members. "This is not a situation where the leadership takes a bill and seeks to ram it through."
Irons said through his chief of staff that he would "give very serious thought" to the provisions in competing bills.
The Fair Redistricting Coalition's key criticism of the Irons bill is that it lacks any mention of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has been interpreted to prohibit the drawing of districts that weaken the clout of minority voters. The coalition's members include black and Latino groups that want the new districts to reflect the state's fast-growing minority population.
Mention of the Voting Rights Act "sends a clear signal to the people of Rhode Island that we respect the full participation of minorities in the political process," said Joseph Fernandez, a Providence lawyer working for the coalition.
But this year, legislators nationwide are facing a changed legal landscape.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a North Carolina redistricting case, Hunt vs. Cromartie, that legislators could take race into account so long as it was not the predominant factor in a district's contours. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee appeared eager to understand the ruling's implications for redistricting in Rhode Island.
The sharpest exchange last night came after H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, handed out maps that he said illustrated how districts could be drawn to conform to existing city and town boundaries. The coalition's bill proposes that district lines follow those boundaries as a safeguard against wildly hewn districts designed to protect incumbents or punish political enemies.
But Montalbano bristled at West's maps. The judiciary chairman suggested that though the ground rules for redistricting were a proper subject for debate, a discussion of actual districts was premature and presumptuous.
"We're not going to sit here and draw the districts any time soon," Montalbano said, interrupting West's presentation. Montalbano rejected as impractical West's suggestion that the new districts not stray across municipal lines.
"There are other points of view that have to be taken into consideration," he said.
The General Assembly is expected to enact a redistricting bill before the end of the session. The legislation would likely create a redistricting commission by the fall. Under the Irons bill, the commission would propose new district maps for the state's two congressional seats and the General Assembly by next January.
Bills take aim at redistricting
February 6, 2001
House Republicans see a chance to boost their political clout. Minorities fear being sidelined. As the Democrat-dominated General Assembly wades into the thorny issue of redistricting, community groups, lawmakers and government watchdogs are proposing that, like a decade ago, a commission be created to ensure an open, public process. Separate bills unveiled this week propose the creation of a panel of lawmakers and private citizens that would hold public meetings around the state.
The panel would submit a redistricting plan to the Legislature by early next year. The bills differ on the size of the commission, its makeup and appointment authority, but agree the public must be involved. Democratic leaders will soon submit their own bill. House Majority Leader Gerard Martineau on Tuesday said all sides agree a commission is needed to hold public hearings. "The process will be open and fair," he said.
House Republicans got the jump on their Democratic colleagues with a bill they acknowledge looks out for GOP interests. "One of our goals is to exploit as many Republican opportunities as possible," admitted House Minority Leader Robert Watson. He said population increases in South County and western parts of the state will favor Republicans. After redistricting, those voters should be concentrated in enough districts to help the GOP narrow Democrats' dominance of the Legislature, Watson said. Only 21 of 150 General Assembly seats are held by Republicans.
The bill, backed by the 15-member House GOP caucus, is modeled after the special commission established to oversee the last redistricting effort 10 years ago. The 15-member commission would include five private citizens. Republicans are hoping for more members on the panel than the four they had a decade ago. The Legislature would make all 15 appointments, a key difference from a bill unveiled Tuesday by a coalition including government watchdog group Common Cause and various community groups supporting a 13-member panel.
Legislative leaders, the governor and each member of the state's congressional delegation would be allowed appointments. The 13-member panel would have eight private citizens, including civil rights experts, representatives of local government and a government-reform activist. "Expertise is a crucial factor in a fair redistricting plan," said Common Cause state director Phil West. "We need outspoken, articulate people who will stand up and argue for the community."
Martineau said legislative leaders will likely make all the appointments, since that is how the commission was named a decade ago. The coalition's bill also calls for using statistical sampling from the Census, out of concern about the accuracy of a straight head count which studies have shown often undercounts minority groups. Redistricting takes place every 10 years to account for population changes.
This year lawmakers must also comply with a one-time, voter-mandated downsizing of one in four seats in the Legislature. Minorities hold just a handful of seats in the General Assembly. They fear they will be among the first to go if political leaders move to protect allies. Sen. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, likened redistricting to "carrying a handful of balloons through a roomful of cacti. It's a very difficult process." Lenihan, a sponsor of the coalition-backed bill, said that, a decade ago, his district was a target of legislative leaders he had not supported. He successfully fought one plan but still ended up with an oddly shaped district. "It didn't need to be changed at all," he said.
Rep. Joseph Almeida should be feeling confident about his second term. Last year, he established himself as a leading minority voice after successfully pushing for legislation requiring a study of police traffic stops statewide. Still, the former city police officer is worried. As the General Assembly convenes Tuesday, Almeida and other lawmakers will arrive wondering if this two-year session will be their last. Redistricting, which takes place every 10 years, is planned. But, even more, lawmakers must comply with a one-time, voter-mandated downsizing that will cut one in four seats in the Legislature.
Minorities, who hold just a handful of seats in the 150-member, part-time General Assembly, fear they will be among the first to go. ``You will have less minority representation,'' said Almeida, a Providence Democrat who is black. ``I know I am going to be affected, absolutely. My political instincts tell me it will happen.'' Districts containing large numbers of minorities could be redrawn, pushing them into districts dominated by whites and diluting minority political clout, Almeida and others say.
``A lot of the people in the community have been disenfranchised so long they have lost trust in any decision-making regarding their communities,'' said Tomas Avila, executive director of Progreso Latino, a nonprofit, social service organization. Statehouse leaders could protect supporters at the expense of others, minority advocates and government watchdogs say. Relative newcomers are concerned they have not had time to build the political capital to preserve their seats. ``Redistricting is an opportunity for leadership on both sides to protect friends and loyalists and make it tough for opponents,'' said Phil West, state director of government watchdog Common Cause, which supports trimming the Legislature, but remains concerned about how it will be done. Senate Majority Leader William Irons said he was unsure how redistricting and downsizing will be pursued in the same year, but he promised to be fair.
``I intend to do this with open involvement of the entire society,'' he said. ``There will be public hearings.'' The issue is expected to be among the most contentious of 2001 in the Assembly. Voters approved the downsizing as part of a package of reforms that included ending lucrative pensions for new members and offering pay raises and health care benefits instead. Advocates argued a smaller Legislature would increase competition for the many seats that routinely go unchallenged. Rhode Island ranks sixth in the nation for fewest constituents per state lawmakers, Common Cause says.
Under the mandate, the Senate must be trimmed from 50 to 38 seats and the House from 100 to 75. The changes must be approved before the 2002 elections. The last two redistricting efforts sparked complaints of political cronyism. In 1982, Senate powers tried to combine the seats of Richard Licht, then a maverick Democratic senator, and then-Minority Leader Lila Sapinsley. Licht and Sapinsley challenged that redistricting plan in court and won. ``Redistricting is an inherently political process,'' said Licht, who later became lieutenant governor and was an unsuccessful candidate last year for U.S. Senate. ``But there needs to be some standards. Minorities need to be protected. Minorities get ignored sometimes because the powerful want to assist allies.''
In 1992, Irons, an East Providence Democrat, felt leadership was trying to eliminate him. He threatened to sue if redistricting plans weren't changed to leave a senior citizens high rise in his district. Irons prevailed. This year, as the new Senate majority leader, Irons will be a key figure in fashioning a Legislature that reflects both population changes and the voters' mandate. West and others hope Irons remembers his own experiences fighting to protect his turf. ``Irons knows how the game worked against him,'' West said.
``Hopefully, now that he has the power to make some of those decisions he will choose not to play that way.'' Irons said many senators he spoke with in recent months asked how he planned to proceed. ``I told them to give it time. The better part of 2001 will be devoted to the issue,'' Irons said. Common Cause and other groups have already proposed a plan. They want formal guidelines adopted so the public can participate. They have also asked lawmakers to: _ Use statistical sampling from the Census, out of concern about the accuracy of a straight head count. _ Appoint an advisory committee including members of the public, to hold meetings on the changes around the state. _ Give the public a say in the mapmaking.
``Without good rules, the game can become very messy and people become cynical,'' West said. In March, the Census Bureau is scheduled to begin releasing more data detailing county and local-level populations that will be used to redraw congressional and state legislative districts. Assembly leaders have hired a consultant to help draw new districts but have said little about the process. House Speaker John Harwood did not return calls to his Statehouse office or his workplace. Almeida says that if he or other minorities are to lose jobs or see districts redrawn to benefit others, it will not be without a fight. ``It is a sensitive issue,'' Almeida said. ``The leadership wants more minority representation. The Assembly has to look like the people. ``We just want our fair share of the pie.''