Rhode Island's Redistricting News
"Some see political payback in maps." December 9, 2001
More recent Rhode Island Redistricting News
Rep. Charles J. Levesque, one of the most outspoken critics of House leaders, says he is being targeted.
The Portsmouth Democrat points to a proposed redistricting map showing him pitted against a Tiverton Republican in a district that is 75 percent Tiverton and just 25 percent Portsmouth.
"I accept that I am being punished for some of the positions that I have taken," Levesque wrote in a letter to a reporter. "I do not mind being a martyr, but I want some publicity for my crucifixion."
Rep. Frank A. Montanaro could also expect to be a target. In 1998, the Cranston Democrat lost the battle to become House majority leader. But he would face no incumbent under one of the proposed House maps, and he said he sees no clear pattern of redistricting retribution against those who voted for him -- at least not yet.
"Call me naive, but I don't see his fingerprints on any of it," Montanaro said, referring to House Speaker John B. Harwood. "There's enough people supporting the speaker who are taking hits that it's tough to really gauge."
Indeed, the proposed redistricting maps offer evidence to support the claims of both the dissidents, who say they are paying the price for their opposition, and the legislative leaders, who say they are taking the high road.
This year's redistricting process offers a unique opportunity for political payback. Not only are district lines being redrawn to reflect new census figures, but Rhode Island is also shrinking the size of its legislature to comply with a 1994 voter mandate.
But while certain legislators can make strong cases for being targeted, the maps show no systematic attempts to eliminate all of those who have opposed House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau or Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons.
A Providence Journal analysis shows that under the proposed House maps, those who voted for Montanaro are more likely than other Democrats to be placed in districts with other incumbents. But the difference isn't that large. On both House maps, 54 percent of the Montanaro supporters would be pitted against incumbents in the next election. By comparison, 50 percent of all other Democrats would face incumbents under one map, and 47 percent of those other Democrats would face incumbents on the other map.
On the Senate side, the hard-core supporters of former Senate Majority Leader Paul S. Kelly are also more likely to face incumbents than other Democrats. On one proposed map, 65 percent of the Kelly supporters would face incumbents, compared to 41 percent of other Democrats. The difference is less pronounced on the other map, which Irons described as the "prevalent" map: 53 percent of Kelly supporters would be pitted against other incumbents, compared to 44 percent of other Democrats.
Kimball W. Brace, the state's redistricting consultant, noted that in theory, exactly half of all incumbents would be placed in districts with other incumbents because the size of the legislature is being reduced by 25 percent. In reality, he said, that won't happen because some incumbents won't run again.
"But downsizing scrambles the pie tremendously, and as a result, you'll have to pair people together," Brace said. "It depends on many factors as to which people."
Politics can be one of those factors. "Even the Supreme Court has recognized that redistricting is probably the most political thing that can be done," Brace said.
But critics fear Rhode Island politics will take too much of a toll by, for instance, fracturing minority communities or weakening the voices of some towns in the legislature. "No one expects them to totally forget about politics," said H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. "But if they create these districts that chop up towns unnecessarily for political reasons, the price to the people of Rhode Island is much too high."
KELLY, ousted last year as Senate majority leader, said he sees political gerrymandering in the proposals, including in plans for his district. The North Smithfield Democrat pointed out that one map would put him in a district that is 10 percent North Smithfield and would pit him against one of his supporters, Sen. Paul W. Fogarty, D-Glocester.
"It seems to me a blatant abuse of redistricting to come from Glocester through Burrillville to my house on Victory Highway in North Smithfield," Kelly said. "I wonder what their position would be if I told them I moved over two streets -- would they want to reconfigure the maps again?"
Some senators are being protected while others are not, Kelly said. "I get suspicious when I see people who were on my leadership team running against other incumbents," he said. "The problem is these lines are drawn for the next 10 years, and I fear from what I've seen so far, I don't think this can stand the test of time, or a lawsuit. With downsizing, people should have been a little more statesmanlike because people in office now will be gone in 10 years."
But Sen. Thomas J. Izzo, the Health Education and Welfare Committee chairman under Kelly, said, "I really don't believe there is a purposeful retaliation against Kelly folks. There seems to be a number of folks from each camp paired with each other. A lot of it is geography."
Izzo, D-Cranston, would not face another incumbent under either Senate plan.
Irons, D-East Providence, is adamant that Kelly's supporters are not being punished. "There are no targets; there are no agendas," he said. "Some Kelly people have opponents; some Irons people have opponents, so it cuts both ways. It fell out the way it did because of geography and population."
Irons emphasized that his leadership victory was rare because he came from within Kelly's leadership team and he was elected in a unanimous vote when the battle was over. He said that gives him an uncommon opportunity to redistrict without trying to punish one team. "We have no split, no faction," he said. "Right now there is a great degree of collegiality, and we went for eight years with tremendous discord and rancor (under Kelly)."
Irons pointed out that the prevalent map would put key Kelly supporters -- such as Izzo, Sen. Elizabeth H. Roberts, D-Cranston, and Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich -- in districts with no other incumbents. Yet, he noted, that map would put Sen. Catherine E. Graziano, D-Providence, chairwoman of the Health Education and Welfare Committee, in the same district as Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, chairwoman of the Special Legislation Committee.
"If people chose to ignore that, they have an agenda that doesn't respect what really has gone on," Irons said. It's unprecedented to have two committee leaders who are key parts of the leadership team pitted against each other, he said.
Regarding Kelly's district, Irons said that when the redistricting commission put Burrillville and Glocester together, it still needed a bit more population for a full district, so it added Kelly's section of North Smithfield because Kelly already represents part of Burrillville.
SEN. JOSEPH A. Montalbano, D-North Providence, the redistricting commission vice chairman, noted that only one of the four Cranston senators supported Irons in the leadership battle -- Sen. Aram G. Garabedian -- and both Senate maps would give Garabedian an incumbent opponent -- Sen. Hanna M. Gallo. "That shows how confident he is that he has brought the Senate together," Montalbano said of Irons.
Sen. William Enos, Kelly's majority whip, contended that Irons and his team are trying to put together a redistricting map that makes them feel comfortable. "But I don't blame them," he said. "If he made it comfortable for someone else's team, he wouldn't be the leader."
"All is fair," Enos said, "in love and war and politics."
Enos, D-Tiverton, would face Sen. June N. Gibbs, R-Middletown, on one map, or another Kelly supporter, Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr., D-Warren, on the other map. Enos now represents all of Little Compton and Tiverton and part of Warren. But under each Senate plan, parts of his current district would be linked with Middletown, on the other side of the Sakonnet River. Enos warned that Little Compton and Tiverton could wind up without a senator living in either town.
West blasted the proposed Senate district as "The Sakonnet Swim." Irons noted Enos's current district jumps from Tiverton to Warren, calling it "The Touisset Trek."
ON THE HOUSE SIDE, Harwood, D-Pawtucket, said he has not been involved in the details of the proposed maps. "I've stayed clear of it," he said. But what about Levesque's district? "I don't know where he lives," he replied.
"It's a very difficult process to put 100 people into 75 spots," Harwood said. "When you follow constitutional mandates, it's almost impossible to have substantial deviations."
Montanaro agreed the one House plan would be a "crucifixion" for Levesque, and he said another proposal would create a "catastrophe" by putting Rep. Charlene M. Lima, D-Cranston, Rep. Beatrice A. Lanzi, D-Cranston, and Rep. Mary Cerra, D-Johnston, in one district. Levesque, Lima and Lanzi supported him in 1998.
But Montanaro said some of Harwood's supporters also face difficult districts. For example, one map pits Rep. Thomas A. Palangio, D-Providence, a supporter of Harwood, against Rep. John J. DeSimone, D-Providence, who voted for Montanaro.
Montanaro said Harwood has such as strong grip on the House he may not need to "go after people."
But Montanaro said he will be watching closely to see if the proposed maps change. "I'd scream if my supporters get tagged in the final plan," he said. "But as someone who wants to be a leader in the future, I have to support the process. You have to let the process work and see where the sharks are, if any."
The redistricting commission will cast its final votes Tuesday , and the maps then go to the General Assembly. "It won't be a bill easily greased through committee," Enos predicted, "because it affects so many people sitting around the table."
Amid the threat of lawsuits and protests from black and Latino leaders, the redistricting commission last night narrowed its choices to one House map and one Senate map, preparing for a final vote Tuesday.
During a news conference before last night's meeting, a coalition of groups took aim at the Senate plan, saying it only gives the appearance of treating minority groups fairly. Several speakers charged that the map would "pack" a high percentage of minorities into one South Side district, depriving nearby districts of the numbers needed to elect another minority senator.
"The veneer of inclusiveness is but a cruel hoax on the disenfranchised and the poor," said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee.
After last night's meeting, Senate leaders vigorously defended the proposal, saying it would create four nonwhite-majority Senate districts in Providence and provide fertile ground for minority senatorial candidates in the future.
"The redistricting commission has done its best to empower the minority community," Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons said in an interview.
The redistricting commission is redrawing legislative district lines to reflect both new census data and a voter-mandated downsizing of the House, from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, from 50 to 38 members. Before last night, there were two House proposals and two Senate proposals.
The Senate now contains one black member, Sen. Charles D. Walton, D-Providence, and no Hispanics. And several speakers at yesterday's news conference said the proposed Senate map would make it possible to elect just one minority senator in next year's elections. They noted the proposal would put Walton in an 81.6-percent nonwhite district that would also include Juan M. Pichardo, a Hispanic candidate who narrowly lost a senatorial race last year.
"We will not allow African-Americans to be pitted against Latinos in a struggle for political crumbs," Rodriguez said. "We are here today together, we will protest together, and we will go to court together if that is the path we are forced into."
While there would be four majority-nonwhite districts in Providence based on total population, that ignores the voting-age populations in those districts and the proportions of minority members who have voted in past elections, speakers said. Many of the districts contain a lot of underage minorities and immigrants who can't vote, and minority voting levels have often been low in some of those areas, they said.
"Racial packing is a concern, and one super majority-minority district of 81 percent pitting blacks against Hispanics is not the answer," said former state Rep. Harold M. Metts, chairman of the Minority Reapportionment Committee. "Two districts could easily be created to protect the interest of both communities."
Sen. Joseph A. Montalbano, vice chairman of the redistricting commission, said the panel followed the request of groups such as Common Cause of Rhode Island to keep Providence districts within city lines to avoid diluting minority populations. "And that parameter empowers minorities to win in these districts," he said.
Montalbano and Irons said they couldn't predict whether there would be more minority senators in 2003 because they don't know who the candidates are, but Irons said the proposed map offers the chance to have five minority senators in the future. And even if one minority senator is elected next year, he said it's better to have one minority senator in a 38-member Senate than one in a 50-member Senate.
Montalbano said the overall number of minority members and the voting-age population of minority members are bound to grow in those districts in the years ahead. And Irons said that will create "the mathematical certainty" of electing more minority senators.
Some critics are simply trying to elect Walton and Pichardo, Irons said, calling that the kind of political mapmaking that has been criticized in the past. "That's not about empowering minorities for the future," he said. "That's about anointing a few minority candidates."
The proposed Senate map unveiled yesterday actually contains just three majority-minority districts in Providence. Redistricting consultant Kimball W. Brace said that in making last-minute changes, one Providence district was unintentionally lowered to a 48-percent nonwhite population.
Montalbano told Brace, "I know you were up till 4 a.m. working on these maps, but I would insist that between now and Tuesday you retain the number of majority-minority districts as four." Brace said, "It was an unfortunate click of the mouse. Certainly, we can put that back."
The state's redistricting consultant last night unveiled three ways to redraw congressional district lines, and speakers blasted one of the plans, noting it would split up minority communities in South Providence.
As part of the once-a-decade redistricting process, 13,879 people must be shifted from U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin's 2nd Congressional District to U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy's 1st Congressional District.
All three proposals would keep the changes within the city of Providence. Kennedy and Langevin, both Democrats, sent the commission a joint letter on Nov. 19, noting they each now represent 19 cities and towns and asking that changes be contained within Providence. They spelled out six principles they thought the commission should adhere to but left the details to the 16-member panel.
Plan R would give Kennedy downtown and part of the Smith Hill and Elmhurst neighborhoods. Plan S would give him Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst and part of Smith Hill. Plan T would give him Washington Park, downtown and part of South Providence.
During a meeting last night, Plan T drew a rolling salvo of criticism from members of the public and the redistricting commission.
"Is T for terrible?" asked commission member Fred Hashaway Jr., a Pawtucket resident appointed by House Speaker John B. Harwood. "It seems to me with the six guidelines, one plan doesn't meet those guidelines."
Rep. Joseph A. Almeida, D-Providence, a commission member who is also chairman of the Rhode Island Minority Caucus, said he understands that Providence must be split up in some fashion under the new district plans. "But the minority community does not want to be the sacrificial lamb," he said. "Don't split us down the middle."
Alma Felix Green, a Providence resident appointed to the commission by Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons, noted the plan would move many minority residents of the Washington Park and South Providence neighborhoods into Kennedy's district, and she said she is concerned that proposal would dilute the influence of black and Hispanic residents in both districts.
In presenting the three maps, consultant Kimball W. Brace described Plan T as containing "a little bit more dramatic change" than the other proposals. And he said Plan T deviates more from an even split in the populations of the two districts. The other two proposals deviate by just five people, but Plan T deviates by 89 people, he said.
That could be a key legal factor. Brace said, "Courts have told us congressional districts have to be very, very close in population. They have rejected plans with 10-person deviations."
Kevin J. McAllister, a former congressional candidate and Common Cause board member, urged the commission to reject Plan T, saying it goes against redistricting principles.
David W. Rogers, a Republican candidate for Kennedy's seat, zeroed in on the deviation figures, telling the commission, "In terms of what can make a plan sink or swim, it seems the low numbers in Plans R and S are ideal. Look for the simplest alternative possible."
Sen. James C. Sheehan, D-North Kingstown, a former congressional candidate, also weighed in, saying, "Maybe T is for tearing a community apart."
Kenneth Wild, Langevin's district director, and George A. Zainyeh, Kennedy's district director, testified before the commission, sitting side-by-side.
Wild said, "The congressman doesn't want to lose one vote, and he's losing 13,000, so it's difficult for him." He then read the Nov. 19 letter from Langevin and Kennedy, emphasizing that one of the six guidelines included "be sensitive to neighborhoods."
When questioned by Hathaway, Wild said Plan T does not conform as well as the other plans to the six guidelines contained in the letter. Hashaway asked Wild and Zainyeh whether they had a preference from among the three maps. Wild said, "We respectfully ask you to consider all six guidelines." Zainyeh said, "I have the same answer. We defer to your good judgment."
The redistricting commission has scheduled another meeting for Friday to review proposed House and Senate maps before taking a final vote next week, but public testimony won't be accepted at the meeting.
The 16-member commission is redrawing legislative districts to reflect both new census figures and a voter-mandated downsizing of the House, from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, from 50 to 38 members.
The commission had already been scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. today in State House Room 313 to discuss U.S. congressional districts and to review public comments made at hearings around the state.
The commission scheduled the additional meeting for 6 p.m. Friday in State House Room 313 because it wants to have a chance to "tweak" the proposals before a final vote Dec. 11, said Rep. Denise C. Aiken, the commission chairwoman.
However, the public will not be allowed to testify at Friday's meeting, Aiken said. Testimony about House and Senate districts is complete, she said, and today's testimony will focus on U.S. congressional districts. Today, the commission also will discuss the testimony it heard "on the road" and ask redistricting consultant Kimball W. Brace to make changes so the panel can review the maps Friday, she said.
In scheduling the extra meeting, Aiken, D-Warwick, said the commission was trying to be responsive to people who had requested additional commission meetings. But H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said he had hoped for another meeting where members of the public would be allowed to testify. Many people signed up to speak at a Nov. 20 public hearing at the State House but were unable to stay because the meeting lasted so long, he said. "They should have a chance to testify," he said.
West said the most critical question is whether the proposed maps will change to reflect the testimony that the commission has heard.
Sen. Leonidas P. "Lou" Raptakis spread the redistricting map out on the counter of his pizza restaurant and traced the outline of the proposed district that includes his house in Coventry. It looks, he said, like a cruise ship.
"Here's the front, the bow," he said, pointing to a portion that juts east from Coventry into West Warwick, East Greenwich and Warwick.
"These are the smokestacks," he said, pointing out a pair of protrusions in the center of Coventry. "Here's where we got torpedoed," he said of a golf course along the southern edge of the district. "And that's the poop deck," he said of the district's western extremity.
As the public pores over proposed House and Senate maps, attention is focusing on districts with bizarre shapes, and foremost among the oddballs are the Senate district that one government watchdog calls "the Coventry Steamboat" and a Providence House district that one legislator compares to a piece of spaghetti.
Critics say the convoluted lines represent gerrymandering -- the type of political mapmaking meant to protect or punish certain people or groups in an unfair or, in some cases, illegal manner.
Legislative leaders and redistricting officials contend that the strange shapes simply represent leftover population -- that mapmakers attempted to carefully configure districts throughout the state and city but at some point had to cobble together the remainder of the population into odd-shaped districts.
The twin convulsions of legislative redistricting and downsizing are shaking Rhode Island's political world to its core. Not only is the state recasting district borders to reflect new census data, it's also following a 1994 voter mandate to shrink the House from 100 to 75 members and the Senate from 50 to 38 members.
The shapes of the proposed new districts are a legal consideration.
The law establishing the Rhode Island redistricting commission states, in part, that legislative districts "shall be as compact in territory as possible and, to the extent practicable, shall reflect natural, historical, geographical and municipal and other political lines, as well as the right of all Rhode Islanders to fair representation and equal access to the political process."
But it can be difficult to judge whether a district is compact.
In his newly published book Bushmanders and Bullwinkles , Syracuse University geography professor Mark Monmonier does offer several ways to gauge compactness. But he cautions that "compactness is a bit like pornography -- although we know it when we see it, individual sensitivities and community standards vary widely.
"And because rivers, shorelines, ridge tops and other highly functional political borders meander freely, a contorted boundary is not inherently reprehensible," Monmonier wrote.
CERTAINLY, Rhode Island has its share of contorted boundaries. With Narragansett Bay carving numerous nooks and crannies into municipal borders and with lots of irregularly shaped towns, Rhode Island would be a particularly difficult place to win a legal challenge based on the issue of compactness, said Kimball W. Brace, the state's redistricting consultant.
H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island and secretary of the Fair Redistricting Coalition, agreed that compactness can be "in the eye of the beholder," but he said the district that he refers to as the "Coventry Steamboat" looks like gerrymandering to him.
"There are certain districts that just leap off the map because they are so bizarre -- and unnecessarily bizarre -- and this is one of them," West said. "This fractures communities unnecessarily. It defies basic tests of compactness and contiguity, and it's not dictated by geography."
Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons, D-East Providence, defended the commission's overall work, saying the combination of downsizing and redistricting is creating a complex set of interlocking considerations. "It's the Rubik's Cube of politics," he said. "The difference is that when it's done, not everyone will cheer."
Irons said the odd shape of the Coventry district results from the attempt to draw coherent districts in other parts of the state. The mapmakers focused on Providence and other areas, and by the time they reached Coventry they'd run out of the population needed for a neatly drawn district, he said, so that area got pinched between other districts. "That's the squish district," he said.
West pointed out that both of the proposed Senate maps include a version of the "Coventry Steamboat," although the mapmakers started in different parts of the state to create each map. "If we were just following the domino effect, the bizarre-shaped district would occur at different points on the different maps," he said. "But since they appear at the same point on both maps, you have to say there's some other pressure at work."
What could that pressure be? West said the maps may be meant to benefit a pair of Irons supporters as well as a member of the redistricting commission. He noted that both proposed Senate maps reflect nearly identical plans for nearby districts that are home to Sen. Stephen D. Alves, D-West Warwick, Sen. John C. Revens Jr., D-Warwick, and Sen. Leo R. Blais, R-Coventry, a redistricting commission member.
West pointed out that a prior Senate proposal would have created a more compact Coventry district, saying that shows the "steamboat" is unnecessary.
Sen. Joseph A. Montalbano, vice chairman of the redistricting commission, agreed the district looks odd but defended the decisions surrounding it.
Montalbano, D-North Providence, said the redistricting commission is trying to avoid decimating the Senate's already thin GOP ranks -- 6 of 50 senators are Republicans -- and is steering away from possible matchups such as pitting Blais against fellow Republican Sen. Kevin A. Breene, who lives in the adjacent town of West Greenwich. "For Democrats, the ideal number of Republicans is zero," he said. "But if we target Republicans, that would be a potentially successful court challenge."
Montalbano said West Warwick can accommodate one entire Senate district plus a chunk of land for another district, and the commission put that extra population in Raptakis's district because he already represents some of West Warwick. The configuration of districts in Warwick and Cranston was dictated in part by the decision to keep Providence districts within city borders in order to avoid diluting minority communities, he said.
But some are critical of the idea of making the southernmost slice of Warwick part of the "Coventry Steamboat."
Warwick City Councilman Steve Merolla, who lives in that section of town, said the plan would split up two neighborhood associations. "I always thought they didn't want to break up neighborhoods," he said. Merolla, a Democrat, said he's concerned that a Coventry senator would not consider that area of Warwick a priority because it would represent such a small part of his district. "Why would a guy in Coventry care about the train station or airport noise in Warwick?" he asked.
Rep. Joseph A. Trillo, a Republican who lives in that section of Warwick, also objected to splitting up neighborhoods. And he said the proposal would deter people who live in that section of Warwick from running for the Senate because it would represent such a small part of the district. He said he has no plans to run for the Senate but doesn't want the opportunity taken away from that section of the city.
AT THE CENTER of this political puzzle is Raptakis, D-Coventry, owner of the Venus Pizza Restaurant. He served four years in the House before becoming Rhode Island's first Greek-American senator in 1997. When Irons ousted Sen. Paul S. Kelly as majority leader last year, Raptakis supported Irons. But Raptakis has always been a maverick. "He has attacked me and extolled my virtues," Irons said. "Lou is a classic example of a man with his own drummer in his head, and most people don't have the same beat."
So what does Raptakis think of all this? At a public hearing, he proposed replacing the Warwick section with part of West Greenwich. But overall, he said, he likes the proposed district and doesn't consider it gerrymandering. He lives on the western fringe of his current Senate district, but he'd be in the heart of the proposed district, representing more of his immediate neighborhood and more of his restaurant customers. Also, he faces no incumbent in the proposed district.
Raptakis agreed the district looks crazy at first glance, but up close, he said, it makes sense. Last week, he drove a reporter around the proposed district, showing how Route 95 and other roads allow him to get to the district's far reaches pretty quickly. At one point, he stopped by the Oak Haven elementary school, where his wife, Donna M. Raptakis, is principal, and they looked over the district map together.
"It's so spread out," she said. "I don't see how you could reach everybody."
"We just did it," he replied, noting that it took eight minutes to get from Route 95's Exit 6 to the eastern edge of the district in Warwick.
"It seems choppy," she said. "Why jump over there?"
"We got squished," he said.
"But what about all those functions and dinners, the town council and school committee meetings?" she asked. "It's difficult when you represent four towns."
He said districts are spread out in the state's more rural areas. "It's a very, very good district to represent," he said.
She said she isn't surprised that her husband is referring to the district as a ship, because he loves ships. "If the voters of the four communities elect me," he said, "we'll break the bottle on the bow of the ship. We are going to christen it the S.S. Raptakis."
Rep. Anastasia P. Williams is no stranger to odd-looking legislative districts.
The Providence Democrat describes the shape of her current House district as "a butterfly that had a hard life -- particularly as it pertains to the left wing."
And on new House maps proposed by the redistricting commission, Williams would land in a long, skinny district that she compares to a stream. "I flow through the city," she said, noting the district would pass through the South Providence, West End, West Broadway, Olneyville and Silver Lake neighborhoods.
Rep. Charlene M. Lima, D-Cranston, who would lose the Silver Lake area under the redistricting plans, calls it the "spaghetti district," and she is lashing out at the proposal, saying the district fails basic tests of compactness and represents a blatant example of gerrymandering.
Redistricting officials maintain that the long narrow district was a byproduct of their efforts to create as many majority-minority districts as possible while keeping Providence districts within city borders and keeping many city neighborhoods intact.
"Poppycock!" Lima told the redistricting commission during a hearing in Barrington. "I do not believe that the interests of minorities was the real reason for this decision. Rather, it was the desire to protect certain legislators at the expense of others."
In an interview, she charged that the district was drawn to benefit Rep. Steven M. Costantino and Rep. Thomas C. Slater, a pair of Providence Democrats who she said are favored by the House leadership. "The real reason for the shape is to protect two male legislators who were concerned about running against a hard-working and effective female legislator," she said, referring to Williams.
In response, Rep. Denise C. Aiken, chairwoman of the redistricting commission, said, "That was not one of my goals."
Aiken, D-Warwick, said the commission tried to avoid breaking up city neighborhoods while maximizing the number of majority-nonwhite districts -- or at least creating sizable proportions of minorities within districts. "I realize that district is not nice and square," she said. "But you are pulling your hair out, casting around for population without breaking up neighborhoods."
The long, narrow district would be 72.5 percent nonwhite on one of the proposed House maps and 70.5 percent nonwhite on the other map. Williams identifies herself as both Hispanic and African-American and was the first Hispanic elected to the House. She would not face another incumbent under either redistricting plan.
Groups such as the Fair Redistricting Coalition have called for keeping Providence districts wholly within city borders. The rationale is that extending those districts into predominantly white suburbs such as Cranston would dilute minority clout.
"Everyone said stay within Providence borders and begin at the bottom, focusing on South Side neighborhoods first," said the state's redistricting consultant, Kimball W. Brace. Once that was accomplished, mapmakers had to figure out where to go next and they tried to keep other city neighborhoods intact, such as the East Side and Federal Hill, he said.
"Sometimes you have the remainder, and this may be the remainder of trying to keep neighborhoods whole in other sections of the city," Brace said, referring to the long, narrow district.
Lima argued that the commission could have created just as many majority-nonwhite districts while extending Providence district lines into Cranston. She said the Williams district did not need to have such a bizarre shape to bolster minority representation.
"The problem, both morally and constitutionally, is you ignored the fact that you could have created this very same minority district in a compact and contiguous manner," Lima told the commission, threatening legal action. "This is where your political motives will sink the redistricting plan in federal court."
Williams said she doesn't consider the proposed district gerrymandering. "But maybe there was a goal they were trying to achieve," she said. That goal, she suspects, was to keep Providence districts within city borders, and she said she doesn't agree with that goal, explaining that there are white voters who support black or Hispanic representatives and white representatives who are doing a good job for black or Hispanic voters.
Williams -- who now represents the Olneyville, West Broadway and West End neighborhoods -- said she would have to work hard to get to know people in Silver Lake, a traditionally Italian-American neighborhood that has seen a sharp increase in the number of Hispanic and black residents in the past decade. But she said she is up for the challenge.
"Now I am a stream boldly going where many who look like me have never gone before," Williams said.
Picking a plan will be a problem.
The evidence was everywhere last night in Newport City Hall as the redistricting commission conducted its sixth and final "road show" meeting in the state. It presented two proposed redistricting plans for the House and the Senate to Newport County residents.
Woe was the commission. Newport County residents weren't impressed or pleased with what they saw. In fact, they were bothered, concerned, annoyed or, as one politician put it, furious.
About 100 people attended the meeting, and complained. They spoke of a variety of concerns, but at least a couple were recurrent.
Little Compton and Tiverton should share a district, its town officials and residents said. And, likewise, people in Portsmouth said its town shouldn't be pulled apart -- into as many as five parts under one House plan.
Clearly the redistricting commission is having problems pleasing all people.
"I feel your pain," said Rep. Joan B. Quick, a Republican who represents part of Portsmouth. "But more than that, I feel my pain. When I look at the plans, I can truly find something wrong with everything I see."
The redistricting commission is redrawing political maps to reflect both new Census data and a voter-mandated downsizing of the House, from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, from 50 to 38 members.
That task, Rep. William Murphy, R-Jamestown and Newport, called monumental.
Under both proposed Senate plans, Middletown would be joined with Little Compton, which is separated from it by the Sakonnet River. The Town Councils for Tiverton and Little Compton submitted requests to the Reapportionment Commission that they should share a district since they share resources, municipal services and commerce, and are clearly "communities of interest."
Tiverton and Little Compton share more in common with Massachusetts, according to Sen. William Enos, a Democrat who represents both towns, than with the rest of Rhode Island, which he pointed out was "connected only by a paved umbilical cord called the Sakonnet Bridge."
The problem with accommodating such a request, the commission reported, was that Tiverton and Little Compton don't have sufficient population to warrant their own Senate district.
However, the towns do nearly have enough for their own House district.
The Portsmouth Town Council also submitted a letter of objection to the commission, protesting House Plan D, which would divide the town into five different districts, which Portsmouth Councilor Mary Ann Edwards called a "disenfranchisement" of the town's voters.
Rep. Charles Levesque, R-Portsmouth, said he has been furious over that plan.
"I really do resent what you're doing to my town," he said. "I don't think it's fair."
The consensus was that Jamestown, Newport, Portsmouth and Middletown should be in a district, as should Tiverton and Little Compton.
But populations present a problem. The populations of each Senate and House district are supposed to be as equal as possible. Making changes can make problems.
"We get rid of one problem and create another," Quick said.
Downsizing, said Sen. J. Clement Cicilline, D-Newport, was "a dumb idea," "regressive and demeaning" and will lead to less voter representation and more political alienation.
More than that, said Liz Mathinos, of Newport, the combination of downsizing and redistricting is damaging to minorities.
"It appears the criteria of this redistricting is to keep as many male Democrats in office," she said. "I'm one of two minorities, women and Republicans."
It was a point further pursued by Sen. M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, a Democrat who represents Jamestown, Newport and Middletown, and who gave an impassioned plea to protect minority interests, particularly those of women.
The Senate with 10 female members, Paiva-Weed said, could, through incumbent-against-incumbent competition next November, be reduced to three.
"When we think of the possiblity and we wake up in November and find three women on the Rhode Island Senate, the rest of us [former female senators] can go to as Girl Scout troops and tell them to run for the Senate," she said.
"I'm asking you to look at this and look at the big picture. Strive for more than what the Constitution requires."
The legislature has to approve a redistricting plan by January so that municipalities can draw new ward lines and decide polling locations. Candidates for state legislature, meanwhile, must declare their candidacy by June for next November's election.
Bristol officials and residents yesterday blasted redistricting proposals that would carve the town into three Senate districts, saying Bristol could end up without a senator that lives in town.
When he looked at the Senate maps, Bristol Town Councilman David E. Barboza said he wondered who could have come up with such a plan. "And I said it had to be Hannibal Lecter because it chopped up the town of Bristol into something that was unrecognizable and didn't make any sense," he said.
The redistricting commission is redrawing political maps to reflect both new census data and a voter-mandated downsizing of the House, from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, from 50 to 38 members. The commission is traveling around the state with proposed House and Senate districts, and the last "road show" hearing is scheduled for tomorrow night in Newport.
Last night, about 60 people came to Barrington High School to pan and praise plans for East Bay legislative districts. And much of the attention focused on the proposed Bristol Senate districts.
Sen. Mary A. Parella, R-Bristol, noted Bristol would not constitute the majority of any of those three Senate districts, and she said the town could very well end up without a senator living within its borders. Bristol makes up 78 percent of her current district but would constitute just 22.6 percent of the proposed new district. "I think that's pretty outrageous," she said.
Parella said some argue that it would be better for Bristol to have three "voices" in the Senate rather than one. But she said, "I don't really buy it. It sounds good on the surface. But when people have an issue, they want to be able to call someone they know -- someone they went to school with, someone whose kids play sports with their kids, someone they see in church or the supermarket."
Parella, a former Bristol Town Council member, noted the proposal would leave her at the northern tip of a district stretching from downtown Bristol south into Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport. Her brother, Bristol Town Administrator Joseph F. Parella, said, "I was joking with my sister that she'd have to rent a campaign bus. I don't think that district meets any definition of compactness."
The Parellas argued that as the second-largest East Bay community (after Newport), Bristol should make up the bulk of at least one Senate district.
In an interview, Sen. Joseph A. Montalbano, vice chairman of the redistricting commission, said, "I understand her argument from a parochial point of view, but from a global point of view everyone wants to start drawing the maps in their back yard."
With downsizing, it is inevitable that about 13 towns will have to be split between different Senate districts, Montalbano said. "Everyone would like 100 percent of their town in their district," he said, "but a lot of us don't have that, and we feel we can effectively represent those towns in the Senate."
As examples, Montalbano noted he lives in North Providence while about 65 percent of his current district is in Pawtucket, and Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons lives in East Providence while about 70 percent of his district is in Pawtucket. Those percentages would grow under redistricting plans, he said. He also noted that Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. lives in Warren while that town makes up just 18 percent of his Senate district.
During last night's hearing, Montalbano said that it would be possible, under the proposed plans, to elect three senators who live in Bristol. Joseph Parella said that's possible but unlikely.
Montalbano also asked if it would be better if Newport and Middletown were removed from the proposed district that would include Parella. Joseph Parella said that would be a "vast improvement," but Mary Parella said her main concern is having Bristol be the bulk of one Senate district.
Barboza, a Democratic Town Council member, questioned why the Senate maps put the historically Republican northwest section of Bristol into a district with the historically Republican town of Barrington.
"This is gerrymandering at its worst," Barboza said. He vowed to lead a legal challenge of such a plan, saying, "We will not go quietly into the night with these Senate plans."
Richard Ruggiero, the Democratic chairman of the Bristol Town Council, said, "Bristol will be shortchanged and lack the representation it needs and deserves."
Ruggiero questioned why Barrington and Warren were not carved into different Senate districts when they have smaller populations than Bristol. "That's mindboggling to me," he said. "Why does Barrington stay whole in all the plans?"
Sen. David E. Bates, R-Barrington, who is a member of the redistricting commission, replied that the maps were drawn beginning in Providence and then heading south down through the East Bay communities. If the mapping began in Bristol, he said, he's sure the town would not be divided as it is. Ruggiero said, "Well, maybe that's what we ought to do."
Felag urged the commission to keep Warren "whole" as it makes its final decisions. One of the proposed Senate maps would put all of Warren in with part of Bristol, while the other proposal would include a Warren/Bristol district and a Warren/Barrington district. Felag, a Democrat, said that when he was first elected in 1998, he became the first senator to be elected while living in Warren in 34 years.
The state redistricting commission will present its plans on new legislative districts at two hearings this week for residents in Bristol and Newport Counties -- the last in a series of meetings the panel has held recently.
A meeting will be held tonight for Bristol County residents at 7 in the auditorium at Barrington High School. At the meeting, members of the state's Reapportionment Commission will present the proposed maps, and residents will get a chance to voice their concerns.
Another meeting is scheduled for Newport County residents at 7 p.m. Thursday in Newport City Hall.
The stakes in the once-a-decade redistricting process are particularly high this time around. It coincides with a voter-mandated reduction in the size of the House, which must go from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, which must go from 50 to 38 members.
The populations of each Senate and House district are supposed to be as equal as possible. The Reapportionment Commission was established to recommend redistricting plans.
The legislature is expected to approve a plan by January, so that municipalities can draw new ward lines and decide polling locations. Candidates for state legislature, meanwhile, must declare their candidacy by June for next November's election.
The state redistricting commission has presented the maps at meetings in South Kingstown, Woonsocket, Warwick and Providence. The Barrington and Newport meetings are the last in the series.
For more information, call 222-2587 or go to the redistricting commission's Web site at www.riredistricting.org.
The 48-year-old Warwick Democrat, a lawyer, chairs the Reapportionment Commission that is drawing up plans for redistricting and downsizing the General Assembly.
It's a thankless, if not hopeless, task. Under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1994, the House is to go from 100 members to 75, the Senate from 50 to 38. Many incumbents will wind up paired in the same districts. Constituents around the state grouse about this proposal or that, and government watchdog groups and minority organizations monitor every step.
The commission, which has been looking at two House plans and two Senate plans, intends to decide on versions next month. When the Assembly reconvenes in January, there'll be more debate in House and Senate committees, on chamber floors, and, of course, in back rooms. And, in the end, don't be surprised if the product approved by the Assembly winds up in court.
So here is Aiken, whose district includes the airport and Apponaug, and the most striking thing about her as she presides at commission hearings around the state is her voice. It is clear and authoritative, as if announcing the judges' scores at a major figure skating competition.
Aiken traces it back to acting in stage dramas in college and high school --and even further back, to a music voice teacher, Emma Buonanno, she had in second grade at Providence's Nelson Street School (now Robert F. Kennedy).. "She made us enunciate," says Aiken, enunicating perfectly.
Aiken, first elected to the House in 1996, was Speaker John Harwood's choice to be commission chairman. She says she was interested in doing it because she likes to see everyone get a say and likes to put witnesses at ease when they testify at legislative hearings. And, she says, "I also have the ability to help people get along with each other."
Tony Marcella, a member of the commission, says, "She's as nice as they come but has the ability to be tough when it comes to dealing with the issue at hand."
What I want to know is what good it is to chair the commission if you can't even fix a good district for yourself. Under both House plans being eyed, Aiken would be thrown together with fellow Warwick Democrat Norm Knickle. In each proposal, much more of the new district would come from his current district than from hers.
I twitted Aiken, "If you're so smart, how did you get a lousy deal like this?"
She replied, "Let me throw the question right back at you. What kind of chairman am I if I take care of me and to hell with everybody else? . . . Where's my credibility?"
Besides, Aiken, who says she intends to run again, refuses to concede defeat even if paired in a redrawn district that looks on paper as if it's more favorable to someone else. She says, "There's no such thing as 'my' district. It's not your district until those people in that brand new district hire you to be their rep."
IF AIKEN had had her way -- certainly if I had had my way -- we might not be in this downsizing pickle.
In 2000, the Assembly considered asking voters to rethink downsizing, this time as a separate issue. The 1994 constitutional amendment tied it in a package along with phasing out legislative pensions and raising lawmaker pay. Aiken says, "It was a three-part question and I know as an attorney I'm not allowed to ask that kind of a question." The other lawyer would object, she says, and the judge would say, "Sustained. Rephrase the question."
Various interest groups, concerned about what might happen to minorities, women, and Republicans, beseeched Aiken and other lawmakers to put downsizing on the 2000 ballot, to stand or fall on its merits. She was part of the House majority that voted to do so. But the Senate got cold feet.
It's too early to see how things will turn out overall, and there certainly has been a great deal of attention given to the idea of protecting minority interests, but it is obvious that several proposed districts have raised just the kind of problems critics foresaw.
For example, a key Senate controversy involves the prospective pairing of Charles Walton, the Senate's only black member, with Juan Pichardo, a leading figure in the Hispanic community.
For another -- well, that was Rep. Charlene Lima, whose district takes in parts of Cranston and Providence, complaining bitterly at a recent hearing about a plan that would lump her together with two other Democratic women reps, Mary Cerra of Johnston and Bea Lanzi of Cranston. Lima talked of going to war on behalf of her constituents and all Rhode Islanders -- "a war that will take me from the streets of Silver Lake to every corner of this state, to the steps of the state courts and ultimately to the federal courts."
Aiken tells me downsizing is even harder than she or anyone else imagined it would be.
I asked her what she thinks about when Lima or others come before the commission to complain about these proposals. Aiken said she sits there and wonders: where can she find the population she'd need to straighten out a situation? Is there a way to make an adjustment? When you add people to one district to bring it up to standard, you take people out of the next district, so now that district needs to be bulked up. "You want to pull out your hair," says Aiken.
Knowing not everyone can be satisfied, Aiken says her hope is that "everyone is irritated to the same degree." Or, "If everyone's mad at me at about the same level, then we've done okay."
Of course, a big question about the redistricting process is who's calling the shots. I can't imagine it's the commission itself. Or, as Phil West of Common Cause puts it, even as he praises Aiken's fairness in conducting the panel's hearings, "I don't think anybody's a free agent here . . . Inevitably in this process there are issues going on out of sight."
Each lawmaker is free to lobby the commission or its consulting staff. Panel members speak among themselves. And you know that, somehow or other, the views of the House and Senate leadership are put across, although trying to document exactly how this is done can be maddening. For instance, Aiken says she has not talked with Harwood about redistricting once during the whole process."
Incidentally, when I asked Charlene Lima if she blames Aiken and the commission for her trouble or thinks they are merely fronting for some sinister force, she said, "I'm not sure." She said she hopes to work out something with her House colleagues. "I can't place blame on anyone until they're unwilling to work with me," Lima said, adding that so far Aiken seemed to be treating her very decently.
AIKEN GREW UP in Providence's Elmhurst section. Talk about mixed heritage: "I had people that came here on the Mayflower and I had people that were here to meet the boat." In addition to English and Native American, she's Italian, French . . .
After graduating from Mount Pleasant High, she went to college in Pennsylvania but eventually transferred to PC and went to law school at Suffolk.
She specializes in family law, including divorces and domestic violence. She calls it "emotionally draining" but says she loves it. She contrasts it with another kind of practice. "When you're doing personal injury, you will make a difference in someone'slife eventually. Sooner or later, you'll get to trial or whatever. In family law, there's a situation that's critical now .You go into court today . You make a difference."
Her law work influences her legislative work. For example, she helped push through a law that requires the honoring in Rhode Island of domestic-violence restraining orders issued in another state.
She also has an offbeat legislative interest -- trying to erase obsolete laws that clutter the statutes. She already succeeded in repealing a law that said you could be fined $20 or jailed up to 30 days for lying about how far you rode in a rented horse and carriage.
So what's next? Aiken, who finds these things as serendipitous when doing other research, says, "Do you know in Rhode Island that it's a fine if you sell spermaceti whale oil that has been adulterated with lesser grades of whale oil and still call it 100 percent spermaceti whale oil? Now I really don't think we need to have that taking up space."
And how about this for a law that's outlived its usefulness? It spells out the powers and duties of steamship police. But, says Aiken, "We don't have steamships."
M. Charles Bakst, The Journal's political columnist, can be reached by e -mail at [email protected].
Hoping to have an impact on the state's redistricting plan, the Town Council unanimously approved a resolution last night endorsing a plan that would keep the entire towns of Tiverton and Little Compton in the same district.
The state Reapportionment Commission is considering several plans, many of which recommend putting portions of Tiverton in a different district.
"Tiverton and Little Compton share many of the same issues," Councilwoman Abigail Brooks said after last night's meeting. "It just makes sense."
The commission is redrawing state legislative boundaries to reflect population changes reported by the 2000 U.S. Census to comply with a mandate from voters to reduce the size of the General Assembly.
The U.S. Constitution requires that each person has equal representation in any legislative branch of government. The populations of each of the Rhode Island Senate and House districts are supposed to be made as equal as possible.
The Senate must be reduced from 50 to 38 members, and the House from 100 to 75.
The state legislature established a special commission on reapportionment, which had its first meeting in August, to recommend redistricting plans.
In the council's resolution, members recommended two maps -- Plan B for the Senate and Plan A for the House -- it would like to be adopted.
The maps are on the commission's Web site at www.riredistricting.org.
"At least we're in the same district as we were in the past with these two plans," Cabot said, pointing to the two maps she wants to see endorsed.
The commission is expected to make a final recommendation to the legislature by Jan. 15. Legislature will later vote on the plan.
The two remaining hearings on the state House and Senate districts are scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Barrington High School for Bristol County area residents; and 7 p.m. Thursday at Newport City Hall for Newport County.
Proposed redistricting maps would not give Providence enough state senators to reflect the city's rapidly growing population and high concentration of minorities, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. told the redistricting commission last night.
Cianci emphasized that Providence is home to half of the state's minority population and that more than half of city residents are nonwhite. "Their voice must be heard," he said.
The mayor said he realizes the redistricting commission has a difficult task as it redraws political maps to reflect both new census figures and a voter mandate that will shrink the Senate from 50 to 38 members and the House from 100 to 75 members. But he criticized the proposed maps for the Senate, which now has one black member and no Hispanic members.
"The way they have it divided up now, you are not going to get two minority senators, and they should," Cianci said following last night's hearing. "We are concentrating minorities in one area here, and it's not going to give them the representation they deserve."
Overall, the proposed maps would reduce the number of senators in Providence from nine to six, and the mayor says the city should have seven senators.
Cianci has noted that with 173,618 people, Providence is twice the size of the state's next largest city, Warwick, which contains 85,808 people.
And Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons picked up on that point in an interview prior to last night's meeting, noting the proposed maps would give Warwick three senators. If Providence is twice the size of Warwick, it stands to reason that Providence should get six senators, he said.
"Cianci has his own math," Irons quipped. "I don't agree with the logic of his argument." But Irons said he can't blame the mayor for making the attempt. "He's a great champion of the city," he said.
Irons, D-East Providence, said the redistricting commission attempted to keep as many Providence districts as possible fully within city borders to avoid diluting minority concentrations with largely white suburban populations.
Irons also said that while the maps would not give Providence seven senators, they would give the city seven "voices" in the Senate. On each of the proposed Senate maps, he noted, about one-quarter of a district would take in part of the city's Fox Point neighborhood, while the other three quarters would be in East Providence. In each case, the incumbent in the district would be Sen. Daniel DaPonte, D-East Providence.
But Cianci argued that East Providence is getting too many senators under the redistricting proposals, and he questioned the wisdom of having an East Providence senator represent Fox Point. "That senator will have to become the ninth chapter in Profiles In Courage ,"Cianci quipped, referring to differences between the two communities.
Senate leaders emphasized links between the two communities, such as a concentration of Portuguese and Cape Verdean residents.
In a written statement yesterday, H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, criticized the Senate maps, saying they would undercut the reelection chances of the Senate's lone black member, Democrat Sen. Charles D. Walton, by putting him in the same district as Juan M. Pichardo, a Hispanic candidate who narrowly lost a Senate race last year.
West acknowledged the maps would create other nonwhite-majority districts in Providence, but he predicted Senate Finance Chairman Frank T. Caprio and Sen. David V. Igliozzi would win those seats because they are well-financed incumbents.
"They have set up a situation where Providence will have three majority-minority districts and two will be won by white guys and the sole African-American in the Senate is blown out," said West, who warned that Walton could be defeated by a Hispanic candidate. "If that's the case, Senator Irons will rue this day, and there will be lawsuits."
Irons accused West of being "disingenuous," noting that Common Cause called for keeping Senate districts within city borders as much as possible so that minority communities are not diluted. The commission is doing that, he said, yet West is criticizing the plan.
"Now that's not enough," Irons said. "Now it's about streets and where candidates end up." And that's what redistricting commissions have been criticized for in the past, he said.
Irons emphasized that West supported downsizing the legislature, saying, "He created the dilemma being visited upon the candidates he is trying to protect."
Irons questioned whether West wants to jeopardize the chance to build more majority-nonwhite districts in order to ensure that two minority senators get elected next year. "Rather than rig it for the moment, structure it for the future," he said.
Senator Walton, meanwhile, said he thinks the Senate proposals put far too many minorities into his district and not enough into other Providence districts.
"I think you end up with one super-majority district," Walton said of his own district. "And it might be another 10 years before you could elect another minority senator."
Walton said he does not want to see his current district extended west, as is now proposed, to include largely Hispanic neighborhoods. But he said he has no problem extending the district in other directions, including south into Cranston. "I don't buy into the philosophy that all these districts should be held wholly within the city borders," he said.
Will Rhode Island's Reapportionment Commission propose plans for House and Senate districts that fairly represent diverse peoples and communities?
Before Nov. 8 it looked as if it might.
But that night, the commission picked two House plans and two Senate plans to present for comment at hearings across the state. Neither Senate plan had been seen in public before that night.
It jolted advocates for fair redistricting to see that there was virtually no difference between these two new Senate plans. For all the talk about openness and public input, these were variants of a single strategic design. They contain few meaningful choices for public discussion.
Both Senate Plan Alternative D and Senate Plan Alternative E contain classic gerrymanders. Both plans would protect powerful incumbents against all challengers.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans and supporters of former Senate Majority Leader Paul S. Kelly would be left to fight it out in bizarre districts that make little sense for communities to be represented.
Earlier Senate maps offered districts that were clearly more neighborhood-friendly in parts of the East Bay, West Bay and Providence. Those maps have now been swept into the trash.
The East Bay, with its lovely islands and peninsulas, presents tough redistricting choices. Only Newport, with a population of 26,475, comes close to qualifying for a full Senate seat. All others will share a state senator across municipal lines. Jamestown, whose population is 5,622, must be yoked by bridge with larger populations on Aquidneck Island or the mainland.
There is no bridge between Little Compton and Middletown, but Senate maps released on Nov. 8 link these towns on opposite shores of the Sakonnet River. This senate seat could be called the "Sakonnet Swim." In Senate Alternative D, Little Compton is joined to Middletown, plus a chunk of Portsmouth and the neighborhood around Newport Hospital. Senate Alternative E drops Newport but adds more of Portsmouth and all of Tiverton south of Route 177.
In one proposed plan, Middletown's nine-term Republican senator, June N. Gibbs, would campaign against Tiverton Democrat William Enos, a close ally of former Majority Leader Kelly. In the other plan, Gibbs would not face another incumbent but would have to spend her life on the road or in the water.
Unless she wanted to swim the Sakonnet, any senator elected to serve that district would need to drive many miles through two different Senate districts and across the Sakonnet River Bridge to meet with constituents on the opposite shore.
None of that is necessary. An earlier and apparently now discarded Senate Plan Alternative A envisioned a single senate district that joined Little Compton and the whole of Tiverton with the northeastern part of Portsmouth that lies directly across the Sakonnet River Bridge. It would fulfill the requirement that districts be as "compact" and "contiguous" as possible. Neither of the Nov. 8 Senate plans come close to that constitutional standard.
One of the two recommended House proposals, House Plan Alternative D, envisions a district that links Little Compton and the southern part of Tiverton with a middle portion of Portsmouth. Like its Senate counterparts, it fails the test of compactness and contiguity, but since it would require fewer miles of driving through only one other House district and over the Sakonnet River Bridge, it might be called "the Sakonnet Skip."
Twenty miles to the west across Narragansett Bay, in an area where suburban growth has spread into rural wood lots, both proposed senate maps show a district that looks like a land-locked riverboat. This odd "Coventry Steamboat" sits with its waterline along the boundary between Coventry and West Greenwich. It sports a low prow that plunges through West Greenwich and East Greenwich and Warwick. In one version, its smokestack reaches up to the Cranston city line. In the other, the stack has been lopped off at an angle.
The Coventry Steamboat lies stranded across the backyards of four communities that have other senators and abundant populations. This district would be hard on its skipper or crew. The tiny portions of three eastern communities would keep a candidate running at election time, but they would remain forever detached from the bulk of the district. Voices from the prow of the Coventry Steamboat would count for more at the State House if they were combined with those of their neighbors in East Greenwich and Warwick. Senate Plan Alternative C did precisely that, but the Redistricting Commission did not offer that option for public comment.
During subcommittee deliberations on possible House districts, West Warwick Rep. Richard E. Fleury, one of only four Republicans on the 16-member commission, asked for a statewide House plan with districts drawn from the geographic center of the state.
The professional consultant, Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, complied. Representative Fleury's proposed new House District 1 should be called the "West Warwick Warbler." In House Alternative Plan D, the bird sits squarely at the southern end of West Warwick. Its neck crosses over Route 117, and its beak reaches Interstate 95. Its tail feathers make Tiogue Lake look like an egg being laid.
The unfortunate irony of the West Warwick Warbler is that it would fracture representation for one of Rhode Island's most needy urban communities. Two of three House districts proposed for West Warwick would reach needlessly both east into Warwick and west into Coventry.
Members of the Reapportionment Commission have spoken frequently about their obligation to ensure minority representation in the General Assembly.
But proposals presented by groups concerned with minority voting rights appear to have crashed and burned against the political base of the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Frank T. Caprio.
In both Senate plans that were revealed and then approved on Nov. 8, a district that could be called "Caprio's Castle" commands the center ground on Federal Hill and reaches deep into the Southside. Its strength and position block the formation of viable minority districts farther south.
Both preferred Senate plans would force Rhode Island's only African-American senator, Charles D. Walton, whose district already has an eight-to-five ratio of Latinos to blacks, into a new district with many more Latinos and many fewer African-Americans.
Similar issues crop up in House plans for Central Falls, a tiny city where minority voting strength was diluted by gerrymanders in 1992. A proposed new Central Falls House district would be over 51 percent Latino and 62 percent nonwhite. But a predominantly minority Pawtucket neighborhood between Central Falls and Route 95 would be cracked into three new House districts whose ethnic minority populations would range from only 33 percent to 44 percent. Proposals to consolidate these ethnic minority communities in a single new representative district have been ignored.
The process matters. Essential information on two Senate alternative plans and one newly released House plan was unavailable only hours before public hearings scheduled for Nov. 13, 14, and 15 respectively in Wakefield, Woonsocket and Warwick.
Neither the preferred maps nor the demographic data supporting them were available on the official Web site (www.riredistricting.org) as recently as midnight on Nov. 12. Community advocates were left without necessary data to analyze or challenge these proposed districts. Weekly newspapers that publish on Thursday have had no time to report on or analyze plans that shape local representation for the next decade.
District maps will be frozen solid before the snow flies. New boundaries adopted now will shape Rhode Island's political contests until 2012.
Beyond questions of timing, the Reapportionment Commission should heed functional standards that community groups have been pushing publicly since last December. The commission has an obligation to work within functional standards that protect communities rather than incumbents:
1. Never crack a town into multiple Senate or House districts if it can be kept whole within a single district.
2. Make district lines follow municipal boundaries wherever possible.
3. Pay special attention to representation of minority communities, particularly groups that have suffered historic discrimination.
4. Draw districts that are compact and contiguous, as required by the Constitution.
If the commission insists on adopting either Senate plan now on the table, it will invite lawsuits like the one that ended with the overturn of the Rhode Island 1982 Senate redistricting plan in federal court. With wise and pragmatic attention to these issues, leaders of the General Assembly could prevent a replay in 2002.
H. Philip West Jr. is executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island and secretary of the Fair Redistricting Coalition .
Last Thursday night, after Rhode Island's weekly newspapers went to bed, state legislators dumped on the public their options for new voting districts in the Ocean State. This week, hearings on those options began, even though the complicated maps were not posted on a state Web site www.riredistricting.org) until Tuesday morning. If the public is going to have a say about this important issue, it is going to have to scramble.
Unfortunately, the public's attention has diverted by national and international events for the past two months, and redistricting, the ultimate playground of calculating politicians, is an arcane science to most citizens.
But the public should care, and deeply. The shape of voting districts has much to do with whether citizens are adequately represented at the State House. And districts designed for the sole purpose of shielding incumbents from competition make politicians less responsive to the public -- and more beholden to their party bosses.
The proposed districts unveiled so far are not all bad. The idea of creating districts that represent minority neighborhoods is a good one: For far too long, in far too many states, poor communities have had their voting power split among multiple districts, making the people who live in those districts an afterthought to the politicians who pretend to represent them.
But districts that appear designed to make election as difficult as possible for members of the minority party or Democrats who challenge the leadership are another matter. The last thing Rhode Island needs is the eradication of the last remnants of a two-party system, already on life support, or of opposition within the Democratic party. Competition -- the fear of losing an election -- helps keep politicians attentive to the public.
Both Senate proposals would pit the Republican leader, Dennis Algiere, against Democratic Sen. Donna Walsh, who not only backed the wrong horse in the leadership struggle -- former Senate Majority Leader Paul Kelly versus the current chief, William Irons -- but has also tried to make the hiring of magistrates less overtly political and more based on merit. It is important that redistricting not be used to target reformers who may be out of step with the leadership.
Redistricting is especially important now because the legislature is shrinking: from 100 to 75 House districts; from 50 to 38 Senate districts. The idea was to generate competition, not to protect those members who cozy up most to the leadership.
How should districts be designed? Ideally, they should be drawn without reference to the incumbents now serving in them. Districts should be geographically coherent. They should conform as much as possible to town and city boundaries, so that representatives and senators can work closely with municipal officials, and voters can easily figure out who represents them. They should be designed around communities of interest -- including minority neighborhoods. They should avoid creating tiny pockets of votes in communities with the bulk of the district elsewhere -- something costly and confusing to voters.
The only way the public will be served, however, is if citizens speak out. If they let the politicians act totally on their own, friends of the leadership will be rewarded, communities will be split to help incumbents, and the minority party will be further thinned, which would badly hurt the state by further reducing the number of competitive elections.
Citizens may attend these hearings:
Kent County, tonight at 7, Warwick City Hall.
Providence County, Nov. 20, 7 p.m., State House.
Bristol County, Nov. 27, 7 p.m., Barrington High School.
Newport County, Nov. 29, 7 p.m., Newport City Hall.
Review public hearings, Dec. 4, 6 p.m., State House.
Final recommendations, Dec. 11, 6 p.m., State House.
How do you reduce the size of the state legislature by 25 percent without isolating minority groups in Woonsocket, diminishing the clout of rural communities in Burrillville, and angering incumbent legislators from all over?
You don't, if a public hearing last night at Woonsocket City Hall is any indication.
The hearing was the second in two days held to present proposed plans for redistricting and downsizing the state legislature. The focus of the hearing was Providence County. Similar meetings will continue throughout the state for the rest of the month.
The new legislative map has to be in place for the 2002 elections, and will leave the state House of Representatives with 75 members instead of 100, and the state Senate with 38 members, rather than 50.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years to coincide with the latest census numbers, but this year the situation is more complicated because of downsizing. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1994 to reduce the size of the legislature.
Communities stand to lose at least a portion of their representation at the State House when the process is done. So the jockeying among cities and towns in hope of losing as little as possible has started.
Last night, it mattered little whether those who spoke at the hearing represented rural neighborhoods in Glocester or the Veterans Memorial housing project in Woonsocket. All had one demand: Don't dilute their votes.
For state Rep.-elect Stella G. Brien, of Woonsocket, that means keeping the Hispanic-dominated neighborhoods in her city in one district, rather than splitting them up. Brien is the third Hispanic member of the House.
"They completely take out the Hispanic population," Brien said of the proposals after last night's hearing. She didn't get a chance to speak during the hearing because she arrived after the meeting began and wasn't able to put her name on the list of speakers.
In both of the proposals for the House, Brien would have to run against another incumbent in 2002 to keep her spot in the legislature. The proposals show Woonsocket losing one or two seats in the House and one seat in the Senate.
Members of the state Reapportionment Commission, appointed to craft plans for downsizing and redistricting, said they kept the concerns of minority communities in mind when developing the proposals. For example, they said, the two House proposals each establish a district in Woonsocket with a 30 percent minority population.
Consuelo G. Perez, a community activist in Woonsocket, said he, too, was afraid that the proposals would slice the Hispanic population into pieces, making it more difficult for a Hispanic candidate to be elected.
"You're going to split and water down that population," he said.
For the rural communities, such as Glocester and Burrillville, the concerns center on whether they will have representatives and senators they can call their own. What they don't want is to have legislative districts that include stretches of Glocester, Foster and western Coventry, as one proposal shows.
That kind of representation essentially means no representation, one state legislator said.
"If this plan were to be adopted, the Town of Glocester would no longer have a representative," said state Rep. Mary Ann Carroll of Glocester. Under that plan, Carroll would have to face state Rep. Thomas Winfield of Smithfield in the 2002 election, if both decide to run again.
Rep. Scott Rabideau, of Burrillville, a member of the Reapportionment Commission, said he has been working to give rural communities their own representative and senator when possible.
"In the western communities, any time you can keep one representative per town, it's a good thing," he said.
One state legislator brought her own stenographer.
Another held up a redistricting map that she had drawn, asking why it had been ignored in favor of two quite-similar proposals.
And several speakers criticized plans that split North Kingstown into different legislative districts, saying the town needs a strong voice in the State House to fight a proposed cargo-container port.
In all, about 60 people came to South Kingstown High School last night, critiquing the four proposed maps that the state redistricting commission is taking "on the road" this month. The meeting marked the first in a series of public hearings on two proposed Senate district maps and two proposed House district maps.
The stakes in the once-a-decade redistricting process are particularly high this time around because it coincides with a voter-mandated reduction in the size of the House, which must go from 100 to 75 members, and the Senate, which must go from 50 to 38 members.
H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, noted that both Senate proposals pit the Senate Republican leader, Dennis L. Algiere, versus Democratic Sen. Donna M. Walsh, who supported former Senate Majority Leader Paul S. Kelly in his leadership battle with Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons.
West said it reminded him of the 1982 redistricting controversy in which former GOP Senate Leader Lila M. Sapinsley was placed in the same Senate district as "maverick" Democrat Richard Licht. Licht and the Republicans went to court and had the Senate redistricting plan overturned.
Referring to the twin proposals for a Walsh/Algiere district, West said, "The fact that there is no alternative here leads you to say: Don't make that mistake again."
In general, West said, the Senate plans "offer very few real choices for the people of South County. They are nearly identical in a number of key features."
Walsh, D-Charlestown, rejected the idea that her support for Kelly is hurting her prospects on the new political maps. "I supported Senator Kelly, everyone knows that," she said. "And after the election, I supported Senator Irons as well. So I don't think it's a factor."
But Walsh did object to the two proposed Senate maps, which she said take away 80 percent of her current district. She said she had drawn a district map for the redistricting consultant that would include Charlestown, Exeter, Richmond, Block Island and some of Hopkinton. She said those communities share many things in common, and she questioned why her plan wasn't offered as an alternative.
"I'm not afraid of running against someone -- I've run against three Republicans," Walsh said prior to the meeting. "It's for the sake of the communities, which have similar interests. Why didn't they look at another alternative? Why wasn't that considered?"
Rep. Leo R. Blais, R-Coventry, a member of the redistricting commission, noted Block Island officials have requested that they remain in the same district as South Kingstown, whereas Walsh's map would end that arrangement. One of the proposed Senate maps couples Block Island with Narragansett, while the other pairs it with South Kingstown.
Several speakers asked why the maps don't give North Kingstown its own Senate district. For example, Paul Volner, of the No Port Coalition, said one Senate map would "split North Kingstown down the middle" and "lessen our power to fight this container port."
Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, let the commission know that she had a stenographer at the meeting "for future reference for legal reasons." After the meeting, she said she is preparing in case she sues over a House plan that would jam her into a district with two other incumbents -- Rep. Mary Cerra, D-Johnston, and Rep. Beatrice A. Lanzi, D-Cranston.
"They took me completely out of my district," Lima said, noting the proposed district stretches from her house in Cranston through Johnston to the Scituate line. "They looped right around my house. It's like a pimple -- or a tumor," she said of the district's shape. "They don't seem to be showing any respect for women or for incumbents. This just makes absolutely no sense at all."
Let's say you've got five people. They're trying to squeeze into a car with four seats. Somebody's got to stay home.
Now imagine the car is the state legislature, and the people trying to squeeze inside are Woonsocket's state representatives.
Come 2003, somebody's got to stay home.
That's not a question from a college entrance exam. It's what Woonsocket will be facing in the coming weeks because of redistricting and the downsizing of the state legislature from 100 representatives to 75, and 50 senators to 38.
The city will probably lose one -- and maybe two -- seats in the state House of Representatives as well as one seat in the state Senate in the redistricting. The question will be which current state representatives and senator will be out of a job.
Tomorrow, state officials will hold a meeting at City Hall to present proposals for downsizing both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.
The proposals include some intriguing possibilities, including the chance of a Brien versus Brien election in 2002: state Rep. Todd Brien versus state Rep.-elect Stella Guerra Brien. The two say they think they are distantly related.
"I'm definitely running, no matter how the lines are drawn," said Todd Brien, who was elected to his position last year. "It doesn't change the way you have to run a campaign."
Tomorrow's meeting is one of six being held across the state to discuss redistricting possibilities. When those meetings are done, the state Reapportionment Commission will endorse a final proposal, which will be taken back to the State House for further scrutiny and, eventually, a vote.
The process is a long and complex one. And when it's complete, lawsuits are often filed by people who think the new districts have been drawn unfairly.
Aiken says that people have expressed concern There are concerns about keeping districts within municipal borders, and also about diluting the minority vote by expanding the districts. Stella Brien, for instance, is the third Hispanic member of the House, and has talked about having diverse representation for a city with a growing minority population.
"This is probably one of the most challenging things that we've ever tried to do in Rhode Island," said state Rep. Denise Aiken of Warwick, who is chairwoman of the state Reapportionment Commission. "Redistricting is easy: You draw the lines to go with the census, and bing, done. But when you're also trying to downsize at the same time ..."
Redistricting occurs every 10 years, after the results of the census are known. But this year it coincides with downsizing, because voters approved a state constitutional amendment to reduce the size of the legislature in 1994.
After the new district lines are drawn, some districts may have two representatives heading into the 2002 elections. If one of those incumbents does not stand aside, the two will have to run for election to the seat.
The proposals for Woonsocket offer these two suggestions in the House of Representatives:
Five districts would be reduced to four, and two of those would include parts of Cumberland and North Smithfield. Rep. Robert Lowe would have the same district as Rep. Stella Brien; Rep. Roger Picard and Cumberland Rep. Donald O'Reilly Jr. would have the same district; Rep. Todd Brien and Rep. Ronald Munschy would be included in the same district; and House Majority Leader Gerard Martineau would retain his own present district.
Five districts would meld into three, all of which would be contained within the city lines. Munschy would be in the same district with Picard; the two Briens would share a district; and Martineau would retain his present district.
And in the Senate, the two proposals are:
Three districts become two, with Senators Marc A. Cote and Roger Badeau left with their own districts, and Sen. Paul Kelly, former Senate majority leader, placed in the same district as Sen. Paul Fogarty of Glocester.
Again, three districts are reduced to two. Kelly and Cote are moved into the same district, and Badeau remains alone.
With that much at stake, the proposals are likely to generate at least some controversy. But, Munschy said he isn't concerned.
"I feel as though whatever happens, happens," he said. "We'll cross that bridge when it comes."